Dead Lines

The Denver dailies change the way they handle obituaries -- for better and for worse.

One student who absorbed this information particularly well was Jim Sheeler, who numbers Ray among his favorite instructors. Ray admits that he doesn't recall identifying Sheeler as a future obit ace: "That would make a wonderful anecdote. He was a good student, a lively student, a student who was interested in people -- but I could not have predicted what happened."

The same is true of Sheeler himself. After graduating from CSU with a journalism sheepskin, he enrolled in a master's program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. But before he could deliver his thesis, he got a job at the Boulder Daily Camera. He wrote about business and other topics before becoming the paper's music critic. "I still love silly pop stuff like the Apples and the rest of the Elephant 6 bunch," he confesses. "I'll bet you anything I'm the only obit writer with every Superchunk album."

In 1996, Gregory Todd, the person who hired Sheeler at the Camera, launched a weekly called the Boulder Planet, and Sheeler soon signed up. "It was an opportunity to write for a small paper and do whatever I wanted to do," he remembers. Shortly thereafter, Sheeler came up with the idea of writing "feature obituaries that told the stories of people whose stories had never been told," and their success was subsequently duplicated at the Post, which had a business relationship with the Planet. Back in the old newspaper-war days, Sheeler notes, "the Rocky's company owned the Camera, and the Post was looking for a Boulder partnership, too. So Greg had the idea that we might be able to do the obituaries in the Post, and they were interested."

In the end, the Planet didn't survive, folding in early 2000 -- and, of course, the task of writing its obit fell to Sheeler. But his byline got prominent play in the Post, with his obituaries and other articles -- most notably profiles of local veterans -- stirring up so much interest among the readership that he was offered a full-time position that he graciously declined. "I think the Planet ruined me for the newsroom atmosphere, because it was really a bunch of friends, and I didn't have to deal with all the politics. Besides, I have a three-year-old, and being able to work at home and watch him grow up is pretty amazing. Writing all this stuff, you realize that you could be hit by a bus tomorrow, so you don't want to spend all your time in a newsroom when you could be hanging out with your family."

Values like these inform "A Colorado Life," which often involves as much detective work as many of the Post's full-scale investigations. A wonderful example was a 1999 piece about Johnny Richardson, whom Sheeler picked to memorialize simply because his official obituary was the shortest on the page one day: It read "Jonathan 'Johnny' Richardson of Denver, a shoe-shine worker, died August 13 in Denver. He was 74. No services were held. He was born June 24, 1925. His interest was listening to jazz. There are no immediate survivors." But as it turned out, there was much more to Richardson's tale than that, and by walking the dead man's path, Sheeler discovered plenty, including an old lover turned friend who had ordered a headstone as a way of ensuring that some record of Johnny would remain. Johnny had always wanted to write a book about his life, the friend said, but he never got around to it. Being immortalized by Sheeler was the next best thing.

When the Post and the Rocky inaugurated paid obits, some readers feared that Sheeler would be sent packing, but Post editor Glenn Guzzo offers reassuring words. "There's hardly a month that goes by when I don't get a very meaningful response to Jim's work," he says. "He's able to find people whose lives symbolize many other lives and seem to have great meaning to an audience beyond that person's family or friends. They stand for something that's important in the community and often say something about attributes and virtues that may affect behavior in the future by the people they've touched."

With luck, the same will be true of pieces by Claire Martin -- and she's off to a good start. Post management first told editorial sorts about the possible addition of a feature obituary position last summer, and for a tryout piece, Martin wrote a heartrending portrait of Mariah Kai Lin Gains, a four-year-old adoptee from China who died in her sleep of unknown causes. Afterward, Martin received a handwritten compliment from one person touched by her account: Governor Bill Owens. "I was totally cowed when I got it," Martin says. "I thought, 'Bill Owens reads obits?' But people do read them, even if they're not related to the person who died. There's something that draws people to them."

Martin is such a fan of Sheeler that she called him prior to applying for the obit writer's gig to say that if he was interested in the position, she'd back off. Sheeler gave her the go-ahead and seems entirely unconcerned about having competition for obituary subjects.

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