By Margaret Eby
The 10 a.m. meeting was always the same. That’s when Kay Powell would gather her staff to comb through the death notices. These were the short, rote missives from funeral homes and chapels—no nonsense, just the unhappy facts, another birth date that now had its declaratory bookend.
But to Powell, a reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, these were raw ingredients. She knew how to identify the subtle clues indicating a thread worth tugging on. In the skeleton outline of a person’s life, she could see a full portrait just waiting to be colored in.
When she found it, the meeting was over—and she hit the phones. Like any other reporter, she had questions to ask. Even though her subjects were dead, their stories were just beginning to come to life.
The Georgia native has a syrupy drawl that turns “ten” into “tin”; an easy, smoky laugh; and a policy of never leaving the house without lipstick and earrings on—“If I’m going through the drive-through window, the part of me that you can see looks like I’ve been a productive citizen,” Powell jokes. From 1996 to 2009, if you knew anyone in Atlanta who passed away, she probably knew them too. Death was her beat, her legacy built by ritually assembling profiles of what she calls “extraordinary ordinary people.”
In her tenure at the Journal-Constitution, Powell wrote poetic, funny, revelatory obituaries for the following: a moonshiner, a lobotomy patient, a Tuskegee Airman, a lawyer famous for her cedar-smoked salmon, and a planet (“Pluto, the least of the major celestial bodies, never asked to be a planet,” the obit opened). She kept a sign on her desk quoting Washington Post obituaries editor Richard Pearson’s favorite saying about the profession: “God is my assignment editor.”
Powell got her start in high school in Valdosta, Georgia, where she was editor of the school newspaper and edited the Saturday teen page at the Valdosta Daily Times. After she graduated from college, the paper hired her as a reporter. She sat in on community meetings, wrote a series on the ravages of drug abuse in the county, and reported on the hearings of a notorious local incest case. She learned to look for stories in everything from grocery circulars to court transcripts.
In 1994, Powell joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where, as administrative assistant to the editorial board, she combed through the letters to the editor. At the time, the obituary section had been relegated to the copydesk, but editors Ron Martin and Jim Wooten were eager for a revamp. They imagined pages celebrating the lives of Atlanta citizens who otherwise might not make the papers—not celebrities or billionaires, but neighbors and friends. Wooten noticed Powell had a knack for dealing with readers and polishing their letters to the paper to perfection.
“When I was called in and asked if I would please think about it, I was thinking, ‘Oh, goody-goody!’” Powell says. “Every other reporter was covering yet another opening day or weather story. I was getting to write about vagabonds and business and political leaders.”
And she got to do it her way. “It’s easy to take the path of least resistance and write about the beloved teacher, beloved coach, beloved preacher,” Powell says. Instead, “we looked for people whose lives readers would be curious about—I saw a man who was a greeter at Kmart, but turned out to be the retired CEO of a furniture company who had taken the job because he got bored and missed being around people. I found a woman who had sung at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral.” Powell’s more than 2000 obits paint a picture of a complex city and an evolving South, and go well beyond the tropes of the form—“beloved grandmother” or “Renaissance man” or “dedicated public servant.”
One of her favorite opening lines, “George Hopkins died again Friday,” was about a man whose heart briefly stopped while testing diving equipment in his youth. Another favorite: “At Matthews Cafeteria, a smiling Thelma Hogan called you by your first name, asked after your mama, made sure your cornbread was cooked just like you liked, and hugged your child in her lap while she rang up your lunch on the cash register. She did that about 800 times a day for 43 years.”
Investigating the lives of the recently deceased is a sensitive endeavor. It’s also a crash course in good journalism. Powell quickly learned to avoid asking boilerplate questions, like “What were his hobbies?” Instead, she says, “The way to phrase it is, ‘When he had a little time to himself—time he could do what was fun for himself, that made him happy when he did it—what would he do?’” That’s how one reporter under Powell’s tenure found out that a man who made his living pricing groceries also raised prize-winning skunks for national shows, and had an airbrushed picture of his favorite skunk on his motorcycle.
Powell has rules: 1) Write about women as living their own lives, so “no Mrs. M. obits.” (The original New York Times write-up for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, which opened by praising Brill’s “mean beef stroganoff,” rankled her.) 2) Avoid a laundry list of accomplishments. “I can’t stand a résumé obit,” Powell says. 3) In interviews, “Keep your mouth shut and let ’em say it. And when you’re done, then you have what you have to say.”
