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Year's Best Obituary Writing: The 2017 Grimmy Awards

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Obit writers from around the globe gathered at Legacy this October

Last weekend, Legacy.com hosted the Society of Professional Obituary Writers (SPOW) in our Evanston office for ObitCon 2017. Over the course of three days, some two dozen obituary writers from newspapers, online media, funeral homes, and more gathered to talk about our unique craft.

Writing obituaries is a specialized profession – and those of us who do it find that our friends and family, even our fellow writers, don't always get what we do. So it's a relief and a delight to have a few days with others who understand the central truth of our craft: Obituaries aren't really about death; they're about life. And writing them every day is usually more life-affirming than it is morbid.

Also, sometimes we get really sick of certain words, like "iconic" and "legendary."

That last was one of the many topics SPOW members discussed in between hearing talks from our colleagues, including Adam Bernstein, obituaries editor at the Washington Post; Owen Youngman, the Knight Professor of digital media strategy at Northwestern University; Susan Soper, founder of ObitKit; and Stephen Segal, senior managing editor at Legacy.com.

And lest anyone think obituary writers don't know how to have fun, we watched a movie, too – the fascinating documentary "Obit," which highlights the journalists who work at the New York Times obituaries desk – and asked questions of its acclaimed director, Vanessa Gould, who joined us in person.

ObitCon concluded on Sunday with an awards ceremony honoring the best professional obituary writing from 2016 and 2017 (plus the work of one great journalist whose writing over a span of years has merited a lifetime achievement award). The members of SPOW tend to have a healthy sense of humor about public perceptions of our craft, so the awards ceremony is known as the Grimmys. Five trophies were awarded:

The Alana Baranick Lifetime Achievement Award went to Andrew Meacham of the Tampa Bay Times, whose 2015 feature series "Finding Fletcher" documented his search for the fate of his long-lost childhood friend.

Obituary Writer of the Year went to Linnea Crowther of Legacy.com, whose body of work celebrated the cultural impact of numerous artists, musicians, actors, writers, and athletes who died during 2016. Under consideration for this award were her obituaries for Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Richard Adams, Gordie Howe, and William Peter Blatty.

Best Obituary of an "Ordinary Joe/Jane" went to Maureen O'Donnell of the Chicago Sun-Times, whose winning story paid tribute to a Butterball Turkey Talk-Line expert who helped families solve their holiday meal crises.

Best Long-Form Obituary went to Tom Hawthorn of Toronto's The Globe and Mail, who told the colorful life story of Al Howie, an eccentric ultramarathoner who ran across Canada.

Best Short-Form Obituary went to Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times, who saluted the 83-year life of the Brookfield Zoo's star cockatoo, Cookie.

Read on to enjoy excerpts from each of these award-winning stories:

Finding Fletcher

Stewart Fletcher Currin has been missing since 1999. The last time I saw him, he was homeless and paranoid, and his time at a motel was about to run out. The last time anyone saw him was about a month later, when a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy shooed him off a bench. Now here I sat, watching the director of investigations study actual photos of unidentified body 99-1145, a man found five days after Fletcher's last sighting, 5 miles away, by a bus bench. The identity had puzzled the office for years. Even though the medical examiner gets about one unnamed body a week, fingerprints and facial recognition solve most cases within a day or two. Investigators had ruled out this one for 170 missing persons cases. Pellan knew what was at stake, and left the room to talk with Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin. He emerged several minutes later. Solving the case, he said, outweighed any legal technicalities. I braced myself as he turned the screen. Read more

Gene Wilder (1933 – 2016)

Wilder is indelibly associated with many of the funniest films of the 1970s, but for many, it's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" that stands out as his defining film. Less laugh-out-loud funny than eccentric and odd, Wilder's Wonka dealt strange fates to bad children as he ferried them around his magnificent candy factory.

Wilder was far from the only contender for the chocolatier's role. In the movie's developmental stages, producers considered actors including Fred Astaire and Joel Grey. Roald Dahl, author of the book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" as well as the adapted screenplay, liked Spike Milligan for the role. All six members of the Monty Python comedy troupe angled for it, as did Peter Sellers. But when Wilder – not yet a superstar, but with a career on the rise – auditioned, director Mel Stuart was sold. "I knew in my heart there could only be one person who could play Willy Wonka," he told The Washington Post. Read more

Leonard Cohen (1934 – 2016)

“Hallelujah,” first recorded in 1984 for his “Various Positions” album, is widely considered to be Cohen’s masterwork. It was a song he had agonized over before recording, working on it for years and writing about 80 verses that he eventually pared down to four. Many of the early draft verses included clear biblical references, but those were toned down and made more opaque for the largely secular final version. Yet its opening lyrics, instantly recognizable to millions, invoke religious figures:

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?

