Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 15, 2019

The classmates project

"What are you working on ... another obituary?"

Husband Art is usually up in the morning before I am. Most days heís working on his laptop, and that phrase has recently been my greeting to him.

In 2012, his classmate and 50th-high-school-reunion-committee-head Carol convinced him to work on a remembrance book and take over the website. Art wasn't sure he was a good choice as he was not particularly connected to high school, seeing it as just a place where he learned things that paved the way to college.

But he is the curious type, so working on the historical aspect intrigued him. Bonnie and Sue, two more of the reunion crew, had the task of contacting their former classmates to let them know about the event. But first they had to locate them, and some proved to be elusive. Others had died, so Art began documenting the bits and pieces of their lives so each would have at least a mini-online obituary if he couldnít locate one in a newspaper or funeral home.

The website's primary purpose was to provide a place where classmates could find details about the reunion. But after it had passed, Art left the site online, feeling some might still check it to see who is no longer on the sunny side of the grass.

Then late last fall, Jane, another classmate, emailed Art and asked him to update the obituaries as she had found more. But as he did that, the bug bit him. Soon he was revisiting older obituaries to add information not available when they were previously written or hadnít been located in the haste to complete them before the reunion.

To spice things up, he took up the challenge of locating those who had earlier escaped discovery. About a third of those have now found and a few of those have passed as well.

While he finds the whole process of searching to be satisfying, he confesses that it is a bit disconcerting. Over a quarter of his class of 436 is now gone.

The realization that some had less than a third of the time he has had is also a bit of a downer. Two died of natural causes less than two years after graduation. Another who died early did so in an unusual fashion. He took up mountain climbing, but Wisconsin is devoid of mountains. So he and friends turned their skills to climbing buildings. One night, they even climbed the Wisconsin state capitol. But, on another climb, something went wrong. He fell while scaling the administration building of his university and did not survive.

Another unusual one involved a classmate fishing with his family in the Louisiana bayous. A barge running without lights at night plowed over them. All of the others survived and were picked up by the Coast Guard.

Many classmates who had passed were apparently happy where they had been planted, as they had been born, raised, lived and died within a few square miles. Another, who Art had always considered a rather ordinary type, had been all over the world from Asia to Africa, helping children get an education.

There were intriguing stories among the ranks of the living as well. One graduate is the curator of a famous art museum in Italy. In my Oct 12, 2012 column about the reunion, I mentioned Larry, who had been the go-to guy in high school when it was time to organize a beer party. He became a world-class heart surgeon, chief of surgery at Wayne State University and author of several books. After the reunion, he was off to Russia to receive some sort of award.

Two more stories arose from the family of yet another classmate. His brother still lives in their hometown and every year makes an ice rink at the edge of his home where he and his wife host a dinner party for friends and family as others skate around them. Their younger sister is a medical doctor and has been the principal researchers into CTE - the brain damage many football players experience.

By researching so many people, Art said he has noticed certain patterns. If someone is described as passing unexpectedly, there is a high likelihood that others in his or her family will pass in a similar fashion. Many who died unusually young come from families where other relatives also died relatively early.

If an obituary has the phrase - "then he/she met the love of his/her life ..." - it is a good bet that the person was married before and it was NOT a good marriage. If a man is described as having "lived life to the fullest," there is a high likelihood his name appeared frequently in the "police blotter" section of the newspaper.

It seems common in obituaries to omit earlier spouses, spouses who frequently were the parents of the deceasedís children. The exception is when that earlier marriage ended in the death of the partner. Then they are almost always mentioned.

At last count, Art said he has worked on 111 "stories" of high school classmates who have died.

The reunion committee picked the right guy for this task. My husband is nothing, if not super-curious and super-persistent. I often tell him he should have been a detective, as he just won't let anything go when he sets his mind to pursuing it. Whereas most people might look for information in one or two places, Art uses as many as it takes. Among sources he has used are Veromi, Intelius, Zaba Search, Spokeo, White Pages, Ancestry, city directories, census data, Legacy, MyLife, BeenVerified, FamilyTreeNow, and the Social Security Death Index.

Although most people won't have a clue and won't care about the amount of time Art has spent on these stories, that's not what's important to him. What's important is that he's enjoyed doing it - and it's his way of making sure his classmates won't be forgotten.

Left and top-middle: Charles McKee and his wife create a skating rink next to their home each winter and throw a dinner party; bottom-middle-left: McKee and his wife. The McKee-related images are from the January 2019 issue of Better Homes and Gardens; bottom-middle-right: McKee's sister Ann researches Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the condition many football players experience; right: heart surgeon Larry Stephenson at the reunion. The inset photo is from the Clarion, his high school yearbook, when he was the go-to fellow for organizing a beer party.

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