Connections: ‘One of Ours’

Suddenly, this week, it fell on us to write the obituary of one of our own.

Long ago, when I was about to marry into The East Hampton Star family, I took a course at Columbia University's School of Continuing Education  on how to write obituaries. It was prophetic.

The professor was Richard Baker, a dean of the School of Journalism, where I had a job. The exercise was simple: He handed out fictional information about someone who had died, and the task was to put a story together in a logical and readable manner. (As it turned out, he played the piano when I married for the first time and became a Rattray. It was a journalism-school wedding.)

As an undergraduate, I had excelled in a nonfiction writing course, so I was reasonably comfortable about what lay ahead when I arrived in East Hampton. The hardest thing for me at the time, as it most often is for young reporters who have joined The Star over the years, was making phone calls to the bereaved. It takes a while before you realize you are apt to find a family member who, even while grieving, will want to tell you the missing details after you explain that the purpose of the obituary will be to do justice to someone's life.

The Star has guided many young reporters in writing obituaries, following fixed practices while trying to capture individuals' personalities and accomplishments. We have gained a surprising national reputation for their quality. Suddenly, this week, it fell on us to write the obituary of one of our own. Everyone here loved Rusty Drumm, who died on Saturday.

Writing obituaries can be a calling. The late Alden Whitman, who lived in Southampton, was one of the best at The New York Times; a book of 37 of his “favorites” was published in 1971. The Times has reporters assigned to obituaries and to the practice of writing some in advance. 

Over the weekend, The Star's managing editor, Carissa Katz, and editor, David Rattray, pulled together as much information as they immediately could for an obituary for our website, and then struggled somewhat about who would complete it for print today. I was relieved that it turned out to be Carissa.

And we are all grateful, too, that Christopher Walsh, a reporter, was able to write the obituary for Stuart Vorpahl, who died last Thursday; Chris covers the environmental issues to which Stuart devoted his life. David's column today is a memorial, as well.

I have written many obituaries about friends and at least one immediate relative, and I can testify that it is exceedingly difficult to write about someone to whom you were close. I am sure those I have written about strangers were better, including some that were about rather famous people, whose obituaries were also run in the metropolitan press.

I am not sure whether Everett T. Rattray, who edited The Star from 1958 until his death in January 1980, just wanted to make sure his obituary came out right, or whether he wanted to do us all a favor, but he wrote his own.