His name was Robert McG. Thomas Jr. The New York Times article said Mr. Thomas died at his summer home in Delaware just a few days into the new Millennium. His wife said the cause was cancer. Mr. Thomas wrote obituaries for the New York Times. He had done stints as a police reporter, rewrite man, society news reporter and sports writer before settling into his calling writing obituaries. The New York Times said he “developed a knack for illuminating lives that might otherwise have been overlooked or underreported.”
I often went first to the obituary page when I got my copy of the New York Times. I enjoyed thoughtfully reading about the lives of people of whom I had previously known absolutely nothing. I was not alone. In 1995 the New York Times proposed Thomas for a Pulitzer Prize saying, “Every week readers write to say they were moved to tears or laughter by an obituary of someone they hadn’t known until that morning’s paper.” Kirkus Reviews said, “Readers can be excused if they search out Thomas’s work before they bother with the front-page lead.” They said his obituaries, “celebrated the unsung, the queer, the unpretentious, the low-rent.”
Mr. Thomas saw himself as the sympathetic stranger at the wake listening to the friends and survivors of the deceased, waiting for that memorable tale that just happened to define a life. One of his admirers, a literary essayist, said he got “beyond the facts and the rigid formula of the obit to touch on – of all things to find in The New York Times – a deeper truth.”
The article described Mr. Thomas as a “tall man with wavy hair who spoke in a voice soft with traces of his native Tennessee.” Outgoing and gregarious, the week before his death he officiated at the annual New Year’s Eve party he had been hosting for 32 years.
Over the past year I have sometimes been tossed about and out of balance. It was not an enjoyable year. Many people do not mind fame, but no one wants notoriety. I got a little of both. The truth is I did not want to be any group’s pariah nor did I want to be another group’s cause. I just wanted to live my life in hope that I might make a little bit of a difference on this tired planet.
There is something to be said for a person who knows how to enjoy a good party and take to the page to celebrate lives that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Robert McG. Thomas Jr. hosted the party and brought those lives to light, shimmering and dancing on of all places, the obituary page. If I am paying attention, there are many fellow travelers whose stories can inform my own, as I seek to navigate these shoals with thoughtful grace and an eye for the beauty found in the ordinary.