Dying For Profit

by Bernard McCormick Wednesday, May 07, 2014 No Comment(s)

Wally Brewer

When we become king, the first thing we will do is raise from the dead the obit writers of the world. Their death was never officially announced. The papers just sort of hinted at it, by gradually cutting back from a few obituaries a day to maybe just one, and often none. Unless you pay for it.
Now, that's a whole different story. You still see obituaries in the papers but almost all of them are like ads. They cost money. And often they read like ads, filled with phrases such as "joined the Lord" or "ascended to heaven" and surrounded by “loving and devoted family.” They avoid at all costs the word "died." And you never read that someone "died and went directly to hell."
This has obviously become a good source of income for newspapers. We paid for an obit in a northern paper for a colleague who had played an important role in the development of regional magazines. We thought he deserved a real obit, for free, but it was not to be. Our piece was therefore tightly crafted, about seven inches, and cost $1,300. We wanted to write more but we ran out of money. At least you know when you read something that long that the deceased must have had some status, or at least somebody (usually a relative) thought so. Not long after we saw a free obit for a woman who worked for the same newspaper. What was her job? She wrote obits. Some jobs come with privilege.
Now, not all obits are paid for, not directly. A funeral home usually will submit a death notice as part of its fee. They usually say: "Joe Smith. May 6, 2014." They rarely exceed three or four lines. If they do, the cash register comes on. It is easy to tell a real obit from a death notice. A real obit looks and reads like news, because it is. A paid death notice looks like a death notice. It has small, crowded type.
Our first job as a sports writer on a suburban daily had us sitting next to a woman of vintage whose sole job was to write obits. From 7 a.m. on, she was busy talking with funeral directors. At the same time she was working on her horse racing form, picking her nags for the day. She mumbled aloud. One got to recognize names of jockeys and horses, as well as an occasional name of somebody who had passed. Rarely did she show emotion in her work, but when she did, the whole newsroom knew it. "Twenty-three! What the hell did he die from?"
These morbid thoughts are occasioned by the recent deaths of two prominent people. Earl Morrall made the front page of both the Sun-Sentinel and The Miami Herald the day after he died. Giants of football, including Don Shula, were quoted at length. Wally Brewer barely made the paper four days after he died, and just a day before his funeral service. The picture was barely recognizable (see above). Nobody was quoted. It was a paid death notice.
Now, Earl Morrall deserved the attention he got. He was backup quarterback in the Miami Dolphins undefeated 1972 season, and won many of the games. He did the same for the Baltimore Colts a few years before when the great Johnny Unitas got hurt. Morrall was an outstanding citizen – he was the mayor of Davie and was an exemplary figure from a team that had more than its share of exemplary figures. Even though he had moved to Naples, many people would remember him.
We wonder, however, if more people might remember Wally Brewer. We knocked out a fast blog on him when we thought his death might not even make the paper. It got more reaction than anything we have done over the last several years. Thousands of people knew Wally, and not just from a distance. He was one of the best known bar owners in the long history of the hospitality industry on the Gold Coast. He started in Boca Raton in the early 1960s and over the next 50 years owned four more places, all of them popular. He was a prominent figure in the Irish community, Irishman of the Year, grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and was known to escort a green pig from bar to bar on St. Patty’s Day.
He also was a community guy, and did a lot of good for many people and organizations. One of his contributions was leading the way in the redevelopment of Fort Lauderdale’s historic district. In 1991, he opened The Olde Towne Chop House located at Second Street and the FEC Railway at the time the Broward Center for the Performing Arts was about to transform a shabby district. It became popular with the Blockbuster Entertainment crowd, and Wally’s always smiling, ruddy face and cordial welcoming became a signature for urban renewal. He was, in short, deserving of a serious sendoff. His funeral mass and celebration at Coral Ridge Country Club were well attended, but not as well as it might have been had more people known he was gone.
It seems like poor business for the papers to make obits of important people a source of revenue. After all, their declining readership tends to be older people – the ones who read obits. Young people don’t read obits, or much else for that matter. And that may be the problem. Perhaps the older people at the papers, who would know Wally Brewer, have all been bought out, and none of their replacements had even heard of the man.
The eulogy by Wally Brewer’s lawyer, Ernie “the attorney” Kollra captured the man very well. It was warm, witty and rich in anecdote. Too bad you didn’t read it in the paper.


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