Selected Star-Tribune Obituaries, Click Here
A Piece of Modern-Day Wyoming History

The World After Newspaper Obits, a companion piece.

obit-1“He loved to play the harmonica, listen to the police scanner, and draw cabins with scenery.” ¬From the June 8, 2008 Casper Star-Tribune obituary of Roy Eugene McMillen, 67.

“It just feels like we’re stealing pennies from dead men’s eyes.”
Former Gillette Journalist and author Ron Franscell.

Breaking with a century of tradition, the Casper Star-Tribune — Wyoming’s only state-wide newspaper — will no longer offer the free, full-length obituaries that for many daily readers was a revealing, sometimes riveting, view of the Cowboy State and its people.

In a recent Casper Star obit, for example, readers learned that hard-living James William “Jim” Adams, 53, who had

tired of reading obituaries noting others’ courageous battles with this or that disease, wanted it known that he lost his battle. It was primarily as a result of being stubborn and not following doctor’s orders or maybe for just living life a little too hard for better than five decades.

He was born June 8, 1955 in Garrison, N.D. the son of James William and Ruby Helen (Clark) Adams.

He was sadly deprived of his final wish, which was to be run over by a beer truck on the way to the liquor store to buy booze for a date. True to his personal style, he spent his final hours joking with medical personnel, cussing and begging for narcotics and bargaining with God to look over his loving dog, Biscuit, and his family.

But readers also regularly peeked into the lives of tea-totaling, 100-year-old Mormons, hardscrabble miners, veterans of World Wars, and the men and women who grew up in sod houses or log cabins, rode horses to school, and built the nation’s great roads, dams and bridges.

obit-3The life stories were seldom perfect. They were usually dictated by family members who glossed over the rough parts. Most times they did not even include a cause of death. Few were as humorous or candid as Jim Adams’. But in a state with no large media markets and only a handful of statewide information resources, the Star-Tribune obits have helped define and unite us.

For as far back as anyone can remember, the Casper Star-Tribune — founded in 1891 as the Natrona Star — actively sought information about the state’s departed with a daily item announcing its public service obituary policy: “The Casper Star-Tribune seeks to publish all Wyoming-related obituaries, and will print them in full as a free service to the public.”

Beginning Oct. 1, however, editor Chad Baldwin said the Star-Tribune will publish only a minimal notice listing name, age, place of death, date and place of memorial service and, when relevant, military service. Lengthier obits of the type previously published free, now will cost families $15 per column inch. A typical 12-inch obituary, for example, would cost the grieving family $180.

obit-4Baldwin said the decision was a matter of money: “In today’s era of newspaper financial struggles this is something we feel we have to do, getting in line with the practices of most newspapers our size.”

A Riverton native who was named editor earlier this year, Baldwin said the Star-Tribune will continue its periodic “One Wyoming Life” feature profiling deceased Wyomingites. The full-length story appears occasionally on the state and Casper pages.

He said the paper has sent letters to funeral homes, which provide obituary information, notifying them of the impending change.

“We hope there will not be a big drop in the number of obituaries because of this change in policy,” Baldwin said.

But funeral home directors contacted by WyoFile said some families will be unable to pay for the obituary stories.

“Some families may decide that just the basics will be enough,” said Dave Montgomery, owner of Montgomery-Stryker funeral home in Laramie.

Larry Cottrell, funeral director at Bustard’s in Casper, described the policy change as “really sad.”

“It will be hard for families because a lot of them don’t have any extra money,” Cottrell said.

Wyoming writers and journalists, including former Star-Tribune staffers, were dismayed by the pending break with tradition.

obit-5“Death makes us all equal,” said Ron Franscell, former Gillette News-Record editor and author of a novel titled The Obituary, “but too many newspapers are now saying that only people who can afford to pay $15 an inch are worth your attention. It just feels like we’re stealing the pennies from dead men’s eyes.”

Former Casper Star-Tribune editor Anne MacKinnon, who sometimes serves as a consultant to WyoFile,

described the obituary policy change as “shocking” and, potentially, “a real loss for the state.”

“For years,” MacKinnon said, “the paper has worked to stay true to its statewide stature by seeking obituaries from all over the state, and not charging to print them. A proper obituary not only lets others know of someone’s passing, but gives a brief overview of a Wyoming life.”

The Casper Star Tribune prides itself in being Wyoming’s newspaper of record, covering state news from Yellowstone to Vedauwoo, from Campbell County coal fields to Star Valley dairy farms. When it comes to high school football, basketball and track, for example, few newspapers in the country match the Casper Star-Tribune thoroughness. Even Meeteetse, which plays Montana six-man football, gets regular coverage in the Casper paper.

But in at least one regard — the daily portrait of the state through its death notices –the Star-Tribune is departing from its statewide commitment.

Recently, I collected 179 obituaries from the Casper Star-Tribune published between May 9 and June 12, 2008. Of that number, 83 notice deaths of men, and 96 of women. Five people were born out of the United States, and one person, a soldier, died outside of the United States. The average age of death was 70.7 years, compared to the national average of close to 78. The oldest person was 101; the youngest was a day-old infant. Seventy-six individuals were born in Wyoming. At the time of their deaths, 70 individuals were married, 61 were widows or widowers, with the remaining either divorced, single, living with a romantic companion, or their marital status was not included in the notice. Sixty-two people were cremated, with various ends for remains including inurnment or scattering ceremonies.

