Obit stories help us remember when life was so tender

December 11, 2005|By MARLO BARNHART

I never got to meet Frank Mattax, the ballroom dancer, or Clark Fraver, who survived the flu epidemic of 1918 with a necklace of asafetida around his neck.

And then there was Fred Cialli, who helped found Habitat for Humanity in Washington County, and Violet Bachtell who raised seven children and always had Sunday dinner on the table.

Frank was a stranger to me, as were Fred, Violet and Clark - until they had passed away.

Since I started writing "A Life Remembered" in June 2004, I have "met" dozens and dozens of very interesting people, usually a few days or a week after they died.

To some, it might sound a little macabre, but in the past 18 months, friends, relatives and co-workers of those who passed away have shared priceless memories, old photographs and more than a few tears with me about their mother, sister, brother, grandpa or boss.


I'd love to be able to say I came up with the idea for "A Life Remembered" all by myself and that it has never been done before. Actually, I borrowed the concept from The Washington Post, which has run "A Local Life" in Sunday's Metro section for years.

Each Sunday, I would find myself drawn to those stories and the old, faded snapshots of prize-winning gardeners, U.S. Navy heroes from the attack on Pearl Harbor and a housewife who raised seven children, all of whom became doctors.

These rich testimonials struck a chord with me and I felt sure readers of The Herald-Mail might enjoy similar fare about our local folks.

I already was writing "Just Folks" stories about living people who lead interesting lives and have stories to tell, so it seemed a natural progression to include the recently deceased through the eyes of the people who knew them best.

Once I got Terry Headlee, executive editor, convinced the column was worth a try, I set about checking our obituaries for just the right person to launch "A Life Remembered."

Frank Mattax became that first person. His obituary contained several little nuggets of information that made me want to know more about this man for whom ballroom dancing was a passion that lasted for decades.

I sat around the dining room table with three of Frank's children, Edward, Eileen and Christine, and his granddaughter, Kimberly Myers. Slowly, as they began to remember and reflect, the fabric of Frank's rich life was woven into a rich tapestry for me - a stranger.

Although Kimberly said she wasn't even born when her grandfather first began teaching ballroom dancing, she was able to produce a picture of herself dancing with him on her wedding day in 1995.

It was a very special moment, both for her and for me. And in the past 18 months, that feeling has been repeated, over and over again, for me and for others.

I regret I can only do one subject a week on a person who died within a week or so of publication. Many weeks, the choice is tough.

Even more, I'm sorry to have missed actually knowing these people when they were doing all those things that made them so interesting in the first place.

So "A Life Remembered" becomes the next best thing.

Marlo Barnhart is a reporter for The Herald-Mail. She may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2321, or by e-mail at

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