Mike Kupper and Sam Farmer teamed on an excellent print edition obit on Bart Starr in Monday’s Los Angeles Times.
It checked all the appropriate boxes and paid sufficient tribute and context to the 1960s iconic quarterback of Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.
Starr was the most important quarterback for the most important team in NFL history. He played in the most famous game (Ice Bowl) and also led the Packers to victory in the inaugural soon-to-be culturally defining Super Bowl, played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The problem with the obit was not the writing, reporting or in the homage paying. The online version, not restricted by ink and dead trees, was nearly 60 inches.
The problem was the print edition story placement on B-4 of the California Section.
That was a serious fumble.
I know a little about obit writing because I wrote several of them in three-plus decades at the L.A. Times, including lengthy A-1 retrospectives on golf icon Arnold Palmer, basketball coaches Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian and legendary football coaches Joe Paterno and Eddie Robinson.
I know how obits get assigned, prepared, written and, yes, botched.
Maybe you’d like to know?
Preface: obit writing is a lost art form and many papers, including my old haunt, have shamefully gutted the department for the sake of cost-cutting.
How it worked when I worked obits:
As a famous person grew older, usually around 80, or sooner if death appeared imminent, I would get a call from an editor to begin preparing an advance obituary.
It makes perfect, practical sense. You simply can’t do justice to a public life if that person dies too near a newspaper deadline.
I worked weeks/months on high-profile advanced obits on Palmer, Smith, Tarkanian, Paterno and Eddie Robinson, updating and rewriting as required.
All five of the above mentioned were very much alive when I filed their stories.
Paterno's early obit, filed years before the Jerry Sandusky scandal, needed a major rewrite in late 2011 in advance of JoePa's death from lung cancer on Jan. 22, 2012.
Obit writing sounds like a ghoulish endeavor but I approached as chronicling living features on icons of our age. It was mostly quiet, painstaking work, scouring old clips and the internet for pertinent background. Palmer left a mile-long paper trail of books, stories, quotes and myth-making.
My obit of Palmer, who died in September of 2016, ran on A-1 almost a year after I took the buyout from the L.A. Times.
Bart Starr’s original obit was also written several years ago, first by Kupper, who has long since retired. The obit was updated by Sam Farmer, the paper’s current NFL writer.
There have been cases in which the original writer of an obit is also dead when the story appears.
This was a fear I had once when asked to prepare a story on a living sporting star I thought could outlive me.
So how did the Starr's obit get so editorially misjudged?
Any number of reasons could have come into play. Starr died on a holiday weekend when many top editors may not have been on watch.
Front-page deadlines at the L.A. Times, in general, have also taken an unflattering turn against basic news principles and the inverted pyramid.
Years ago, when I was still at the paper, a 6 p.m. deadline was imposed on A-1 stories because the paper was making money off selling press times to other publications.
This is why, L.A. Times print subscriber, late-breaking stories end up in your California (B) section.
John R. Wooden's death on June 4, 2010, completely exposed the Times' dubious deadline cover edict. It was like a Little League fly ball finding the bench warmer you just stuck into right field.
The nerve of Wooden, nearly 100 years old, dying on a Friday night after the A-1 deadline for "news." At a "news" paper.
A nightmare embarrassment ensued as Wooden, one of the city’s most important and celebrated citizens, was bumped off the front page of his hometown newspaper.
A special section that had been in the works for years was haphazardly broken apart and parceled out in pieces over the next week, which meant my extremely unpopular sidebar story on booster Sam Gilbert became a stand-alone midweek feature.
For what that’s worth, I received hundreds of angry emails and a few threats to have my face rearranged.
I can’t say for sure, exactly, what happened to Bart Starr, but I think I know.
Top obits that don’t run on A-1 are bounced to the “B” section. Yet, that still doesn’t explain why the Starr obit was not one of two things: on the cover of the B-section or on the cover of the sports section.
Starr, in my opinion, warranted an A-1 obit but let’s assume the person in charge did not agree, or that this was just the kind of deadline edict that haunted Wooden’s obit. Maybe the weekend editor didn’t know Bart Starr from Ringo.
Ok, but now let's consider the obit that DID run on Monday's B-section front cover:
It was the death of Genevieve Waite, headlined: “Actress, singer, model and muse was a brief, bright star of the ‘60s.”
The obit noted Waite was probably best known for “her starring role in the archetypal swinging ‘60s film “Joanna” and a 1974 album, “Romance is on the Rise.”
Frankly, that doesn’t trump any famous thing Bart Starr did in the swinging 1960s.
What about sports?
No excuse, there, either, as Starr’s death could have/should have knocked two front page stories to the tire ads: The L.A. Sparks season opener and a win for the Angels that improved their record to 24-28.
Funny how fast things change. Bill Dwyre, who served as LAT sports editor for 25 years while I was employed, grew up in Sheboygan and came to L.A. from Wisconsin.
We used to joke as staffers that we worked for the west coast bureau of the Milwaukee Journal.
I once made a side trip to Milwaukee to do a blowout story on Bucks coach Don Nelson. I didn't have to ask why.
Mike Kupper, who wrote the first draft of the Bart Starr obit, was a former LAT editor who followed Dwyre to L.A. from Milwaukee.
I can only imagine Dwyre’s response after seeing Bart Starr’s obit on B-4 of the California Section.
It conjures images of steam blowing out of Wile E. Coyote's ears or Tommy Lasorda being asked to respond to Dave Kingman's three-HR performance against the Dodgers.
“What did I think of his performance…$$&#$#*#$#@.?”
The LAT, to be fair, had the words "star" and "1960s icon" in the headline on Monday's B-section cover obit.
Wrong Starr, though, and wrong 1960s icon.