The Obituary Department Scissors


Harry Laughlin was an ordinary man. His desk was next to mine at the Littleton Star for a couple of decades. He was already writing for the Star when I was hired as a young reporter in the summer of 1957, fresh out of journalism school at Columbia and in such need of a job that I allowed myself to land in the middle of the state at a weekly paper with only 30,000 readers.

If mighty oaks grew from humble acorns, perhaps the Star could put down my roots under the New York Times some day.

We wrote just about everything, there were only three of us. Harry had the obits, and when I arrived I expected to inherit that lowly task but Harry was pretty insistent on holding onto that assignment.

“It’s the scutwork,” I’d say, and Harry would give me that wry smile of his and tell me that “it’s peaceful work and besides, I have the groove for it.”

Rhoda called one cloudy afternoon to tell me that Harry wasn’t coming in today, having failed to awake in a living frame of mind that morning. It was a factual report. Rhoda had worked at the Star when she met Harry and had retired to homemaking on their marriage. I knew pretty much what there was to know about Harry, truth be told there was not much beyond the usual dates and data, but I asked my questions politely between my condolences and got enough detail to write the obit on him. I was sure we had a decent file photo somewhere, and said I would call the town’s one funeral parlor for the rest of the details.

A few days later Lou told me that advertising was down, he was adding a stringer to cover some of Harry’s work, but would I mind taking over the obits until the economy turned? In the summer of ’78 one of those periodic “recessions” had seized Chester county a bit harder than the rest of the state, and it didn’t look like the economy was about to veer anywhere, but Harry had enjoyed the obits and, anyway, in our small corner of the world there weren’t that many people dying in a typical week. “Sure,” I said, as Lou knew I would. I was settled, permanently nestled, into the town, and Anna Louise’s salary at the doctor’s office and my senior reporter stipend was enough for the mortgage and the Christmas toys for Jillian even if that second bathroom seemed to be on permanent hold.

Harry’s desk was larger than mine, and closer to the file drawers for the obituaries and the photographs also. Didn’t think Harry would mind if I migrated, and Lou just grunted the next day when he saw me transferring my few personal items. Even the Star operated on Darwinian principles.

The Star came out on Thursday, the same day of Harry’s burial in Town Gardens; it was sunny and hot and we all sweated into our one dark suit. Lou said a few words; Rhoda leaned against her son, a taciturn postal clerk who seemed put out by the drive from the City. The pastor told us that Harry was a good father and husband, and wrote a mean column on occasion.

Back at the office, I grabbed that day’s paper and sat down to cut it up. Before computers, we kept our files in “hard copy,” which meant we cut articles out of the paper if noteworthy, and filed them in manila folders and buried those folders in quasi-alphabetical order in the mass of grey metal cabinets that ran the full length of what we called the newsroom. Periodically Lou would curse and go through the drawers and throw out the older stuff to make more room, although for some reason the tall file cabinet next to Harry’s desk, marked “People,” was kept locked and never got cleaned out at all.

My scissors must still have been in my top left drawer of my own desk, but Harry’s were right on his desk, stuck point down in a coffee cup that said “Linda’s Diner” on one side and helpfully said “Coffee Cup” on the other. These were old black metal sheers, very long and very sharp, without any modern accommodations such as padding in the finger holes, but they looked like they would serve. I cut out the “Recipe of the Week” to save for the annual “Recipe of the Year” competition file. I cut out the article about the Town Manager’s interview; it was always fun running old quotes that contradicted his then-current view of things. I cut out the local school column, which we kept forever although no one ever looked into that file for any reason.

On page 7 of our eight page effort was Harry’s picture, and under it my by-lined obituary. Harry always saved the obits, and filed them in the drawers marked “People.” Sometimes when an article needed some context we would want to read an old obit, and Harry would take the key out of his pocket, open the drawer and retrieve the information for us. It was remarkable, sometimes, the insights he gave us, things none of us really remembered about persons or events but which were both telling and rang true to life.

Once Harry was out of the office and we needed background on someone who had died recently, but we could not find another key to that file. “Just leave the damned key in your desk. Or unlock the file, everything else is open,” said Lou with a bit of an edge. “Yeh, sure Lou, sure,” said Harry, but then the moment passed and since we needed the obit files so seldomly and since Harry seemed to sort of live in the office, the issue never arose again.

“Harry Laughlin, Reporter for Star”

Harry Townsend Laughlin, 72, senior reporter for the Littleton Star, died suddenly on Friday at his home on Farmingdale Road. The cause of death was not disclosed by the family.

