Hot Air: The Dead Tell Tales

The New York Times found itself in hot water not long ago. The reason? Its obits section historically has been weighted heavily — almost exclusively — toward men. The paper is now trying hard to undo that injustice with something called the “Overlooked” series. More on that in a bit.

I love reading the NYT obits. I have for years. I discovered the beauty, the treasure trove, the literature, for chrissakes, that well-written obits can be as far back as the summer of 1983. It was in July of that year that I happened to be thumbing through the NYT. I’d never before read the obits, thinking them the ghoulish pastime of old fogeys. Somehow, though, my eye was arrested by this headline:

Developer of the Quonset hut. Really? You mean some person, somewhere, actually had to come up with this idea? For pity’s sake, Quonset huts are so simple, so elementary, I’d thought they were more or less hard-wired into our brains from the time we as a species descended from the trees on the African plain. But no. A guy — of course, a guy, because, as I’d learn more than 30 years hence, the NYT almost never marked the deaths of brilliant women — had actually sat down before a drafting table and had drawn up the first of the giant-caterpillar-like structures. Well, here, let’s let the obit writer, anonymous to us at this remove, explain:

When the United States entered World War II, the Fuller company received a contract to develop a shelter that could be transported easily and assembled quickly. Mr. Dejongh led a group of Fuller engineers who were sent to Quonset Point, R.I., where they built a steel half-cylinder that was to fill a variety of purposes at military bases around the world.

US Army Quonset hut on Attu in the Aleutian Islands.

This DeJongh fellow was an engineer for the George A. Fuller Construction Co. in New York City. He was born and educated in the Netherlands and moved to the US in the 1920’s. He and his crew of engineers at Fuller designed the famed Seagram, Union Carbide, and other notable towers in NY as well as Denver’s Mile High Center and a bunch of high-rises in Washington, DC. He also designed the world’s first ski tramway, located in New Hampshire.

Then World War II started and he came up with that basic, essential structure, the Quonset hut.

And — who knew? — it was named after some podunk town in Rhode Island. Well, I’ll tell you who knew — anybody who’d read his New York Times obituary. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better history course than that found every day in the NYT obits.

Today, for instance, the deaths of the following poor souls were noted therein:

  • Drue Heinz
  • William Prochnau
  • Alfred Crosby
  • Herbert Kaiser

I honestly couldn’t have ID’d a single one of them until today. Now, though, after reading their obits, I know that Drue Heinz was a member of the pickle and ketchup empire who threw boatloads of dough at authors and editors, some of whom started the likes of The Paris Review, Antaeus, and Ecco Press. She even purchased a manor in Scotland and turned it into a writers’ retreat called Hawthornden Castle.

William Prochnau was a war correspondent and the author of Once Upon a Distant War, about the journalists who, early on, saw the Vietnam War for the fiasco it really was. His reporting and writings landed him on President Richard Nixon’s notorious enemies list.

Alfred Crosby parlayed his fascination with Columbus and his landings in the “new world” into a study of how the early European migration here changed this continent’s very environment. He combined the disciplines of biology, ecology and geography in an effort to understand what Columbus and those who followed had wrought, coining terms like “ecological imperialism.” Crosby eventually earned the nickname, “the father of environmental history.”

Herbert Kaiser was an American diplomat who’d developed skin cancer while stationed in South Africa in 1971. He was treated in that country and learned his excellent care came about solely because he was white. That nation’s blacks, he learned, were sorely underserved by doctors and medical facilities. He and his wife, Joy, would go on to fund the Medical Education for South African Blacks nonprofit foundation, providing grants, scholarships, and other assistance to non-whites in the country.

And, coolest of all, I learned about Bessie B. Stringfield, the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami.” Here’s a photo of her and her Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide:

Bessie died in 1993. Her obit ran today as part of the NYT’s “Overlooked” series, wherein the paper publishes newly-written obituaries about women who died years ago and were, at the times of their deaths, not considered worthy of inclusion in its pages. What a life she led! Here’s clip from her new obit:

Her legend was big enough to warrant a posthumous induction into the Hall of Fame of the American Motorcyclist Association in 2002, nearly a decade after her 1993 death. Hundreds of women motorcyclists make an annual cross-country trek in her honor. She has been memorialized in a comic book and mentioned in a documentary and a book about women motorcyclists by Ann Ferrar, a friend who is also working on a memoir of her friendship with Stringfield.

A masterful storyteller, Stringfield amazed people with her accounts of being chased off the road as she traveled through the Jim Crow South; performing stunts on the Wall of Death at carnivals; and serving as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider for the U.S. Army in the 1940s. Her childhood, in her telling, was Dickensian: born in Jamaica to an interracial couple; left motherless at a young age; abandoned by her father on a Boston street; and adopted by a benevolent Irish Catholic woman who treated her so well that she gave her a motorcycle when she was 16 years old.

As I said, cool.

Throw those elementary school textbooks away. You’ll get a better, more comprehensive education studying the obits.


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