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The Tentacle


January 28, 2004

Death of An Editor

Joe Volz

Mike Powell would have understood the irony. To paraphrase The Bard a bit, “The good that men do often awaits their obits.”

Mike, managing editor of The Frederick News-Post, died of cancer last Thursday at the age of 53.

The quiet achievements of self-effacing Mike remained hidden from most readers until death. Although Mike ran the only daily newspaper in town, he did not view it as a place to tout his own successes.

Sad!

Newspapers devote so much space to the bad guys — holdup men, murderers, corrupt politicians. And to those brash enough to promote their achievements by press release. Politicians are particularly adept at that.

But how about men like Mike?

Few people outside the newsroom probably knew, until they read Mike’s obit by City Editor Doug Tallman, that Mike and his wife, Anne, had been foster parents to 60 kids over the past 15 years.

Few people outside the paper knew about Mike’s heroic battle with cancer, either, and his gentle humor in dealing with it. He sent pithy emails to the staff, displaying a remarkable sense of humor, but we readers did not know that. No doubt Mike would have thought that his own pain didn’t belong in the paper he ran.

He was wrong.

The story of his courage over the last 18 months, as it comes out now, of his coming back to work after radiation sessions, of his work to realize his dream of a Sunday paper, is the story of a man’s determination to go on as long as possible.

Morrie Schwartz would have understood that.

Schwartz, a retired Brandeis professor suffering from Lou Gerhig’s Disease, and immortalized in Mitch Albom’s book, “Tuesdays With Morrie,” wanted a celebration of his own life while he was still alive and he got it.

But most of us, like Mike, unless we are celebrities or desperados, receive recognition after we are gone. The reason is simple enough. Any reporter can tell you why. Most of us live lives that editors do not deem as newsworthy. News is the unusual, the different, the unique. News is about murders and fires and accidents -- and terrorism.

Mike might have thought there was nothing unique about his own life.

He was wrong.

He came from a family that believed it was more important to tell someone else’s story. Mike’s dad, Roland, was a Washington correspondent for the Buffalo News and the Toledo Blade, a warm self-effacing man.

The obituaries, next to the sports section and the comics, are probably the best read pages in the paper. Oh, people glance at the front page, but they read the obit page. And they talk about who died.

Mike’s death made page one in his paper although, I suspect, if he were around to look over the page before it went to press down there on East Patrick Street, he would have said, “Put it inside Doug, will you?”

You may think that a fascination with the obit page is, well, morbid. But I don't view it that way at all. To me, it is getting to know a bit about people.

However, young reporters who get assigned to write obits routinely hate it. In my first job as a reporter 40 years ago, I had to visit three funeral homes in Union City, N.J., for the Hudson Dispatch each night interviewing the next of kin. That wasn't news, I convinced myself. I wanted to be chasing fires and reporting on double homicides and corrupt politicians.

Looking back, I should have been honored to be the brief biographer of those good people, who rarely got their names in the paper because they didn't do anything wrong.

Obituary writing is really an admirable job. Perhaps, the most accomplished writer of this genre was Alden Whitman of The New York Times, who used to go around interviewing world leaders, such as Charles DeGaulle, president of France, while they were still alive. The subjects soon figured out what Whitman was up to, that they would never see the fruits of his labors. But they were happy to help the obit writer get their obits "right."

And then the Times editors got smart. They started printing the "obits" while the subjects were still alive.

Perhaps, there is time to tell the rest of Mike’s story. His courageous battle with cancer.

He left behind those poignant emails. Tallman quoted from one, “I’d tell you the name of the chemical they gave me (to fight the various cancers) but it has a naughty sounding name and I figured someone from human resources would think I was saying something bad and I’d have to write myself up.”



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