Harry graduated from Littleton High School in 1955, where he was fullback on the Tiger’s JV football team and assistant managing editor of the Yearbook. Voted Most Likely Never to Leave Littleton, Harry started working as a copy boy at the Star shortly after his military service with the Army, and rose to senior reporter responsible for political and social news for all of the County.

“He was a great reporter and a great friend,” Star owner and editor Louis Vespers said. “His incisive eye for issues will be missed by all.”

Harry enjoyed hunting small game and philately; his wife said she intended to give his stamp collection to the local Boys and Girls Club. “Harry always like the kids, you know,” she said.

Harry was laid to rest today at his family plot at the Gardens, next to his younger brother Carter who had succumbed to polio as a young lad. He is survived by his wife Rhoda (Greene) and his son Bradley (Buster), of the City.”

Not much for a whole life, I thought as I picked up Harry’s desk scissors and excised his dénouement from the surrounding advertisements, but then again Harry seemed to lead a happy life and who was I to talk; my life was much like Harry’s and I did not even have a family plot. I sorted the articles and started putting them away; they all got filed except for the obit. I could not find the key. I went through Harry’s desk twice – he did not keep much of a personal nature in there and not much of anything else either — and checked the walls looking for a hook with a hanging key, but came up empty-handed.

Next morning I found my desk strewn with cut-up pages of the Star, and Harry’s obit tucked under the desk lamp in one corner. I pulled over a waste basket and was stuffing the papers into it when I thought I saw Harry’s face peering up at me from under my right palm as I pushed down into the basket. I had thought that I had cut out the picture as well as the write-up yesterday, but perhaps not. I reached up to the desk top for a last armful of newsprint when I saw Harry’s picture, attached to his obituary, staring up at me from the edge of the lamp.

“Bedamned!,” I thought and I bent over and dug out the papers and spread them on the floor. Found page seven. There was the picture, and under it the obituary text itself. “Another copy I guess” was what I thought but something – different – about the article caught my eye and I picked the page up and smoothed it out on the surface of my desk and began to read.

“Harry Townsend Laughlin, 72, died with an unbelievable pain burning in his chest and running down both arms, in a cold sweat in his bed early one dark morning, unable to call out to his wife Rhoda and not even sure she would have come even if he could cry out which he could not. His last memory was of the warm stream of urine running over his crotch.

Although he liked to write and went out for Yearbook, the teachers never appreciated his prose and his classmates made fun of him for writing and not smoking in the bathroom even once. He went out for football to get those assholes off his back but spent his athletic career sitting on the JV bench.

Rhoda was always cold as ice and did not warm up after they married. His son Buster was just like his mother and Harry didn’t share a civil word with him after the age of eleven. Harry took out his anger by shooting animals, but he was afraid of the moose and even the deer and restricted himself to rabbits and turkeys. With nothing to do at home, he took up stamp collecting which was mindless but all-occupying so he did not have to think about his life.

The only thing Harry really liked was the obituaries. He would staple the replacement obituaries to the original, saccharine write-ups and lock them up in his personal file drawers.

If you are reading this now, Steve, then you cut out my obituary with my scissors. The scissors were given to me by Dink Hopewell, who wrote the Star obits before me; he got them from his predecessor he told me. Keep a close eye on the scissors, because other scissors don’t work; I tried. Enjoy, Steve. You now know why I was happy at my work at least.

PS—a copy of the key is taped to the bottom of the wide drawer of my desk, in the back center.”

I picked up the scissors, cut out the replacement obituary, stapled it to the original, groped for and found the cabinet key, unlocked the rank of the files and pulled the top drawer outwards. A to D. I found the Ms in the third drawer and there was Harry’s folder, all prepared and empty. I slipped the two articles into the folder, locked the cabinet and dropped the key into my pocket. I went out for a walk.

I was back a half-hour later. I had to write up the Grange meeting, which I did and handed the copy to Andy, who set the type with the old-fashioned linotype machine, hot lead lines of words popping down the chute and forming whole paragraphs and articles; we were ten years away from using computers to do the same job in a quarter of the time at a twentieth of the cost. On my walk I had gotten a copy of the key, and I taped one back under the drawer. After I taped it, I went back and taped over it three more times; with a key that valuable one cannot be too careful.

I spend the afternoon reading. The things you don’t know about people could fill a book. Well, fill a revised obit, anyway.

The last town manager died while in Las Vegas, spending some of the embezzled town funds that were never fully recovered; that was about five years ago, near the time that Harry had been able to completely paint his modest house and put a new, expensive slate roof on top of the peeling tar.

That the late Pastor Linkletter was a pedophile had been rumored but never proven; the list of his victims read like a who’s who of Littleton, and it did not seem likely that this old story would ever see the light of day.

