Blogging in E minor
Usually just a bunch of silly crap.

The Great Obituary Hoax

Being a journalism major, I was pleased with my newswriting course because it was the only class I had up to that point that had anything to do with journalism. Like most college students, I had been forced to muddle through years of general ed courses before being afforded the privilege of studying what it was I was there to study.

            My elevated status as a “sophomore” also enabled me to enroll in a humongous Media Foundations class where the school’s dean – whose first name, coincidentally, was Dean – taught journalism history, explored ethical issues,  and discussed the impact of the media on society. Conservative talk show hosts could argue that this was where promising up-and-coming journalists were sent to receive their liberal indoctrination.

            So yes, it was nice to be able to focus on the nuts and bolts of journalism. Having worked with two college newspapers, I had some experience in the business and was anxious to step up my skills. My Newswriting 101 course provided me with the opportunity to do this.

            To my satisfaction, my instructor was more of a practitioner than a professor. Jean was a down-to-earth, tell-it-as-it-is pro who could instantly connect with people. I liked how she looked folks in the eye and listened intently when they spoke to her.

            A Journalism School alumna, Jean had previously worked on the staff of The Tribune, the town’s commercial newspaper, not to be confused with The Missourian, a sort of practice paper which was run by the J-School, or The Maneater, a student-operated newspaper for which I was a contributor. I inferred that her teaching gig supplemented her budding career as a free-lance writer.

            Jean liked to make activities as realistic as possible. Following a lecture on obituary writing, she provided us with a copy of the ready-made obituary form that The Tribune used. She had filled in the details based upon the life an actual person who still happened to be among the living. We were to write this person’s obituary based upon the information we were given.

            The “deceased” person, Fritz Peels, was the charismatic proprietor of a holistic healing center who had a colorful history and a cult following of sorts. All the info was true other than the date of death, which had not yet occurred.

            So I took the fabricated nature of the assignment as a green light for embellishment. My version of his manner of death included an account of the fellow levitating before a group of his followers as he crossed over into The Beyond.

           During the next class period, Jean admonished me, albeit anonymously, before the whole class. “Somebody had him floating in the air and crossing over in to the afterlife,” she snarled as my classmates giggled in response. “I don’t care if this is all hypothetical. You don’t make up news!”

            Ironically, when I returned to my dorm room after class, I found the afternoon’s edition of The Missourian awaiting me with the following story below the front page fold (loosely generated from memory):

 Obituary Hoax Under Investigation

      Authorities are investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding a false report of a local man’s death.
      A Tribune Obituary Form was discovered in the Missourian’s newsroom Tuesday that contained information relating to the fictitious death of Fritz Peels, owner of the Midwest Center for Holistic Healing. Peels, 62, of Columbia, stated during an interview Wednesday that he has no idea why somebody would target him for a hoax.
     “I assure you, I am alive and breathing and have no plans of going any time soon,” Peels said. 
     At this time, police are unwilling to speculate as to the motivation behind this apparent hoax . . . .

            I laughed my ass off! This was so hilarious from so many angles that I kept myself up late that night with Turrets-like snickering fits. I couldn’t wait until the next time I saw Miss “You Don’t Make Up News” to give her grief.

            As I entered the newswriting room, Jean immediately spotted the shit-eatin’ grin on my face. “Don’t even say a word!” she warned.

            In class, we more or less pieced together what had actually taken place. My classmates who did not own computers frequently did their work on those in the Missourian’s newsroom, which was located in the same building where the class met. One of them had simply left her copy of the obit form behind. Somebody who worked with the paper found it, imaginations ran amok, and they drew the conclusion that it was some sort of hoax. Evidently, the folks downstairs had failed to connect with anyone with any relevant information and ran with the overblown story.

            After cracking the mystery, we put the incident aside and got busy with the regularly scheduled material. A little while later, a young man with the tell-tale reporter’s notepad stuck his head in the door. We all knew why he was there.

            “I’m in the middle of class right now,” Jean called out. “Can you come back in a half hour?” He nodded and left.

            Jean finished her presentation and excused herself as we set to work. “I had better call Mr. Peels to explain myself before I talk to reporters.”

            Later that afternoon, I read the conclusion to the “hoax that never was” saga in The Missourian. Jean took responsibility for the mistake and spoke of her conversation with Fritz Peels: “There were no malicious intentions,” she told him. “I just picked you because I thought you were an interesting person.”

            I realized that my levitating guru story was lame in comparison to the real-life drama that had just transpired as the result of somebody mislaying a piece of paper. More often than not, reality outperforms fiction where the incredibly ridiculous is concerned. You just can’t make the stuff up.


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