Baseball contest winner liked funeral humor

June 05, 2005|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

MONT ALTO, PA. - It's easy to conclude that John A. Davidson had fun dreaming up his own mock, baseball-laden funeral when he entered a Hagerstown Suns' contest in 2003.

His writing drew upon sports history, theater, culture, music, liquor and a grab bag of puns.

His wife, Barbara Davidson, said he was thrilled to win the grand prize: a free funeral worth about $5,500 to $6,000.

Sixteen months later, John Davidson died at the age of 70. Barbara Davidson, who lives near Mont Alto, redeemed her husband's prize from Gerald N. Minnich Funeral Home in Hagerstown, the contest's sponsor.


The funeral promotion - which the Suns borrowed from another team - received nationwide publicity on television, in newspapers and in Sports Illustrated. ESPN The Magazine called it the year's best minor league baseball promotion.

Another minor league team copied the idea in 2004, also gaining national exposure. Other teams might follow.

In each telling of the story, the contest itself has dominated.

This is a chance to stop and look back at Davidson.

'A compromise'

John Davidson thought he might go into investments as a career, but he ended up in sales, Barbara Davidson said.

A New York state native, John Davidson earned a bachelor's degree in economics at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., then a master's degree in finance at Columbia University in New York City.

After school, he joined the U.S. Army, then the Army Reserves.

Barbara Davidson, who grew up in Massachusetts, said she and John met in 1956. She and her sister sailed from New Jersey to Europe for a summer tour. John traveled alone on the same trip.

That fall, Barbara looked John up during a short stay in New York City. They grew on each other. Two years later, they married.

They settled in New Jersey. John Davidson worked some sales jobs - business machines, life insurance - before landing at American Paper Towel Co., where he spent 26 years.

The Davidsons came to Franklin County, Pa., in 1998 and John retired the following year.

"This was a compromise," Barbara Davidson, 72, said of Pennsylvania. He wanted warm weather; she wanted cold. "This was the first place that neither one of us hated."

In retirement, John Davidson made music. He sang with the Mercersburg Area Community Chorus and the Mason-Dixon Barbershop Chorus of Hagerstown.

Dark, somber and Stout

His wife said he also liked baseball - but not as much as "funeral parlor" humor.

The Suns' contest could have been designed just for him. When Barbara Davidson heard about it, she thought that, finally, more than 45 years of John's death and dying jokes had an outlet.

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. If the taxman don't get you, the undertaker must," John started his essay.

He wrote that he hoped Gerald N. Minnich Funeral Home's prices aren't "too stiff."

He suggested a used baseball equipment box as a coffin and a crew of legendary players as pallbearers.

The Elks Club's bar could host the wake. "I think Guinness Stout would make an excellent malt beverage considering its dark and somber color."

Burial would be in the outfield. "You could use a monument that didn't protrude above ground so that the right fielder won't get a monumental injury to his leg when he is chasing a long one."

John's wrap-up line: "Finally I am dying to see all of you at these services."

Barbara Davidson said her husband got a kick out of the attention that came with winning, which included being honored at a game and interviewed on the radio.

"He didn't think it was morbid at all ..." she said. "He was really thrilled that he won that. He really thought it was hilarious."

"He was exactly the kind of person we were looking for" in the contest, said Bill Papierniak, who worked on the promotion as the Suns' assistant general manager.

"The humor in it stood out," said Kurt Landes, the Suns' general manager.

Tom Wagner, 70, who sang with John Davidson in the Mason-Dixon Barbershop Chorus, said that was the humor he came to expect from his friend.

"He could always see the funny side of things," said Wagner, who lives near Fayetteville, Pa.

Their carpool chats to and from Hagerstown often centered on classical music and investments.

"We stayed away from sex and religion," Wagner joked.

John Davidson had heart and liver problems, which contributed to his death, his wife said.

He died on Dec. 5, 2004.

Neither Landes nor The Herald-Mail, which wrote about the contest, knew until months later that Davidson had died.

A borrowed idea

The Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs gave away a funeral package in an essay contest in 2000.

The winner worked for Camp Happy Days, a weeklong program each year in Charleston for children with cancer. The employee donated the package to the camp.

Debby Stephenson, the camp's founder and director, said a 10-year-old girl named Jessica was at the camp in 2000.

Jessica, who had a brain tumor, wanted to learn to drive, so they let her use a golf cart, then presented her with her own license.

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