DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. There was a time when newspaper obituaries focused mostly on the rich and famous. Jim Nicholson changed that. The obit writer for the Philadelphia Daily News made the so-called common man obituary an art form and soon had imitators around the country. Nicholson died last week at the age of 76. In his 19 years on the beat, Nicholson subjects included an ice hauler, a trash truck driver, housewives and domestics. He told their stories with vivid details, not all of them flattering. But he wrote about them with respect and found all of them interesting. Terry spoke with Jim Nicholson in 1987.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Welcome to FRESH AIR.
JIM NICHOLSON: Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure to be here.
GROSS: Now, I've chosen some excerpts of obituaries that you've written that I'd like for you to read for us.
NICHOLSON: OK. The first one is Joseph Joe The Goat DaRito (ph). Hardly anyone, including his family, is exactly sure what he did during his 20 years at the Philadelphia Parking Authority, but that was regarded as a side job anyway. His principal occupation was just being Joe the goat. Trash truck hauler Leon H. Grant (ph) - he had rigged a speaker system inside the cab to hear music, and the booties of his latest grandchild usually hung from the visor. A religious man who was an active member of Devereux United Methodist Church, Grant was described as the one who taught his children to pray, and then taught his grandchildren. Lawrence Larry Dimples Mullari (ph), ex-cabbie - handsome with wavy chestnut hair and a quick smile. Larry Dimples was a sharp dresser and a real good dancer who was a lover boy who never lacked for female friends, said his sister. He was a smooth talker. He had personality, looks. What else?
GROSS: This last obituary that you read, this is not the kind of guy who you'd usually read about on an obituary page. He did not lead a celebrated life. I don't know if there are any big landmarks in his life. Why did you choose him to write about on your obituary page?
NICHOLSON: Well, Terry, like most people on my obituary page, he had no so-called credentials to even get there had it been an orthodox obit page. But he did live a life. He lived a good life.
Larry was one of the guys you'll see on the corner, and you wonder where Larry's life goes when he leaves the corner. Larry is that old guy you see in the fast food place having a cigarette and a cup of coffee and looking out under a very old, furrowed brow at people walking by. And you catch a glance at him, and you say, what brought him to this chair in this fast food place or this all-night diner?
And what we try to do in about 15 or 20 inches is run his life back in fast reverse and see where he started and what brought him here.
GROSS: Did you know right away when you started the obit page that you wanted to write obituaries about people from the neighborhoods?
NICHOLSON: Yes, from the very first. The very first obit, October 18, 1982, was on a stakeout police officer who had died, and it's been that way ever since. There was never any question.
GROSS: I think of your obituaries as being a little like eulogies in that they describe the person from the perspective of people who knew them and loved them and who loved their eccentricities and appreciated them for that. And I wonder how you feel about that.
NICHOLSON: Well, they are eulogies. In fact, some priests and ministers will read them from the pulpit at a service. Being in a newspaper, it gives it almost a false sense of authority. You know, the printed word, it must be true, and this is important. So they'll hold the clipping at the service and say, here's what they said in the daily news about so-and-so. He must be important because it's in the newspaper.
GROSS: Most feature stories and articles in newspapers just get thrown out after they're read. I bet your obituaries are saved for many years.
NICHOLSON: Oh, my gosh, Terry, they're almost immortal. The greatest investigative piece I ever wrote when I thought I was really important never survived more than a few weeks in terms of being kept around.
But these obituaries, they're laminated. They're put under glass. They're hung on walls or in family Bibles. In fact, they're even put into the inside coat pocket of the deceased. And, yeah, they'll be around long after you and I are gone.
GROSS: You get people to tell you wonderful things. This is from one of your obituaries. You write, (reading) he was an expert driver who could weave a car through heavy traffic in record time while singing a romantic ballad. He knew the words to every mushy song from the 1930s through the 1950s.
That's great. I mean, who would tell a reporter that?
NICHOLSON: Well, they don't tell you this right at first. Initially, people in a phone interview - and most of mine are by phone - will tell you what is proper and right and they think should be on the record.
But very, very few people in this world can talk to somebody for more than an hour. And we see this on police interrogations that run on for three hours until finally they - you start getting to the core of who this person was. And after they give their initial four-minute prepared speech on the person, then we get into who this person really was.
GROSS: Your obituary page has become very popular, and I imagine a lot of people pursue you now so that you can write an obituary about their deceased friend or relative. How do you decide who you're actually going to cover?
