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Obituaries as a
Form of Personal History Writing
June 29, 2014
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned how receiving news of the deaths
of certain well known people can impact us. In June alone radio legend
Kasey Casem, Padres baseball great Tony Gwynn, Steelers football coach
Chuck Noll, and just a few days ago the terrific actor Eli Wallach. And
it was at the end of May that the wonderful Maya Angelou passed on.
This cluster of celebrity deaths reminds me once again of how important
it is to preserve our life stories. One way to do that is a well
written obituary. Good ones are an artform and the obituary is truly a
form of personal history writing.
Pat McNees, a personal historian and author of Dying: A Book of
Comfort has an incredible amount of helpful information and
links about the art and craft of obituaries on her web site. She notes
how the obit is a fine form of tribute.
An interesting writing assignment for all of us is to write our own
obituary. The Association of Personal
Historians (APH) members Sue Hessel and Sarah White have even
conducted classes in doing just that.
Eulogies and video or slide show tributes are another way of paying our
respects to the deceased while also passing along elements of that
person's life story.
Wedded Free Spirits
June 24, 2014
Over the weekend I traveled to Kansas City for the wedding of my
nephew. Shea is my sister's firstborn. I am honored to also be his
godfather. He's quite a creative and artistic man. He makes a living as
a tattoo artist, and he has an amazing number of tats himself. So, too,
do the many friends of both Shea and his new bride, Shannon.
The wedding was outdoors in Tonganoxie, Kansas. Shannon's folks live
there, out in the country, a very green and rural area. The cornfields
were already over waist high. The trees are in full foliage. The
outdoor setting for the wedding was in a big field, by a pond, hot and
humid, but gratefully, under a large tent. Despite the heat and
humidity it was something special. Shea and Shannon are free spirits. I
admire their desire to do their own thing. The groom and groomsmen rode
in on their Harleys. The bride was driven down to the site in a
beautifully restored old car, vintage 40's, by her grandfather.
The father of the bride hit it off with the groom a few years back.
Both Mark and Shea like to restore old cars and have done some of that
together. It's apparently a family tradition on Shannon's side. Her
grandparents enjoy riding in classic Model A's. They were even part of
a Model A caravan in the 1980's, driving all the way to the Arctic
Shea and his friends also enjoy music, everything from bluegrass and
traditional folk to hard-edged rock and metal. They love to jam and
share good times.
I like that they are living life with gusto. We've all got stories
about our lives. My fervent hope in the work of personal history is
that we both examine and reflect on our lives and we continue to live
it fully. If you haven't crossed off items on your "bucket list", well,
get to it!
Congratulations to my nephew and his new bride. Be free, live free,
love life and stay true to yourselves.
Legend, The Voice of Summer
June 18, 2014
I've always listened to the radio. In those formative preteen
years of eleven and twelve I remember mainly listening to the pop hits
of the day. This would be in the late sixties. At that time, from 1967
(the Summer of Love) to 1969 (Woodstock Era) I was primarily listening
to Top 40 radio. That format was still king, although album rock
on the FM dial was emerging as part of the creative and cultural
explosion of that time. Years later, out of college, I would begin a
radio broadcasting career that included mostly rock radio.
In the summers of 1970 through 1972 a voice I would come to associate
with the top hits I heard on the radio became something of a fixture
for countless other radio listeners. Casey Kasem had this smooth voice
and he also had stories about the songs he played on his weekly
countdown show, American Top 40.
And he also would share letters written to him, mostly from people who
wanted to send out "long distance dedications" to loved ones. It was a
form of storytelling. Little did I know that Kasem would have an impact
on me as both a future broadcaster, and I guess more subliminally, as a
Casey Kasem was also a voice over artist of commercials, the voice of
Shaggy on the animated tv show Scooby Doo, and even for a time
the booth announcer voice for NBC. Kasem became about as well known as
a radio broadcaster could be. He's got a star on the Hollywood Walk of
Fame. He's in two radio hall of fames. Kasem passed away Sunday (June 15) at the age of 82.
That was Fathers Day - somehow appropriate for a man who did have
children, both his own and those of us who grew up listening to him
playing the top songs of the land and reminding us to "keep our feet on
the ground and keep reaching for the stars." At the AT40
site, you can hear some of the radio legend's breaks from years ago
as they remember the longtime host.
