Obituaries play a vital role in the lives of newspaper readers and are consistently among the best-read articles in The Sun. These chronicles of the lives of the famous and infamous, the extraordinary and ordinary, the well-known and little-known tell readers things about people they would otherwise never have known.
Whether the obituaries appear on the front page, the Maryland section front or in the obituary pages themselves, The Sun always treats them as news articles. During a week in late April, obituaries of four remarkably different individuals were played on The Sun's front page: Boris N. Yeltsin, David Halberstam, Mary Carter Smith and Mstislav Rostropovich.
For editors intent on explaining the world and engaging readers, the articles were a boon. These obituaries and a number of others this year, such as Michael Dresser's richly detailed Feb. 16 front-page obituary of Walter Sondheim Jr., weave memory and reporting into a tapestry of history. Dresser's 3,400-word piece described how Baltimore, led by Sondheim, then president of the school board, became the first school district in the United States to end segregation after the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The article also was a social history of 20th-century Baltimore seen through the prism of the 98-year-old Sondheim's remarkable life.
The April 24 front page was unusual because it featured two obituaries - those of former President Boris N. Yeltsin, 76, of Russia, who led his country out the Soviet era, and of journalist David Halberstam, 73, whose newspaper reporting and nonfiction books chronicled some of the most important aspects of American life in the second half of the 20th century.
The Yeltsin obituary's presence on Page One was no surprise. Halberstam, however, was a less likely Page One choice. He was not as universally known and had no specific ties to Baltimore. But his sudden death in an automobile accident was breaking news and, in my view, was a great choice for the front page.
The two articles were produced under very different circumstances. Yeltsin's obituary had been mostly written in advance, and required a modest amount of additional reporting and updating. The authoritative piece was written by Will Englund, The Sun's associate editorial page editor and a former Sun Moscow correspondent.
The presentation of the obituary was misleading, however, because it contained a Moscow dateline and labeled Englund a "Sun Foreign Reporter." Even though Englund originally wrote much of the piece while stationed in Russia, the story was completed in Baltimore and thus should not have had any dateline. Englund also should have been called a "Sun Reporter" because he is no longer a foreign correspondent.
The Halberstam obituary was written on deadline by Larry Williams, the Ideas section and book editor. Williams, a veteran reporter and editor, was familiar with Halberstam's body of work and was an excellent choice to write the piece. In less than two hours, Williams produced a solid article that documented Halberstam's ground-breaking newspaper reporting on the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War and on his prolific book-writing career. Halberstam was on his way to an interview for a new book when he was killed.
The April 26 front page featured the obituary of Mary Carter Smith, 88, a longtime Baltimore schoolteacher and librarian who became nationally known for helping to bring griot - traditional African stories, dress and songs - to American audiences. Her 40-year career as a folklorist took her around the world, but she remained dedicated to improving life for African-Americans in Baltimore. The obituary, written by veteran Sun reporters Jacques Kelly and Frederick N. Rasmussen, offered readers a vivid account of Smith's accomplishments through a detailed narrative of her life.
Sun music critic Tim Smith's obituary of Mstislav Rostropovich, 80, the world-renowned cellist and conductor who defied the Soviet authorities in his native Russia and championed freedom everywhere, made the April 28 front page. Smith's article noted that Rostropovich left a strong mark on American cultural life during his 17 years as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. The piece also noted that Rostropovich helped the then-newly elected Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, overcome an attempted coup in 1991.
Reader Edwin Lloyd said: "The Sun made an excellent decision to put Tim Smith's obituary of Mstislav Rostropovich on the front page. It is extremely rare that a great and ground-breaking musician and a tireless champion of artistic freedom were one and the same. The tone and details of Mr. Smith's obituary and the placement it received shows real sophistication. Bravo!"
All of these obituaries, in my view, told life stories of substance and passion. And readers benefited even more because they found them on the front page.
Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.