NICHOLSON: Generally - well, I'm not not pursued that heavily that I can't handle it yet, but I've been able to write obits on virtually everybody who calls. And it's sufficient.
And I get calls from, say, a 14-year-old girl from the ghetto in north Philadelphia who doesn't go through any bureaucracy. She just dials my number and says, I want to talk about my grandmom, and presto. The next day, this girl's grandmom has an 18-inch obit with picture.
Now, where else can this happen? It can't happen anywhere. You know, people can't get into newspapers anymore. The guard stops them downstairs. Unless you're a crooked politician or a movie star, how are you going to get into a newspaper today?
GROSS: Have you ever had to say to anybody, I'm sorry, but your mother or your grandmother isn't interesting enough or important enough to get into the paper?
NICHOLSON: Never. Never. Nonsense. There is no uninteresting obits, only uninteresting questions asked by a reporter.
GROSS: There's a lot of obituary jokes. I know one or two. Like, I always read the obituaries to see if I'm dead, and people are dying who never died before. Do people tell you a lot of obit jokes?
NICHOLSON: I am the the butt of a lot of obit jokes.
NICHOLSON: Myself and the Enquirer obituary writer, we've heard them all. And, you know, they nicknamed me Dr. Death and all this sort of thing. And so I get back at them sometimes. In the elevator, I'll say to someone, say, Charlie, do you have a recent picture of yourself?
NICHOLSON: And they'll look at me twice.
GROSS: I guess, in a way - I hate to bring this up, but you know that now you will be eligible for one of the really large (laughter), official obituaries because you've made such an important contribution to the city. You know, it's a funny thing to bring up.
NICHOLSON: Well, I suppose I have not written my own obituary. I like to think that my obituary is already being written in a lot of little obituaries. It's already out there.
DAVIES: Philadelphia Daily News obituary writer Jim Nicholson speaking with Terry Gross in 1987. Nicholson died last week at the age of 76. Coming up, we learn more about Nicholson from his obituary writer. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering the influential obituary writer of the Philadelphia Daily News, Jim Nicholson, who died last week at the age of 76. As it happens, I knew Jim Nicholson. My 20 years at the Daily News overlapped with his time there, and I remember he always seemed a little mysterious. He'd disappear from the newsroom for months at a time and never really explained why he was gone. He was a consummate gentleman always dressed in a dark suit. He had a thin mustache and a face described as kind of a poor man's Clark Gable. That phrase came from his obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News written by my friend and former colleague David Gambacorta. He knows where Nicholson was when he disappeared from the newsroom. Turns out, he was as interesting as the people he wrote about.
Dave, welcome to FRESH AIR.
DAVID GAMBACORTA: Thanks for having me, Dave.
DAVIES: Jim Nicholson earned a national reputation as an obituary writer. What did he do before that?
GAMBACORTA: So Jim had a pretty colorful life even by Daily News standards. He was born in Philadelphia and grew up in South Jersey. And after graduating with a journalism degree, he sort of tried on careers almost like disguises. You know, he was a dock worker, a car salesman, a private detective and even a police intelligence analyst before he got into the - possibly even stranger world of journalism.
DAVIES: Right, and he didn't begin as an obituary writer. He did reporting. What kind of reporting did he do?
GAMBACORTA: So Jim was actually a pretty accomplished investigative journalist. So much so that a lot of Daily News and Inquirer reporters from that era recalled being really impressed by work he did in the 1970s reporting on the black mafia for Philadelphia Magazine and motorcycle gangs for the now defunct Philadelphia Bulletin. And when he was hired by the Daily News in 1978, he initially started out on that same beat as an investigative reporter.
DAVIES: Right, so how did he get into writing obits?
GAMBACORTA: (Laughter) So an editor at the Daily News in 1982, Tom Livingston, took Jim to lunch and wondered if he would be interested in writing obituaries. And I think to everyone's great surprise, Jim agreed to do it. But there was, you know, I think, a little bit of a caveat attached, which was that Jim set up shop in a deserted corner of a 14th floor office in the old Inquirer and Daily News building at Broad and Callowhill streets away from, you know, the prying eyes of editors that he, you know, had unfavorable feelings towards. And not only that, but he wanted the focus of his obituary writing to not be on, you know, CEOs and celebrities and politicians. He wanted to focus on, I think, the uncelebrated blue-collar men and women who really make up Philadelphia and give it so much of its character.
DAVIES: That was a new thing at the time. Did he have trouble selling that within the paper?
