The third most delightful thing to do on a cold winter morning is to curl up with a few fine obituaries. Until a year before his own appeared (in early 2000) Robert McG. Thomas Jr. was the grandmaster of that genre, in much the same fashion as was Richard Casement for science writing (see EdgeOfTheUniverse, 8 Jun 1999). 52 McGs. reprints a full deck of Thomas's best from the pages of the New York Times. As Michael T. Kaufman writes (in "Robert McG. Thomas Jr., 60, Chronicler of Unsung Lives", included in the book): "Mr. Thomas saw himself as the sympathetic stranger at the wake listening to the friends and survivors of the deceased, alert for the moment when one of them would tell a memorable tale that could never have made its way into Who's Who or a résumé bit that just happened to define a life." Some samples follow.

Mason Rankin, 56, Is Dead; Founded AIDS Group in Utah

Mason Rankin, a Salt Lake City businessman who had such an abundance of compassion for people with AIDS that he kept scores of volunteer knitters furiously clicking away to supply afghans, sweaters, scarves and hats to people in Utah's H.I.V. community, died on Sept. 21 .... To some of his friends, one of the more appealing benefits of the charity was that it attracted a number of elderly volunteers for whom the familiar act of knitting or crocheting became a way to relate to a baffling world beyond their experience.

Minnesota Fats, a Real Hustler with a Pool Cue, is Dead

He certainly looked like a Minnesota Fats, or at least some Fats. ... Mr. Wanderone, who once said he never picked up anything heavier than a silver dollar, grew up with a fierce aversion to physical labor, so much so that on their cross-country trips his wife was expected to do all the driving, carry all the luggage and even change the flat tires. ... Although his frequent claim that he had never lost a game "when the cheese was on the table," was more fabrication than exaggeration, according to his first wife, Mr. Wanderone was in fact a master hustler who tended to be just as good as he needed to be when he needed to be.

Toots Barger, 85, the Queen of Duckpins' Wobbly World

Mrs. Barger ... achieved renewed prominence leading a campaign to have duckpins named the Maryland state sport. The campaign failed, perhaps because legislators felt duckpins was just too odd to be the state sport, especially when Maryland already had an official sport: jousting.

Anton Rosenberg, a Hipster Ideal, Dies at 71

Antonn Rosenberg, a storied sometime artist and occasional musician who embodied the Greenwich Village hipster ideal of 1950's cool to such a laid-back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything, died on Feb. 14 ....

Maria Reiche, 95, Keeper of an Ancient Peruvian Puzzle, Dies

After almost 60 years of intense, if highly speculative, scholarly scrutiny, it is hard to tell which is the greater mystery: Why the valley-dwelling Nazcan people would decorate the surrounding desert mesas with figures so large their shapes could not even be discerned before the age of aviation 2,000 years later. Or why an adventure some German woman who came to South American on a whim to tutor a diplomat's children would abandon all other pursuits to devote her life to an almost obsessive preoccupation with the Nazca lines.

Charles McCartney, Known for Travels with Goats, Dies at 97

You take a fellow who looks like a goat, travels around with goats, eats with goats, lies down among goats and smells like a goat and it won't be long before people will be calling him the Goat Man. Which is pretty much what Charles McCartney had in mind back in the Depression when he pulled up his Iowa stakes, put on his goatskins, hitched up his ironed-wheeled goat wagon and hit the road for what turned out to be a three-decade odyssey as one of the nation's most endearing eccentrics and by far its most pungent peripatetic roadside tourist attraction. ... A man given to gross exaggeration when simple embellishment would suffice, Mr. McCartney ...

Patsy Southgate, Who Inspired 50's Literary Paris, Dies at 70

... in a city that treasures beauty she was renowned as the most beautiful woman in Paris. A clean-cut American beauty whose finely chiseled features were set off by surprisingly full lips generally framing a dazzling, inviting smile, Miss Southgate, whose animated beauty generally confounded the camera, was blond to her eyelids and had such a steady, open gaze it was said that to look into her deep blue eyes was to fall in love. ... Miss Southgate was ahead of her time even in her vaunted beauty. In an era when the Hollywood ideal was the shapely starlet with an overflowing bosom, her trim form prefigured a later esthetic of sturdy athleticism. ... Once during the tempestuous courtship that preceded their tempestuous marriage, when a row between Miss Southgate and Mr. Matthiessen was followed by a sulking two-day silence followed by an evening phone call that failed to patch things up, Mr. Matthiessen was startled an hour or so later by a late-night banging on the door of his Paris student lodgings. When his disapproving landlady opened the door to Miss Southgate, who had thrown on her clothes and traveled halfway across Paris after the dispiriting phone call, it took her only a moment to add to her legend as a master of the inspired spontaneous gesture. "I thought you needed this," she told Mr. Matthiessen as she handed him an orange and departed, leaving him to marvel, as he still does, that it was exactly what he needed.

Howard Higman, Academic Impresario, Dies at 80

Officially, Mr. Higman was a sociology professor, but that was merely an academic cover for his role as the thinking person's Nathan Detroit, the founder and proprietor of the oldest established permanent freewheeling gabfest in academia, a weeklong extravaganza of discussion and debate that was once compared to a cross between a think tank and a fraternity party. ... A chief attraction of the conference was Mr. Higman himself, a man of such enormous intellectual range that he taught himself architecture and gardening because he could not afford to hire skilled professionals, and, for the same reason, made himself into an accomplished French Chef. For all his brilliance, Mr. Higman could also be something of an absentminded professor. During a stay with a friend in Washington, for example, he once cooked an elaborate meal for 30 guests, but forgot to invite anybody, leaving his host, John Midgley, to eat beef Wellington for three weeks.

The book 52 McGs.: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Writer Robert McG. Thomas Jr. was edited by Chris Calhoun.

TopicWriting - 2002-02-28

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