Our friend Merrill sent us a kind note the other day about the things she enjoys in the Independent, including the obituaries. I’ve already written about why people shouldn’t have to pay for them, but this compliment came the day after I learned of the death of my old friend Chuck Strum. He’s a big reason why I love obituaries the way I do.
Chuck died on April 27. His obituary appeared two days later in the New York Times, where he was a beloved editor for 35 years, including six as obituaries editor. During that stint, he gave Teresa and me a tour of his department and a short course on his philosophy of reporting — about death and everything else.
We marveled at the massive wall of files before us. “So many stories of dead people,” Teresa said.
“No,” said Chuck. “Those are the obituaries of people who haven’t died yet.” There were thousands of them. He told about a reporter who was sent to interview Bette Davis for her obituary. She hadn’t been told that and brought out tea and snacks. Suddenly, she asked, “Are you interviewing me for my obituary?” The writer said yes, and Davis said, “Why the hell didn’t you tell me?” Then she went to the kitchen, made a pitcher of martinis, and the two talked all night.
Chuck was one of the sweetest people in the world, but he was a hard-ass when it came to vagueness or euphemism. “If you say, ‘He had tried to take his own life,’ ” he told the writer Nigel Starck, “what the hell does that mean? Did he try to shoot himself, stab himself, jump off a roof, stick his mouth over a tailpipe? Either tell me what’s going on or avoid it altogether. It’s not about covering up or making nice.”
Chuck knew about “solutions journalism” before it was a thing. I was researching an extraordinary music program in the public schools in East Harlem when it was abruptly canceled in the 1991 budget crisis. I went to see Chuck and told him the story. He loved music. He was then the Times’s metro night editor, and he sent a reporter to Harlem the next day. The story was good. It ran on the Metro section front page, above the fold, and provoked a citywide outcry that saved the program.
“He was the warmest and most wonderful newsroom presence,” said Times reporter Jodi Kantor, “with such a fabulous sense of the absurd.” We had dreamed of having Chuck come to the Cape this summer to talk about obituaries and telling stories. It would be one hell of a symposium. We’ll still have it — in Chuck’s memory.