Friday, January 8, 2010

The Attraction of Obituaries – The Life of Bill Scott

Obituaries can be seductive. I skim them first, looking for that glimmer of the unusual or that small portrait of an inspiring life, confirming that life is full of wonders. Though I will read a good obituary about anybody, I am attracted to those that involve science and scientists. One that captured my attention late last year prompted this piece. In all fairness, the link to science is somewhat marginal and, actually, quite disparaging. Still, it’s a link and an excuse to write this post. Besides, obituaries are about life and so within the ambit of this blog.

The obituary of Dr. William Henry Scott, IV, who died at age 71, was entitled “Curiosity Led Scientist From Studying Rocks to Racing Cars.” Written by T. Rees Shapiro, it ran in the Washington Post on December 27, 2009 and began this way:

Bill Scott was known among his friends as a man whose curiosity led him down many paths.

In the late 1960s, he received a doctorate in geophysics from Yale University, and he spent his summers conducting research in the mountains of Iceland, Venezuela and Norway. But he soon became dissatisfied by what he considered the humdrum nature of his work and yearned for more excitement.

An okay beginning for an obituary, with a hint of something special about to come. But, as an opening, it certainly is not on a par with those written by the late Robert McG. Thomas, Jr., whose beautiful, literary obituaries graced the New York Times in the second half of the 1990s. Take his obituary for Anton Rosenberg, for example. It opens with:

Anton Rosenberg, a storied sometime artist and occasional musician who embodied the Greenwich village hipster ideal of 1950’s cool to such a laid-back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything, died on Feb. 14 . . . .

(From 52 McGs. The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Writer Robert McG. Thomas Jr., edited by Chris Calhoun, 2001, p. 110)

But, T. Rees Shapiro has something up his sleeve in his story of the life of Bill Scott – a sizzling quote from Scott about why he abandoned science:

“I didn’t have good girl friends,” [Scott] once told European Car Magazine. “There was no tactile sensation. There was no loud noise.”

A wonderful juxtaposition of comments that quite possibly Scott was directing to different aspects of his life, scientific or otherwise.

Regardless, Scott, in pursuit of a career that would offer what he was missing, became a formula racecar driver, and, I suspect, readily found all of what he was looking for. Although a successful career as a racecar driver came to an end in the aftermath of a serious accident, Scott continued his pursuit of tactile sensations and loud noise when he bought a racing facility in West Virginia called Summit Point and turned to training others to drive. Later, he became an expert in driving methods to avoid and respond to terrorist attacks, teaching them to the military, police forces, and a bunch of secret federal agencies. Lest that not seem like enough for one life, Scott grew fruit. He turned a cornfield next to his racetrack into an apple orchard which produced up to half a million gourmet apples annually, including ones he had trademarked.

Shapiro ends the obituary with a beautiful quote likely to offend many scientists. “‘I gave up my profession for racing,’ Dr. Scott once told a Hagerstown, Md., reporter, ‘It’s real life. It has its own heartbeat.’”

Scott’s obituary started me thinking about obituaries in general. Well written obituaries may aspire to, and sometimes achieve the status of literature. Marilyn Johnson, in The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries (2006) likens them to poetry:

We see this emotionally charged block of text that follows a particular format: a swift, economical description of the person who died, a few short stories from the life or work, and the list of survivors trailing behind. This tight little coil of biography with its literary flourishes reminds us of a poem. Certainly, it contains the most creative writing in journalism. (p. 9-10)

Depending upon the writer (and the deceased), the obituary can range from a quirky little story that resonates (“yes, I’ve done that, too”) to a glimpse at the array of possibilities for a life (like the Bill Scott obituary) to something memorable for its humor, particularly the unexpected joke.

Humor in an obituary. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste, but I have it. When, in early 2005, Dick Radatz, the famed Boston Red Sox relief pitcher, whose huge size and scorching fast ball earned him the nickname of The Monster, died at 67, his obituary by Gordon Edes in the Boston Globe said this of Radatz’s final job:

Mr. Radatz spent the last two years as pitching coach for the Lynn-based North Shore Spirit, an independent minor league team, and he was planning to return this spring, according to Spirit manager John Kennedy, the former Red Sox infielder, even though Mr. Radatz's considerable girth – his weight approached 400 pounds – made trips to the mound a rarity.

Okay, though I laughed out loud, perhaps a baseball joke isn’t universally appreciated. Back to Robert Thomas, who could start an obituary with a laugh (Anton Rosenberg’s obit, for instance) or use the entire obituary to lead up to a chuckle. Take his obituary of Mrs. Toots Barger, a champion of duckpin bowling (a variant of tenpin bowling – smaller pins and balls – once hugely popular in Baltimore, Maryland). The obituary recounts Mrs. Barger’s prowess and the history of duckpin bowling, concluding with her campaign late in her life to make it Maryland’s state sport. Wrote Thomas, “The campaign failed, perhaps because legislators felt duckpins was just too odd to be the state sport, especially when Maryland already had an official sport: jousting.” (52 McGs., p. 95)

It’s not gallows humor, it’s an appreciation of a specific human life in all of its wonderful and weird permutations, a single unique life that existed within the mass of humankind. In this, I agree with Marilyn Johnson’s final summing up about obituaries, which incidentally returns us to science:

I still think that the point of the obituary and the beauty of it, aside from its elegant structure and the wonderful writing it can inspire, lies in that heroic act. There goes one, the only one, the last of his kind, the end of a particular strand of DNA. (p. 222-223)

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