GAMBACORTA: I think at first, you know, the editors were just so pleased that he agreed to take this on that he didn't really encounter much pushback. If anything, it was more going to be up to Jim to make it succeed or fail.
DAVIES: His obituary writing earned him a national reputation, but he had another life with the military. Tell us about that.
GAMBACORTA: For Jim Nicholson, you know, journalism proved to really just be his day job. He joined the Marine Corps when he graduated high school, and then in the 1980s joined the New Jersey National Guard and actually rose up to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army. And that would be sort of remarkable all by itself. But it's the type of work that Jim did that really sparks a lot of interest. He would leave for two, three, four months at a time on missions for the military that he did not really elaborate on at all with his friends and colleagues. And what a lot of them found out years later - and, in fact, most of them didn't learn until after he died - he was doing a lot of counterintelligence work. Even after he retired, he was still, you know, doing work overseas that, I think, would blow the minds of (laughter) most of the people who sat near him, you know, in an old newsroom.
DAVIES: A lot of time in Latin America, right?
GAMBACORTA: Yeah. Yeah, he spent a significant amount of time in Panama in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
DAVIES: And you have an interesting anecdote about when he was there in 1992 on some narcotics-related counterintelligence operation and the role he played among other commanders.
GAMBACORTA: So one of Jim's former colleagues in the military recalled arriving in Panama and finding Jim really being in charge of this counter drug operation even though he was not the top ranking official. In fact, he actually had people who outranked him working for him. And as it was explained to me, this is, you know, all but an impossible scenario to find in military operations. You know, it'd be very, very rare to have someone taking orders from a person that they outrank. But Jim had this sort of no-nonsense way about him and projected, I think, that he was just very much there for all the right reasons and was only interested in making their mission a success. And that somehow, you know, brought out in the men and women around him, you know, this willingness to go along and say, OK, I'm going to look beyond the fact that you're my subordinate; and I'm going to say that I recognize that you really know more about what's going on here than we do.
DAVIES: He was summoned out of retirement by none other than David Petraeus.
GAMBACORTA: Right. And this is, I think - you know, I had to - when I had to sit down and write Jim's obituary, I knew that he was an interesting guy. And I knew he had lived a fascinating life. But when I got to the Petraeus part, even I had to kind of stop and reconsider just what was going on here. As several of Jim's former military colleagues explained, at some point during the 1990s and early 2000s, he struck up a correspondence with David Petraeus and became a trusted advisor. So much so that in the middle of the Iraq War, Petraeus asked Jim if he would be willing to come out of retirement, go over to Iraq and, once again, man an intelligence operation. And Jim was 66 years old at this point. And from everything I gathered from his friends and from his family - did not really hesitate at all and, you know, within a few months was in Iraq and helping the military track activity of insurgents in the area.
DAVIES: Yeah. Ran a whole operation in Baghdad, right?
GAMBACORTA: Right, right. In Baghdad.
DAVIES: What was his family life like?
GAMBACORTA: Jim's family - you know, I think one of the things that really stood out to me and especially in talking to one of his sons - Jim had three boys. And, you know, they did not really see him as this famous journalist or this famous soldier. You know, they knew him as a very kind and patient man who taught them the importance of treating everybody with respect. And they saw in him a very real interest in the lives of pretty much everyone he crossed paths with. You know, so that meant for Jim, bank tellers and pharmacists got poinsettia plants from him at Christmas, and the garbage collectors in their neighborhoods would get bottles of Coca-Cola from him during hot summer months. And so that interest that he showed in the lives of the everyday people he was bumping into, I think, carried over into the work he did at the Daily News.
The thing that his son remarked on, and a number of Jim's friends brought up, too, was the fact that he had been married for some time, and he and his wife were separated for quite a while. But in the late 1990s, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. And Jim actually moved back in with her and took care of her for the remaining years of her life. And that blew all of them away - you know, that sort of loyalty and dedication even though their relationship had soured considerably. But he didn't hesitate, you know? And as he told his son and told his friends, you know, he just believed that this was the right thing to do. And it didn't bother him. He didn't see it as a burden. And I think it really speaks volumes about the character that he had.
DAVIES: It was more than 10 years he spent with her, wasn't it?
GAMBACORTA: Yes. Yes, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in the late '90s, and she died in 2011. So it was a considerable amount of time.
DAVIES: David Gambacorta, thanks so much for speaking with us.
GAMBACORTA: Thanks having me, Dave.
DAVIES: David Gambacorta is a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the controversial new documentary about Michael Jackson, "Leaving Neverland." This is FRESH AIR.
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