I’ve always a big fan of obituaries, at least obituaries that had no direct personal relationship to me. It started when I was in elementary school and every morning the New York Times would be delivered to the house. I’m not going to claim that I was precocious enough to be devouring the Times at that age, mostly it was just about the sports section and the weather map, another idiocrasy which I might share at some future time, but suffice it to say, I’ve been known to relax with a nice bourbon and The Weather Channel.
That being said, as I would flip through the pages, I began to notice two things of interest. The first was column fillers, short stories, often no more than a couple of sentences, that were used to fill up the space between the end of a major article and the bottom of the page. Often these were bizarre little stories that were only interesting due to the fact that they had no news value at all. I still vividly remember one about elephants in Kenya who were getting drunk on fruit fermented on the vine and then chasing smaller animals around the wildlife reserves. You never got those kind of stories from Walter Cronkite. The other item that got my attention were obituaries, or as I thought of them back then, short historical biographies of people who lived at the turn of the 20th century and before.
I would always check the date of their births, often excited to find out that they had been alive during the Civil War, a period that seemed so distant, yet because we had both been alive at the same time, made it seem much closer. I’d read about people who in some way were associated with Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, Andrew Carnegie, Ty Cobb, the San Francisco Earthquake the Titanic and other people and events I knew only from history books. It all seemed so amazing that these people I was now reading about were part of that. As a bonus, newspapers usually assigned the writing of obituaries to the newest member of the staff, usually some recent journalism graduate who was eager to show off their skills, so the writing was always top notch as well.
This fascination with history continued until I started to notice a disturbing trend. The people I was now reading about were alive during events I remembered. The 60s and 70s, sporting events I attended, in bands I listened to, starring in movies I watched. Except for the fact that these people had accomplished things and I hadn’t yet, they were my peers, and occasionally even younger. How could people my age and younger be dying? I continued to read the obits every day, but now through a different lens, I was looking for excuses. If they were rock stars, obviously heavy drug use. Had they been in wars, or acquired exotic diseases in places I’d never go? Killed in car accidents and other tragic events? Each obituary was carefully analyzed until I could discover the reason it didn’t apply to me. Hidden aneurysm or undiagnosed common diseases became the source of nightmares for me. People I read about in my youth seemed so old when they died in their 70s but now, dying in their 90s it seemed as if their life was tragically cut short.
Which brings me to my new relationship with obituaries. While I’m still fascinated by the lives many of these unfortunate subjects have led, and think about what I would expect in my own mini-bio, someday hopefully distance future, I’ve started to notice the structure, style and storytelling in the obits and I have to say, the overall quality has become disappointing, as they no longer capture what I believe is the essence of the recently departed. This became most apparent when I read about Clifton Hillegas, who for those who don’t immediately recognize the name, is probably a large part of the reason most of us graduated school. He created CliffsNotes, and while I read and even enjoyed the detailed review of his life it suddenly occurred to me that I was in the midst of reading possibly the longest damn obituary it had ever been my pleasure to read and realized that for Clifton, this was just wrong. The man invented CliffsNotes, so that no one would ever again have to read an overly long piece of literature. They were not embracing that part of his life as they told his story, so I took the opportunity to re-write his obit in a manner I felt truly reflected the man. That obituary can be seen at the end of today’s blog.
Amused by my clever little re-write, I showed it to fellow writers and comedians who suggested that I need to do more of these. Having excess time on my hands due to the lack of any real gainful employment, I started to write “Obituaries, The Way They Should Be.” Originally intended just for friends, the more I wrote, the more I was encouraged to think of my little exercise as a potential book, and when introduced to people who roamed the publishing world, they also agreed. Well, agreed that I should write more, and think of it as a potential book. Not an actual, “here’s a book deal” kinda book, but as they pointed out, you never know, what did I have to lose?
Therefore, if you look at the menu at to top you’ll see a new entry entitled cleverly, “Obituaries” where I will be occasionally posting obituaries of people who recently or possibly long ago shuffled off this mortal coin, but for whatever reason, just didn’t seem to get the proper and fitting send-off.
A Brief Summary of “The Life and Times of Clifton Hillegass”
Characters: Clifton Hillegass, entrepreneur, two wives, four children, a stepson
and seven grandchildren
Chapter One: Born Clifton Keith Hillegass, Rising City, Nebraska in 1918.
Chapter Two: Graduates Midland Lutheran College, works at Nebraska Book Company. Briefly serves as a meteorologist in the Army Air Corps.
Chapter Three: Gets $4,000 loan in 1958 to publish his initial batch of CliffsNotes.
Sells 58,000 copies in first year.
Chapter Four: Sells CliffsNotes to IDG Books in 1998 for $14 million.
Chapter Five: Dies May 5, 2001
Summary: Visionary finds way for many to know much while doing little.