Chicago Loses a Treasure

by Cory Franklin

November 23, 2022

When Queen Elizabeth II died, the best newspaper obituary writer in Chicago, Maureen O’Donnell, did not write the obit of the monarch.

The Queen’s obits were consigned to the news desks and columnists less skillful at the art of the obituary than Maureen, who is the nonpareil obituary writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. While the others wrote about the Queen, Maureen was busy publishing the stories of less grandiose figures: Chicago’s first Mexican-American school principal, a Bronzeville community organizer and activist, a World War II veteran and the patriarch of a local Irish family, and the grand marshal of the city’s annual Steuben parade that celebrates German culture. That’s how she works.

Maureen announced recently she would be leaving the Sun-Times to retire and travel. With all the mishegoss surrounding newspapers today, can you blame her? But what a loss to Chicago, its readers, and journalism in general. Maureen is a treasure but refers to herself as a seanchaí , a term that goes back centuries and refers to the revered Irish storytellers and custodians of that land’s history.

Maureen’s talent is “connecting the dots between the past and present,” and with her infectious smile and forensic eye, she tells the story of Chicago through the everyday people, the characters, those to the manner born, the low-born, and some who were sorry they ever were born. With the exception of a prominent few newsmakers, determining who merits an obituary in the newspaper is more an art than a science. This is where Maureen shines. She believes everyone has a story.

Her expertise is in telling the stories of all sorts of people – from those who just missed making The New York Times or The Washington Post to people with a story who were unknown outside their own families. Her beat is everywhere from the funeral home to the modest bungalow of a grieving family, from the boardroom to Cook County Jail. And she treats every story with respect and reverence – never whitewashing, but never including facts gratuitous or unnecessarily salacious. Holocaust survivors, union organizers, Delta bluesmen, women who ran small businesses, family matriarchs, and mountebanks were all part of the kaleidoscope of the past and present that she chronicles. She delights in the details: the small but essential threads in the tapestry. She told NPR, “I think it’s the little details that make history come alive. You know, this may be the man or woman who lives down the street, but they liberated a concentration camp, or they invented the beehive hairdo, or they created the Playboy bunny logo in 30 minutes.”

Her obituaries are immensely entertaining and if you are paying attention, she teaches you important things as well. From the facts in her obituaries – including things you wouldn’t find anywhere else – someone could write a pretty fair history of Chicago or even 20th century American history and culture.

Maureen’s work is a tribute to what the great New York Times columnist Russell Baker loved about obituaries. He described them as “oases of calm in a world gone mad…a lovely part of the paper to linger in…for long thoughts and easy living it’s the obituaries every time.”

Yet in this era of strangulating budgets, I would be surprised if the Sun Times hires a replacement (I hope I am wrong). Full-time obituary writers are a dying breed (sorry), a luxury only the most flush newspapers can afford and a further sign of cultural erosion. From The New York Times, I suggest Clay Risen and Richard Sandomir. From The Washington Post, I’ll go with Emily Langer, Harrison Smith and Brian Murphy.

Before his death several years ago, Jim Nicholson, who wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News, was considered by many to be the best obit writer in the business. He essentially defied tradition and founded the “common man” obituary – finding the importance in the life of everyday people. When editors would cast a gimlet eye towards Jim’s unique approach, he’d ask them simply,

“Who would you miss more when he goes on vacation, the secretary of state or your garbage man?” Maureen leaves the president’s cabinet to others. She prefers to write the saga of the garbage man – and there are few who can do it as well as she does.

So let’s lift a glass to Maureen and toast her: Sláinte! We’ll miss you, and good luck in your travels, Maureen. As the Irish say, “go dté tú slán!” (Travel safely and in good health).

When you come back, please find a forum to share your marvelous obituaries. Just not mine – at least for a while.

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Cory Franklin, physician and writer is a frequent contributor to johnkassnews.com.

He was director of medical intensive care at Cook County Hospital in Chicago for more than 25 years. He’s been a contributor to the Chicago Tribune op-ed pages. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Post, Guardian, Washington Post and has been excerpted in the New York Review of Books. Cory was also Harrison Ford’s technical adviser and one of the role models for the character Ford played in the 1993 movie, “The Fugitive.” Long fascinated by history and the people who make history, his YouTube podcast “Rememberingthepassed” has received 900,000 hits to date.