I learned enough about so many people that I came to understand why Harry was so often able to provide local, shall we say “color,” to our sorry little small-town reportage. “Color” indeed. And perhaps why, when Harry went out to interview someone, a rare occasion where we actually tried to report news rather than rewrite rumor, he would come back with sharp commentary from people who were otherwise noted for their unwillingness to talk to what we called the “press.”

Lou complained that I had become less productive at the time he most needed me to be on top of my game. Anna Louise commented that I had seemed withdrawn; I missed one of Jillian’s field hockey games for the first time and spent two days trying to explain through her tears. I could not wait for people to die; I would energetically write a glowing obit to make the town smile, impatiently wait for the Thursday press run, that night use the scissors to cut out the obit, and arrive at 5am the following morning to use those same sheers to cut out the truth, staple the two together, and place the truth into another locked-up file folder with a smirk on my face and a lift in my step.

Thus amused, I watched Jillian graduate from High School and matriculate at State and move, as all the young folks moved, to the City. Thus amused, I watched Anna Louise grow crows feet and a sagging figure and an increasingly dour view of life and of me. Thus amused, I read my way backwards into the town’s history and people, and gathered a comfortable sense of self and an awareness of the way of the world. Lou came to the office less and less, I took over as editor, Littleton became unexpectedly a distant bedroom suburb of the City, and the Star seemed to grow in readership, so I no longer thought about the New York Times and not even of the City Tribune.

Lou fell ill, a lingering illness not likely to kill him right away, but ill enough that I began to think of my future. I had an idea. I came back to the office late one night. I wrote an obituary for Lou, as if he had died. I went over to one of those new computers that created press-ready copy electronically, without need of the linotype and of old Andy, who had been demoted to a janitor we did not need but neither Lou nor I had the stomach to fire the old guy. I fiddled with the keys until the larger printer whirred into action and printed a mock page of the Star with one single article, Lou’s obit, right smack in the middle. I cut the obit out with my trusty scissors, left the article tucked under my new high-intensity desk lamp, placed the cut-up page on my desk, and went home. I couldn’t sleep but I forced myself to stay away until 4:30 the next morning. Anna Louise called down the stairs, asking where I was going at such an hour; I yelled back some nonsense about the Star and scuttled out into my car and drove into Town.

No high drama needed here. The replacement obit sat right in the middle of the mock page. Half way down I learned that Lou had made arrangements to sell the paper to a publisher of suburban newspapers, which pretty much told me that my comfortable days as editor and town historian were soon to be over.

I was working longer hours now, and Lou was having mini-recoveries and coming to the office and making more work for me. I was getting home pretty late many nights, but Anna Louise sometimes was not even there when I arrived. She was working late at the office, they had taken in a couple of younger docs as the Town was growing, there was more paperwork, and the insurance companies were driving everyone crazy. Over the winter months she became even more uncommunicative; not so much sullen as disengaged, but with a nervous little laugh I had not noticed before.

There was only one way to find out what was happening in her life. I wrote her fake obit, then next day read the replacement, which was dated June 18, 2005:

“Anna Louise (Stahlmayer) Beltram, 70, died at Chester County Memorial Hospital yesterday of gunshot wounds received at the hands of what is presumed to be an intruder at her home on State Route 130, Littleton.

Anna Louise’s interests included the Horticultural Society, the Daughters of Liberty and the volunteer library committee. Her daughter, Jillian, Littleton High School 1978 and holder of a Bachelor’s degree and an MS in Social Work from State, told the Star, “my mother was a wonderful mother, full of life and love and caring for others.”

Anna Louise will be interred in the family plot of her second husband, Doctor Lance Beltram, at the Gardens. She is also presumably survived by her first husband, Stephen Sheldon, former editor of the Star, whose disappearance from Littleton five years ago, following a sexual liaison between Anna Louise and Dr.Beltram of which Sheldon became aware, caused a termination of their thirty year marriage.”


I placed her original obituary and the replacement obituary in the Star’s small bathroom sink and burned them. The sun was coming up over the Mercantile Block on the other side of Littleton’s main street, as I sat down at the computer.   I deleted Anna Louise’s obituary. I checked my desk top, making sure my scissors were still sitting in its coffee cup.

I started to write an obituary.   Why not try to go out in style? Tomorrow’s “rewrite” would correct all errors anyway. They all begin the same way, you know: with the name.

“Stephen Langwell Sheldon, 97, died peacefully in a nursing home overlooking the Pacific Ocean in San Carlos. A long time resident of Littleton, Sheldon was well known as a ….”