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Obituary Notebook

Obit in the news: Before I went to Chicago last week, Kate mentioned an obituary she'd heard or seen: Meinhardt Raabe, 94, the man who played the Munchkin coroner in "The Wizard of Oz." Kate being Kate, she dug out a three-year-old story she'd saved from The New York Times: "He Confirmed It, Yes He Did: The Wicked Witch Was Dead." Dan Barry wrote the article, which begins, " Like any coroner, he has seen some things. But one case stays with him nearly 70 years after the fact, like some old song he can’t get out of his head." It's a playful and poignant piece that reveals a remarkable life that would have otherwise gone unremarked. (One final link: The Times included an audio slideshow of Barry's visit with Raabe.)

Irish funnies: I recently became contentious with a family member who failed to instantly comprehend what I meant when I used the term "Irish funnies." What I meant was "newspaper obituaries." I assumed–in error, as usual–that the reference was transparent. The Irish relish misfortune and loss the way the less soulful might anticipate "The Katzenjammer Kids" (a strip that, shockingly, is still being produced). So when most people are turning to "Boondocks" or "Doonesbury" or "South Park" or whatever's on the comics page now (please tell me "Nancy" is gone; and "Cathy," too), a certain Hibernian-tinged demographic is flipping straight to the death notices. My sister Ann knows a retired Chicago Irish priest who occasionally reads the obits with a ruler at hand. "Look at that," he'll say when he spots an ostentatiously lengthy notice. "Six inches! Good for them!"

When I was in Chicago, Ann was going through the Irish funnies when she encountered a name she knew: John T. Fitzgerald, Jr. One of my mom's first cousins, whom everyone knew as Jack. He was the last of his generation of the South Side Hogan/Fitzgerald clan she came from. We weren't close, and I didn't know much about him. His obituary doesn't help much and reads like it was written by a stranger. It omits his age and the names of any family members. It says he had been "preceded in death by many brothers and sisters" (from what I heard growing up, he had two brothers and one sister). It described him as "a kind uncle to many." The only specific detail: he graduated from Leo High School, on Chicago's South Side, in 1936 and belonged to the alumni association. He was to be buried down at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery on the far South Side. Plenty of other Fitzes and Hogans there (and O'Malleys and Morans, too, from the other side of Mom's family).

Come to think of it, I do remember a couple of things I heard about him and his life. Some of it's best left unsaid. Here's one remarkable particular I can relate, though: He worked well into his 80s as a helper and bus-person at an Italian restaurant somewhere on Chicago's Southwest Side. He was a small, slight guy, and I remember having an image of him lugging tomato-sauce-stained dishes. He didn't do it because he needed the money, from what I heard. He did it just to have something to do.

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Today’s Reading

Kate pointed this story out in today’s New York Times, and read it aloud:

He Confirmed It, Yes He Did: The Wicked Witch Was Dead

“Like any coroner, he has seen some things. But one case stays with him nearly 70 years after the fact, like some old song he can’t get out of his head.

“He couldn’t shake this case even if he wanted to, what with all the videotapes, the DVDs, the television broadcasts replaying the gruesome aftermath over and over, in vivid Technicolor. Those striped socks, curling back like a pair of deflating noisemakers. …

“The coroner’s name is Meinhardt Raabe, and he lives in a retirement community tucked between here and there. He can’t see or hear too well, and his short legs need the assistance of a three-wheeled walker with hand brakes. But none of this means that at 91 he has forgotten much, because he hasn’t — especially about that case.”

It might be hard to believe a profile on one of the bit players in “The Wizard of Oz” might make compelling fare, but the story’s worth reading just for the writer’s touch; the story he tells is touching, too. There’s a catch, though: For a reason that escapes me–probably because this is the work of a highlighted national columnist, Dan Barry–the story is only available online as part of the Times Select service (we get Times select because we shell out for a daily subscription to the paper). It’s hard to see how this really helps the Times much. It’s one thing to put op-ed columnists and older-than-two-week archives under wraps and make people pay to see them, though I wonder if even that’s a winning proposition in the long term. This is just a lovely slice of life, and it comes as something of a rude surprise that it can’t be shared (unless, I suppose, people want to make do with email copies).

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