June 16, 2014
NOTE: It seems
that celebrity deaths happen in clusters. We especially note
those that have a connection or meaning to our own lives. And while
family members and friends may not be "celebrities" to the world, they
are to us! So I remember my mom, Jeanne
B. Gilbert, who died eight years ago on June 15, 2006. But, I
also note the passing of renowned radio broadcaster and voice over
talent, Casey Kasem, who died yesterday at the age of 82.
And baseball great Tony
Gwynn, "Mr. Padre", a real wizard with the bat and glove, passed on
today (June 16). I'll reflect on these in blog posts this week. - Tom
Insight to History Writing
June 12, 2014
Many of us have experienced history classes in school that were dull,
mainly because the textbooks were so dry. Fortunately, that may be
changing. The popularity of memoir writing is now spilling over into
history writing that includes personal experiences and insights.
Particularly, if the writer lived through the historical events they
can add personal insight to their history writing.
This is the subject of an article by Victoria Ahearn.
She remarks on a number of noted books published in Canada of late that
demonstrate this trend. Among them The
Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan by Graeme Smith
and The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her
Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country by Charlotte Gray.
I found this quote from the article to be interesting: “Memoirs
do very well and so many publishers are pushing all non-fiction writers
to say: ‘Well, what’s your connection with this material?
We want to see it through your eyes.’ And that’s a fairly
This reminds me of an article I wrote a couple of years ago, Your Memoir and the Larger World.
I wrote back then that a slice of life memoir that includes your
experiences set against or within the context of an important
historical event allows your readers the opportunity to see history
through your eyes. This is one of the gifts of shared life story
the Navajo Code Talkers, Dies
June 10, 2014
Last week Chester Nez, the last of the Navajo Code Talkers, passed away
here in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was 93, a veteran of World War II
and an original code talker (Washington
During the war the United States was having trouble keeping the
Japanese from decoding their messages. The enemy was successful
breaking every code. But the Navajos, whose unusual language is based
on complicated syntax, had no written form and unusual tonal features,
turned out to be perfect for creating a code. It was a code that the
Navajo men chosen for this mission, were able to use rapidly. And it
was never broken. It is still being studied by military experts.
Chester Nez wrote a memoir in 2011. Judith Avila, co-author of Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By
One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII (available on Amazon),
reminisced about this special man (KOB-TV story). When the book made some sales and
generated a bit of money she tried to encourage him to spend it on a
new car. His response was, "I'm just happy all those people who bought
my book are going to know what my Navajo people did for my country".
Rememberances 70 Years Later
June 6, 2014
Today marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The invasion of Normandy in
World War II was a massive military effort of the Allied Forces and led
to the liberation of France from Nazi Germany.
Some war veterans gathered in Normandy to remember and honor the
sacrifice of their fellow soldiers, brothers in arms. If we don't
remember our history then we fail to recognize what people went
through. This NBC link includes some videos with veterans
recalling their experiences. Horrors - indeed. But also great courage
and love. It is odd that they can both exist in the crucible of war.
I also came across a Guardian
posting of D-Day landings scenes in 1944 and now. The
photographs are interactive in that you see the 1944 picture and when
you click on it you get a picture of the same scene today. It gives an
interesting perspective and caused me to reflect deeply.
June 4, 2014
(The red metal frame in this picture from the ruins of Palais de
Justice in the town of St. Lo, France, in the summer of 1944 is the
remains of a fire engine. Massive destruction inland from the beaches
of Normandy resulted from the Normandy invasion - Frank
Scherschel—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
One of the turning points of World War II was the massive invasion of
Europe by Allied Forces in June of 1944. Friday, June 6, marks the 70th
anniversary of the troop invasion onto the beaches of Normandy. It was
a huge military effort and the fighting was fierce and the casualties
were horrific. During the bitter fighting that continued inland towns
were reduced to rubble and unfortunately a great many civilians were
caught in the middle.
Seeing photographs from this time speaks volumes about the massive
preparations and stirs the emotions. I found an article from the Washington Post (D Day at 70: Historic photos from the invasion of
Normandy) that gives an overview of the invasion. And there are
some impressive photos from the LIFE picture gallery, along with links
to more photographs.