These are the sort of basic details one might glean from any, even very brief, newspaper’s death notices. Major newspapers with circulations much larger than the Star-Tribune’s, often feature one or two staff-written obits per day about individuals remarkable by the standards of the community. For example, The New York Times is heavy on obituaries featuring individuals well known in the arts, the Washington Post features politicians who’ve passed away, and the Chicago Sun-Times favors business and industrial tycoons.

obit-6But before the Oct. 1 obituary policy change, the Casper Star-Tribune gave regular people, folks like me, the same sort of space the big papers allotted to world leaders, rulers, movers and shakers.

People such as outdoorsman Gregg Carlis Welch, 53, who died May 30, 2008, in Denver after battling leukemia:
As soon as bird hunting season opened, he was there, shotgun in hand. Likewise, he could be found on the North Platte River and creeks of Wyoming fly-fishing to his heart’s content.

And to infants such as Mattisyn Harris Cantrell, who was born March 24, 2008 and died May 18, 2008, in Casper:
She had a huge smile and was starting to talk when you spoke to her. She was a very happy baby and everyone who knew her loved her very much.

And to Native Americans such as Javen TalksDifferent, 26, who died May 24, 2008:
He enjoyed rodeos and was one of Fremont County’s top bull riders. He enjoyed riding horses, sweat ceremonies, singing, music, being with his children, niece, nephews and his brother.

On the Star-Tribune obituary page, everyone’s life had equal value.

Marilyn Johnson, a former newspaper obit writer and author of The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, reviewed a sample of the obits I collected from the Casper Star-Tribune.

“These seem more trustworthy than most death notices I’ve seen, as the facts of these people’s lives are stated plainly, without amplification or exaggeration,” said Johnson, who lives in New York state. “We honor them with the real specifics of their lives, and are spared the excess of best mother in the world…he’d give you the shirt off her back….there’s another angel in heaven.

“As someone who lives far from Wyoming and didn’t know any of these people, I particularly prize the history. There are mysteries between the lines that we may never solve, and of course we shouldn’t be surprised that so much life can’t be squeezed into a few short paragraphs.”

When I worked in the mid 1980s as an obituary writer for the Kansas City Times (now the Star) we wrote free, lengthy obits based on information the family gave to the funeral director. We verified information and compiled the obit, and then called the family on the phone to read the notice back and confirm details. We had access to shelves full of directories properly listing the names of streets, businesses, union halls, churches and schools for most of Missouri and Kansas. Further, we had a staff of librarians who kept the paper’s aptly-named “morgue,” which we would consult if our reporterial instincts detected the death of someone who had been newsworthy in the past. Then when we called the family, we could ask if the person owned a certain business, for example. If he did, his passing warranted larger headline type. If we couldn’t verify a fact, we took it out.

Today, many newspapers such as the Kansas City Star avoid the question of whether they are printing inaccurate information by moving all but the most basic death notice information off the news pages and into classified ads, where families pay by the inch to include as much information as they wish, accuracy and newspaper style be damned. If a family cannot afford to tell the story of Uncle’s Jim’s World War II service and how he was a man of honor, it will not appear in the newspaper.

Ron Franscell, the former Gillette News-Record editor who now lives in San Antonio, Texas, recalls struggling with accuracy of free obituaries during his time with the Gillette paper. “Obituaries are often about as trustworthy as resumes. We ran free obituaries because we considered the death of a neighbor to be news. But by not charging, we also wanted certain facts to be included, such as the No. 2 most important fact about any death: how did it happen? Oh my God, you’d think that we were looking for porn under the bed.”

Despite obvious short-comings and the common absence of such essential details as cause of death, the Casper Star-Tribune obituary pages have been full of collective information about our state and its people that could not be found anywhere else.

Historian Tamsen Hert is librarian at the University of Wyoming and the state’s bibliographer, reviewed a sample of the obits I collected and commented on patterns she saw in them.

obit-7“Overall, what I found in these was the importance of family, religion and community,” she said. “These can provide clues in genealogy research especially with marriage dates, death dates, children, subsequent spouses and so on.”

Hert also values information beyond names, dates and places. “In some cases, the obit may be the only time that that individual is found in a newspaper. It may be the only link to their role in the community or their personal history. Information in obituaries also provides some clue about the individual and/or family’s movement around the state, region and country — in some instances, even their role internationally. The obituary shows what is important to the family who wrote up the obit, if not the individual. For example, their organizations, their education, their life work.”

Star-Tribune reporter SallyAnn Shurmur has lived in Wyoming for 45 years and has had a long career at the paper. In addition to a humor column, Shurmur writes approximately 10 obits a day of ordinary individuals for the paper.

“We are writing Wyoming history,” she said.

What could be a more classic Wyoming story, for example, than the obit for Loren Elmer Davis, 84, who died May 26, 2008.

He was born Sept. 12, 1923, in Columbus, Mont., the second of two sons of Elmer and Naomi Davis. He lived on his family farm on the Stillwater River until he was 7, when the family moved to the Cody area to farm. He attended Sage Creek School and graduated from Cody High School in May 1942. He rode his horse to and from school. He farmed, rode bareback broncs and worked chutes at the Cody night rodeo for two years after graduation. Throughout his life, he worked as a roustabout and pumper in the oil fields and drove truck for several businesses in the Cody area.

It would have been a shame never to have known about Davis and his life.

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Published on September 29, 2008

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