But most importantly: 4) Fact-check everything, and 5) cut through the euphemisms, clichés, and half-truths we use to talk about the dead. “It has to be factual, and it has to be accurate. If there’s a stepdaughter, you say that; I don’t care if he loved her like his own daughter,” Powell says. “Our job was to answer questions, not raise questions. We always gave the cause of death. We wrote about suicides, even though many papers won’t. The question you’re afraid to ask is the question you must ask.”
Fact-checking family myths was a big part of the job. A common one? That someone had played for the Atlanta Crackers, a minor league baseball team once based in the city. “Everyone says, ‘Daddy played ball for the Crackers,’ and usually, Daddy didn’t. They don’t know any different until you call them,” she says. Some of the facts Powell uncovered were uncomfortable. While researching an obit for a woman named Patti Hall, a volunteer at the pro-life Pregnancy Resource Center of Gwinnett, she discovered that Hall had had an abortion. “You do encounter that, things the family will tell you, ‘Please don’t put that in the obit.’ But then you have to say, ‘Yes, I will, and this is why, and this is your opportunity to respond or elaborate on it.’”
One of Powell’s greatest triumphs was in 1998, when she wrote the obituary of Calvin F. Craig, a former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan who resigned from the group in 1968. Powell spent hours coaxing his son and widow to go on the record. “They were passing the phone back and forth, and I was explaining that one way or another, Craig was going to be written about. This way, they’d have a voice in the piece. When I finally got his son to talk to me, the newsroom gave me a standing ovation.” The piece included the story of Craig’s longtime friendship with Xernona Clayton, the coordinator of the Model Cities program in Atlanta, a Black woman who liaised between Craig and the mayor. “Mayor Allen said only in Atlanta could the contact with the KKK be through a Black woman,” Clayton told Powell.
The most difficult interviews? “Families and friends of other reporters,” she says.
Over the years Powell’s prose developed a cult following; one reader, a librarian named Thomas Hobbs, gave her the nickname “the Doyenne of the Death Beat.” Many thanked her for sharing the story of someone who inspired them. At one conference, Hobbs walked up to her and repeated, verbatim, whole paragraphs of some of her obituaries from memory. “It amazed me how our obits could change people’s lives,” she says. “I wrote an obit of one man who quit his job to go work for a nonprofit because he knew deep down that’s what he should be doing. His wife called me after the obit ran, because she heard from a man who keeps that obit in his desk drawer and reads it every day. You can’t predict what’s going to touch someone.”
“I didn’t want to retire—I wanted to just die at my desk,” Powell says, laughing. But in 2009, amid a wave of buyouts at the paper, retire she did. Death notices on the obituary page are now mostly reader-submitted, as they are in most American dailies. “I can see that it’s a luxury, maybe, to have a dedicated writer or editor for obits,” Powell says. “Newspapers are a very different animal now.”
Yet she still pens the occasional obituary, including in 2009, when her mother died: “Mrs. Powell took the greatest delight in sharing her home in Valdosta and house at Cherry Lake with family and friends, her children and their friends, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, friends’ children and their grandchildren and sometimes even strangers. In fact, after she was widowed, there were 13 toothbrushes in her bathroom, all kept there by people who regularly enjoyed her company.” In 2015, Powell wrote an obituary for Manley Pointer, one of the peafowl at Flannery O’Connor’s house museum, Andalusia Farm, in Milledgeville, Georgia.
In 2010, Powell was honored with a lifetime achievement award from The Society of Professional Obituary Writers for helping “give obituary writing a legitimate and respected place in journalism.” Writer Marilyn Johnson praised her for having “recorded things that wouldn’t have been recorded by anyone else, certainly not by her brother journalists. Kay Powell has been responsible for fighting the historic sexual imbalance on the obit page.”
In a part of the newspaper where the lives of ordinary people shine, Powell illuminated the fact that there can be dignity in death through a life well remembered.
These days, in addition to her writing, Powell gives talks, works as a mentor for a middle school writing program, and pursues her passion projects. She reads, goes to long lunches with her friends, and has contributed to the Georgia Tech Living History Program, making use of her southern accent by narrating a video. “I get time to be lazy. I play bridge. I go to readings. I just enjoy every single day, even if I’m in my nightgown all day,” she says. “Work any of that you want into my obituary.”
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of mental_floss magazine and previously ran on Atavist.