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A fate worse than death: The Inquirer’s obituariesBY: Dan Rottenberg 08.23.2011
Death comes to everyone. But must everyone also be subjected to the cutesy irrelevance of an Inquirer obituary? This month, serious figures like Elkins Wetherill, Creed Black and Jerome Shestack became the latest victims of Philadelphia’s newspaper of record.
Profiles in courage
When it’s time to meet your maker, what will you say? Did you leave the world a better place than you found it? Did you make a difference in your community? When you confronted one of life’s inevitable moments of truth, did you rise to the occasion with wisdom and courage, or perhaps even ingenuity?
So much for the easy questions. Now for the hard ones:
How will the Inquirer remember you? With a cutesy feature? A clip job? An interminably long article full of encomiums and irrelevant anecdotes but devoid of any sense of who you really were?
Consider the treatment afforded by the Inky to three reasonably courageous and important figures who died this month.
David vs. Goliath
Elkins Wetherill (died August 11, age 91), scion of an Old Philadelphia family, wore numerous hats throughout his career, most notably as president of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange (1965-81), a Montgomery County treasurer and commissioner (1956-63) and chairman of WHYY, Philadelphia’s Public TV station (1970-76).
Notable achievement: When Wetherill took over the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, it was a tiny regional trading post at a time when, thanks to shrinking long-distance phone costs, regional exchanges no longer made economic sense. Instead of graciously accepting his institution’s inevitable demise, Wetherill boldly started competing with the giant New York Stock Exchange by offering what the Big Board couldn’t: innovation.
For example, he provided longer trading hours and faster transaction speeds than the Big Board deigned to offer. While the Big Board granted its floor specialists exclusive franchises in specific stocks, Wetherill let anyone on his floor specialize in any stock, with the result that many stocks had three or four specialists, all competing with each other to offer customers the best prices. When the Big Board refused to offer quantity discounts to huge investing institutions like banks and mutual funds, Wetherill invited the institutions to join his stock exchange and forego the cost of dealing through a broker altogether.
His moment of truth: At a meeting of stock exchange chiefs in the early 1970s, the New York Stock Exchange president Robert Haack angrily told Wetherill, “If you keep doing what you’re doing, I’m going to put you out of business!” Wetherill kept on doing what he was doing until, thanks in part to his agitation, in 1976 the Securities & Exchange Commission forced the Big Board to abandon its 183-year-old price-fixing agreement, which required all members to charge the same price for their brokerage services.
His Inquirer obit (Aug. 13, 18 paragraphs): The first three paragraphs discussed Wetherill’s role as vice chairman of the Wetherill family’s 300th anniversary reunion in 1983. His tenure at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange was mentioned once, in the fifth paragraph, without discussion. The rest of the article listed Wetherill’s many titles and board memberships without providing any sense as to how, or if, he made a difference at any of them.
Bomb threats and foundation grants
Creed Black (died August 16, age 86) was a peripatetic newspaperman and a loyal retainer of the Knight-Ridder chain as an editor, publisher and, at the end of his career, as president of the Knight Foundation. As editor of the Inquirer’s editorial page through most of the 1970s, he played a key role in that paper’s transformation from a despised tool of Walter Annenberg to a nationally respected winner of multiple Pulitzer Prizes under the Knights.
His moments of truth: As editor of the Wilmington (Del.) News and Journal in 1964, Black resigned in protest after the papers’ owner brought in a public relations executive from DuPont— Wilmington’s dominant corporation— to help manage the news department. As publisher of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader in 1985, he approved publication of a series exposing cash payoffs made to players on the University of Kentucky basketball team, one of the state’s most adored institutions. The reaction included boycotts, protest rallies, attacks on talk radio and bomb threats against the paper and Black personally.
His Inquirer obit (by the McClatchy news service, Aug. 18, 11 paragraphs): The first five paragraphs discussed Black’s role in building the Knight Foundation into “a billion-dollar philanthropic powerhouse” that supports arts, college athletic reform and journalism education. No mention was made of his courageous stands in Wilmington and Lexington.
Standing up to segregation
Jerome J. Shestack (died August 18, age 88) was a Philadelphia lawyer prominent in international human rights causes, Bar Association circles and Democratic politics. He was a key player in some of America’s great Civil Rights milestones, including the desegregation of Girard College in 1968, which resulted from a lawsuit he filed in 1955.
His moment of truth: After a federal court ordered the admission of black students to the University of Alabama in 1963, Governor George Wallace announced one Friday morning that he would personally prevent black students from registering the following Tuesday. In Philadelphia, Shestack and his mentor Bernard Segal spent that weekend phoning prominent lawyers across the U.S. to join in a public statement asking Wallace to “refrain from defiance of a federal court order.” In two days they recruited 46 lawyers, including three former U.S. attorneys general, seven presidents of the American Bar Association, and deans of five law schools— even the University of Mississippi.
That Monday, both Birmingham newspapers published the lawyers’ statement, which U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach later cited as a significant factor in weakening Wallace’s resistance. Within a few days, President John F. Kennedy created the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, using a list of 244 lawyers from 50 states provided by Segal and Shestack.
In the months and years that followed, that committee— with Shestack as its first executive director— wielded a powerful moral impact by calling for white Southern officials to comply peacefully with court orders, and by sending volunteer lawyers to Mississippi to defend civil rights demonstrators and freedom riders.
His Inquirer obit (front page, Aug. 20, 38 paragraphs): The lead reported that Shestack spoke only Hebrew and Yiddish as a child. Paragraph four described him as “an international human-rights leader.” Moving right along, paragraphs seven, eight, nine and ten discussed his involvement in a symposium of the American Poetry Center, including pithy Shestack quotes from the Inky’s clip files, such as “There are more poetry readings here than in any city in the country outside New York” and “I don’t know any other city that has so many corporations involved in supporting poetry.”
The rest of the obit consisted of recitations of Shestack’s various titles, encomiums to his hard work and dedication, and an anecdote about how his refusal to eat pork chops on religious grounds saved his life when, during World War II, a Japanese kamikaze plane dove into the officers’ mess on his aircraft carrier. The obit mentioned that Shestack was the first executive director of the Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights Under Law but said nothing further about the work he did there.
Granted, all those staff buyouts of the past decade robbed the Inquirer of its institutional memory. But has nobody told its obit writers about Google?
“Some people want to live on through their work,” Woody Allen once observed. “I prefer to live on by not dying.” A good idea, especially if you live in Philadelphia.♦
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