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WHITTLE: Newspaper obituaries trace trails of life

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History lives on the page you’re reading.

Years ago, a wise and seasoned newspaper editor challenged us rookie reporters: “Get it right, for you’re writing the history of this state.”

But I was hurt when that same editor immediately assigned me to writing obituaries, for I dreamt of becoming a crusading big city newspaper investigative reporter.

However, writing obits ultimately enhanced my career, for I found that grieving readers are profoundly grateful about having a well-done and accurate obituary about their beloved departed family member.

I found that adding extra tidbits of achievements in death stories are especially appreciated by family members.

So, I feel safe in speculating those early penned obituaries remain stashed securely away today, in this new century, in countless family Bibles scattered throughout multiple states, especially Tennessee and native Missouri, the settings for most of my writing career.

I feel safe in adding that more of my personally-penned obits are preserved than my most sensational stories of the past about crime and mayhem.

However, one editor at the Nashville Banner, now defunct, got on me one day, saying, “Whittle, you need to liven up your obits.”

Soooo, on my next attempt, I worked on my lead paragraph: “Dead, that’s how they found Mr. Jones in bed.” Editor immediately back pedaled, admitting it’s best to treat obituaries very respectful.

In moving to the present, I admit to feeling challenged two years ago when newspaper publisher Ron Fryar assigned me to do “histories” of old and remarkable cemeteries.

However, when I got into the research, it drove home the point that cemeteries are where history lives, as in the Cummings Cemetery that regularly catches the eyes of motorists between Woodbury and McMinnville along Route 70S.
The legendary State Rep. James H. “Mr. Jim” Cummings’ remains rest in that pristine cemetery.

And rightfully, “Mr. Jim” is buried alongside a segment of “Jim Cummings Highway,” named so by another historic Middle Tennessee lawmaker, to wit, the late Rep. John Bragg, a Democrat from Rutherford County.

As a semi-retired columnist, that’s history I would not have known, had I not been assigned to do the cemetery series that included Short Mountain that shades the rest of Middle Tennessee, as the region’s highest geographical elevation point.

But today’s serene and majestic old mountain was not always peaceful. Its neatly-manicured Melton Cemetery sits quiet today, but dates back to the Civil War when neighbors stalked neighbors, sometimes in the name of patriotism, but sometimes in personal harsh malice and greed.

“Beautiful Short Mountain is a natural treasure,” decreed Cannon County Historical Society President Joe Davenport.

Buried deep in the bosom of that mountain lies the remains of Confederate guerilla fighter Hiram T. “Pomp” Kersey, who enlisted at age 13 with the Confederate Army.

A Tennessee historic marker entitled “Confederate Guerrilla” sits near Melton Cemetery’s entrance off of State Route 146 between Woodbury and Smithville over in DeKalb County that shares Short Mountain with Cannon County.

If not for last year’s series on significant cemeteries in the shadow of Short Mountain, it would not have resulted my being honored as speaker at the Cannon County Historical Society’s March meeting in Woodbury.

Sharing history with the knowledgeable folks of that historic group also proved to be a challenge.

If ever you’re asked, but cannot go speak at this important group, call me, for I’ll go back if asked, not just for the history, but for the enjoyable fellowship. And the food is awesome too.

And do yourself a personal favor the next time someone suggests good community newspapers are dead or dying by asking them if their Uncle John’s obituary was carried on cable or television.


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dan whittle, history, life, newspaper, obituary
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