Thomas: Marking the end of a story
One job I don’t even put on my resume was when I worked at the Rutland Herald in west-central Vermont in 2003-04. The Herald is the smallest newspaper to win a Pulitzer Prize. I moved there from Breckenridge and the Summit Daily mostly to be closer to my parents in Virginia, but I didn’t last long: I wasn’t an ideal fit for that staid newsroom, a copy editor just getting into page design but also a snowboarder who really wanted to be at nearby Killington as much as possible. Eight months later, I was back in Colorado, on the copy desk at the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.
But my time in Vermont deepened my relationship with obituaries, especially having moved there from Summit County, where we called obituaries “deads” and they were so rare we used to joke that it was illegal to die there. Also, soon after I got to Rutland, I picked up a copy of Carl Hiaasen’s novel “Basket Case,” in which the main character, a hotshot reporter, gets demoted to the obituary desk and looking into a fishy obit immerses him in a mystery. The parallel wasn’t 100% apt, since I was neither reporter nor hotshot and I didn’t technically get demoted, but I spent a lot of time on the southern Vermont section and obits — certainly no plum assignment.
The Herald had peculiar, rigid rules of style, especially regarding obits, which were not sporadic like they are here but a daily section in two parts — paid and unpaid. The unpaid obituaries not only toed the same line of style as the news — which precluded referring to anybody by a nickname, so I would have to be Daniel (or, rather, William) if I had ever appeared in the paper alongside, say, presidents William Clinton and James Carter (and I learned to really hate people who went by Steve) — but additional strictures as well. Your middle initial was not allowed to appear in a news story while you were alive, but it could appear in an unpaid obit. You earned that exception by dying for it.
Paid obits, though, anything goes: We were not allowed to touch them, which made me wonder about the use of my time “editing” them. If you wanted to say the deceased had attended “Seaton Haul University,” then by God, you had paid for it.
I’ve been at the Vail Daily for about six months now, and I’m still working to understand what our obituary policies are, which is a little crazy because I think I’m responsible for some of them. I just know that I try not to change anything in an obituary unless I feel like I absolutely have to. I guess the one executive decision I made regarding them is running the “story label,” the thing that says “obituary,” in black rather than that pretty “NAP/VDW blue” we use for the other ones because it seems appropriately somber.
I just realized that the word “somber” is probably related to the root word for “shadow” and “shade” — like “sombrero.” “Obituary” evidently comes from the Latin word “obitus,” which means “death,” which I also didn’t know before.
There’s a convention in journalism to mark the end of a story with the mark “-30-” and it’s also the title of the final episode of the HBO series “The Wire,” the final season of which took place in a fictionalized Baltimore Sun newsroom. Jacqueline Covey, my ally on the Vail Daily desk this summer, had it tattooed on her wrist. The periodic alumni newsletter of the journalism school at my alma mater uses “-30-“ as the story label for its obituary section.
Soon after I moved to Glenwood, I started working at Sunlight Mountain Resort with another new hire named Chris Polk. The next year I moved to Aspen, and he followed a year later before I took off for Lake Tahoe. While I was working for Lake Tahoe Action and Sierra-at-Tahoe, Chris hit a tree and died. A couple years later, it was Kay Vasilakis and then Sara Gabrielle Devenish, sometimes Elle but never Gabby, both of whom I worked with at the Post Independent. Kay was the only one I didn’t hang out with a lot outside work. Just this week, I was thinking about Gunilla Asher, the former Aspen Times publisher, who died June 2, 2014, but had some sort of special tie to Nov. 11.
Nov. 12 was Tuesday. I was waiting for a rapidly approaching bus when my friend Nick, who sort of grew up here, called me from Aspen to tell me that a guy named Mark Wilkinson had died.
Wilko, the Aspen/Buttermilk snowboard coordinator, was my boss for a decade, and yet I am unqualified to write his obituary. Wednesday morning, I was on the telephone for a couple of hours with my witty, multitalented friend Dustin Lutomski, last heard playing oom-pah music at the Sonnenalp during Oktoberfest, and we two wordsmiths could barely form a sentence between us. My friend Jeremy Brown in Carbondale is magnificent at delivering speeches and toasts, so he might be the guy.
There hasn’t been an obit in the Times. I don’t know how Wilko died, but I know that the only death outside my immediate family that would affect me as much in the same way would be if something happened to my friend Tim — an editor and another mentor — in Tahoe. I don’t know how old Wilko was, but I know he was from Sydney, Australia, and the benevolent ruler of “The Island of Misfit Toys,” the Buttermilk Snowboard Division. While he didn’t suffer fools, he had a perfectly calibrated tolerance for our BS. I don’t know why Wilko put up with us for 14 years, but I do know that if you made him laugh, you really accomplished something.
I don’t know, and it’s strange, but I feel like I’m lucky that I ended up in Vail again. I can’t imagine being in Aspen right now or at Buttermilk this winter.
I also know that I’ve already written my own obituary, and — ever the obsessive obit editor — I keep it on the desktop of my personal computer. This is not the end of my story, just this one.
Dan Thomas is a copy editor at the Vail Daily, a former sportswriter for the Vail Trail and a master’s degree candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Denver. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.