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random musings of a crazy cat lady

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Old biddy's advice on obituary writing

You may've heard about the kerkuffle surrounding the Yvonne Brill obituary in the New York Times.  If you haven't, I'll summarize in a nutshell.  She was a rocket scientist who invented some pretty cool stuff.  The NYT obituary opened by describing her beef stroganoff making skills, how she was a great mom, and how she said a good husband was harder to find than a good job. It then described her career.  They have since edited it to make it less sexist. It's a lot less offensive but I'm still not thrilled.  Needless to say, a lot of people (including me) got pretty offended by the sexist spin on her life.  Predictably, the author had no clue this was offensive and said he just wanted to humanize her. 
I was all set to post a blog on it last week, but then noticed that a grad school colleague of mine had taken the opposite track and proposed we needed similar obituaries for men.  I'm all for human interest, so I had to stew on that for a while. I got my answer when I read the MIT chemistry newsletter.
A few days prior to Yvonne Brill's death, another badass honey badger scientist, Emily Wick, passed away and her obituary was published in the Boston Globe and included in the MIT Chemistry department newsletter.  There was plenty of human interest in this one, minus all the annoying sexism.  Yes, her life does reflect the times in which she lived, as does Brill's, but it is possible to describe it in a way that does not rile people up.  If my (male) PhD advisor passed away I would hope to see something similar, although I would not necessarily expect it.  Note to NYTimes - it's not really that hard to do.


The following obituary appeared in the Boston Globe on March 26, 2013.
"Emily L. Wick died peacefully of old age in her home in Rockport, Massachusetts
on March 21, 2013. She was 91 years old. Aunt Emily, everyone's favorite aunt,
has left behind an interesting and unusual life. She was born on December 9, 1921
in Youngstown, Ohio, daughter of James L. Wick, Jr. and Clare Dryer Wick. She
attended Mount Holyoke College where she earned a BS and MA in chemistry. She
went on to MIT and earned her doctorate, also in chemistry. After working for the
prominent firm of A.D. Little, where she discovered the chemistry for foods we take
for granted such as Miracle Whip and Campbell's soups, she joined the faculty at
MIT in the Department of Food Technology where she developed food systems for
the newly formed astronaut corps. She became the first woman to rise through the
ranks to achieve tenure at MIT and was also appointed Associate Dean for Student
Affairs. As the first woman member of the MIT Corporation, she was very instrumental in early efforts to assure that women students and staff played an equal role in the life of the university and had the same opportunities as men, as well as in developing a gender blind admissions policy. In 1973 she returned to Mount Holyoke as Dean of the Faculty and later Special Assistant to the President for Long-Range Planning.
After thirteen very happy years at Mount Holyoke, Emily retired in 1986 and returned to her beloved
Rockport. Emily's true love from the age of ten until her last days was sailing. She spent her first summer in Rockport in 1937. In the 1940's she and her sisters bought an O Boat called "The Little Urchin". Subsequently, she became a winning skipper of a Star Boat, a Jolly Boat, a Firefly, and ultimately a Bullseye. Until very recently she could be found every weekend on the water. Even when she became too old to skipper a boat she loved to go out in the committee boat or watch the races from her house on the edge of the harbor. We all remember the excitement in 1954 when the North American Star Championships were held in Rockport; Emily was very much a part of that project. In 1988 Emily became the first woman Commodore of the Sandy Bay Yacht Club and helped move the club toward a modern professional operation. She was very interested in ensuring that membership in the club be affordable for everyone, especially teen-agers. She is widely remembered among club members, and the committee boat has been named for her. Somehow Emily also found the time
to be an active member of the Appalachian Mountain Club and was a life long birder. She had binoculars in her car and in several places in her home as well as a spotting scope. She loved opera and listened every Saturday to Maine Public Radio broadcasts of live performances at the Metropolitan Opera House. She was the kindest of people and never, ever said an ungenerous word about anyone, not even politicians.  Emily leaves behind a nephew Jim Wick, of Shelburne, VT, and four nieces, Laura Hallowell of Rockport, MA, Louise (Dan) DeSantis of Somersworth, NH, and her children Peter and Madeline, Emily W. Schaff of Youngstown, OH, and Anne Schaff of Portland, ME, and a long list of friends. Emily's family is grateful for the superb and loving care of her helpers and nurses from North Shore PRN and Hospice of the North Shore. A memorial service with reception following [was] held at the First Congregational Church of Rockport on April 20. Memorial contributions may be made to the Sandy Bay Yacht Club Sailing Program.

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