The irony of Cohen’s best-known song is that many who love it have never even heard the composer’s recording of it. Cohen’s voice didn’t make the song famous – it was in cover versions that it achieved its legendary status. Read more

Richard Adams (1920 – 2016)

The Carnegie Medal-winning "Watership Down" has sold tens of millions of copies in the decades since its 1972 publication. But that publication almost didn't happen – Adams' manuscript was rejected over and over before it found a home with publishing house Rex Collings Ltd. Other publishers were unsure what to do with the unusual novel, one that told an epic tale of rabbits in episodes that ranged from heartwarming to terrifying. The novel was seen as too adult for children and too childish for adults. Who would want to read it?

The generations of both adults and children who have loved Adams' debut novel would probably beg to differ with that assessment. Adams himself didn't see what all the fuss was about, knowing that the book would find its audience regardless of their ages: "Well, who's talking about children or adults? This is just a book," he told the Independent in a 2010 interview. "Anybody who finds it enjoyable is welcome to read it, whether they're 6 or 66." Read more

Gordie Howe (1928 – 2016)

Howe's legendary toughness may have been what brought him through that catastrophe. It also gave him a reputation as an on-ice fighter – one that was earned in his earliest days in the NHL, when he dropped his gloves so often that his coaches had to urge him to concentrate on his playing.

Howe took the advice, but he didn't go soft. His fighting spirit remained, and it led to the tongue-in-cheek naming of a hockey tradition after him. The "Gordie Howe hat trick" occurs when a player scores a goal, records an assist, and participates in a fight, all in a single game. Howe himself only completed his namesake hat trick twice over the course of his long career, both times in his earlier seasons, and many other players have achieved it more times. But it remains named for Mr. Hockey, a tribute to his skill and spirit. Read more

William Peter Blatty (1928 – 2017)

Written in 1971, "The Exorcist" was never intended to be a horror novel. When Blatty started it, he told the Los Angeles Times, he intended to write "a supernatural detective story that was filled with suspense with theological overtones." He wasn't trying to be scary – but as he delved into the Roman Catholic ritual of exorcism, he created a terrifying tale for the ages.

Inspired by a variety of real people and real cases of alleged possession and exorcism, "The Exorcist" didn't initially look as if it would be a best-seller. As Blatty told it, copies sat resolutely on bookstore shelves, and some bookstores were even returning mass quantities of unsold books to the publisher – this despite the fine reviews the book received and the heavy-duty marketing it received from publisher Harper & Row. Readers just weren't picking it up, and neither were Hollywood executives to whom Blatty pitched the story as a movie.

"The Exorcist" – and the entire genre of imitators that followed it – might never have gotten off the ground if not for a lucky break, courtesy of "The Dick Cavett Show." Read more

Turkey Talk-Line expert who rescued holiday meals dies at 90

Mrs. Larson worked for 15 years on the hotline, 1-800-288-8372, which handles more than 100,000 questions from early November to Christmas Eve at Butterball’s Naperville headquarters. In that time, she collected some good stories.

One caller told her, “I followed the directions but the turkey is blue.”

Turned out, they left the blue plastic seal on the bird. “They didn’t take the wrapping off and cooked the turkey and it came out blue,” said Mrs. Larson’s son, Eric.

On Thanksgiving Day, she would field calls from hosts and hostesses who said they were expecting a big crowd, but they hadn’t gotten around to removing the turkey from the freezer. She had to break the news to them that they’d better head to the store for a fresh bird because it wasn’t going to thaw in time. Read more

Al Howie was an eccentric ultramarathoner who ran across Canada

Mr. Howie stood out as an eccentric even in the offbeat world of road runners. He was called the Spartan Tartan, known for wearing a tuque over long, flowing blond hair, his face covered by a bushy red beard. A T-shirt hung loose over a sinewy, 5-foot-8, 130-pound frame, while wee shorts decorated in a Union Jack motif revealed legs more spindly than powerful. He looked like a skinny Rob Roy, sounded like Scotty from Star Trek, and had the prickly temperament of Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons. He liked to drink beer before a race, a habit that infuriated some of his lesser competitors, and was known to have more than one afterward. The beer helped ease the pain from blisters, he explained.

At times, his special skill seemed more curse than blessing.

"I have to admit," he told The New York Times, "there are days when I wish I was good at something a little easier, like darts or pool." Read more

Zoo’s eldest resident, Cookie the cockatoo, dead at 83

He was crusty, a curmudgeon, as only the elderly can be. Sometimes he would shriek. While he did tolerate certain people, others he just wanted to bite.

“If he didn’t like you, he let you know it,” said Tim Snyder, a business associate. “He was like a cranky old geezer.”

Then again, he had reason. He had his infirmities — osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, cataracts. And perhaps the lingering effects of a broken heart.

“Back in the 1950s, we tried to introduce him to a female,” said Snyder. “She was not nice to him. He didn’t want anything to do with her.”

But Cookie the cockatoo, 83, who died Saturday, was seldom alone. He was the coddled patriarch of the Brookfield Zoo.  Read more