A BEAUTIFUL REMEMBRANCE–100 YEARS LATER by Cheryl Pierson

Have you ever noticed how obituaries of yesteryear seem to always “say more” than many of the current ones do? (I don’t know—maybe it’s just me—I’m an obituary reader! Even those of people I don’t know.) I think one reason for this is, of course, now, everything is shortened and abbreviated to the point that sometimes the heartfelt meaning is lost. We have to make it “fit on the page” and not “run too long” in the fast pace of our modern world.

In 1921, William Allen White was the owner of the Emporia Gazette. So when his teenage daughter, Mary, died suddenly, he penned one of the best obituaries that probably ever has been written. Reading this final summation of her young life, I felt like I knew Mary without, of course, having ever met her. Her obituary became famous throughout the United States at the time it was published, 100 years ago this month.

 

 

 

 

Mary White obituary

by William Allen White

Emporia Gazette, May 17, 1921

 

The Associated Press reports carrying the news of Mary White’s death declared that it came as the result of a fall from a horse. How she would have hooted at that! She never fell from a horse in her life. Horses have fallen on her and with her—”I’m always trying to hold ’em in my lap,” she used to say. But she was proud of few things, and one of them was that she could ride anything that had four legs and hair. Her death resulted not from a fall but from a blow on the head which fractured her skull, and the blow came from the limb of an overhanging tree on the parking.

 

The last hour of her life was typical of its happiness. She came home from a day’s work at school, topped off by a hard grind with the copy on the High School Annual, and felt that a ride would refresh her. She climbed into her khakis, chattering to her mother about the work she was doing, and hurried to get her horse and be out on the dirt roads for the country air and the radiant green fields of spring. As she rode through the town on an easy gallop, she kept waving at passers-by. She knew everyone in town. For a decade the little figure in the long pigtail and the red hair ribbon has been familiar on the streets of Emporia, and she got in the way of speaking to those who nodded at her. She passed the Kerrs, walking the horse in front of the Normal Library, and waved at them; passed another friend a few hundred feet farther on, and waved at her.

 

The horse was walking, and as she turned into North Merchant Street she took off her cowboy hat, and the horse swung into a lope. She passed the Tripletts and waved her cowboy hat at them, still moving gayly north on Merchant Street. A Gazette carrier passed—a High School boy friend—and she waved at him, but with her bridle hand; the horse veered quickly, plunged into the parking where the low-hanging limb faced her and, while she still looked back waving, the blow came. But she did not fall from the horse; she slipped off, dazed a bit, staggered, and fell in a faint. She never quite recovered consciousness.

 

But she did not fall from the horse, neither was she riding fast. A year or so ago she used to go like the wind. But that habit was broken, and she used the horse to get into the open, to get fresh, hard exercise, and to work off a certain surplus energy that welled up in her and needed a physical outlet. The need has been in her heart for years. It was back of the impulse that kept the dauntless little brown-clad figure on the streets and country roads of the community and built into a strong, muscular body what had been a frail and sickly frame during the first years of her life. But the riding gave her more than a body. It released a gay and hardy soul. She was the happiest thing in the world. And she was happy because she was enlarging her horizon. She came to know all sorts and conditions of men; Charley O’Brien, the traffic cop, was one of her best friends. W. L. Holtz, the Latin teacher, was another. Tom O’Connor, farmer-politician, and the Rev. J. H. Rice, preacher and police judge, and Frank Beach, music master, were her special friends; and all the girls, black and white, above the track and below the track, in Pepville and Stringtown, were among her acquaintances. And she brought home riotous stories of her adventures. She loved to rollick; persiflage was her natural expression at home. Her humor was a continual bubble of joy. She seemed to think in hyperbole and metaphor. She was mischievous without malice, as full of faults as an old shoe. No angel was Mary White, but an easy girl to live with for she never nursed a grouch five minutes in her life.

 

With all her eagerness for the out-of-doors, she loved books. On her table when she left her room were a book by Conrad, one by Galsworthy, “Creative Chemistry” by E. E. Slosson, and a Kipling book. She read Mark Twain, Dickens, and Kipling before she was ten—all of their writings. Wells and Arnold Bennett particularly amused and diverted her. She was entered as a student in Wellesley for 1922; was assistant editor of the High School Annual this year, and in line for election to the editorship next year. She was a member of the executive committee of the High School Y.W.C.A.

 

Within the last two years she had begun to be moved by an ambition to draw. She began as most children do by scribbling in her school books, funny pictures. She bought cartoon magazines and took a course—rather casually, naturally, for she was, after all, a child with no strong purposes—and this year she tasted the first fruits of success by having her pictures accepted by the High School Annual. But the thrill of delight she got when Mr. Ecord, of the Normal Annual, asked her to do the cartooning for that book this spring, was too beautiful for words. She fell to her work with all her enthusiastic heart. Her drawings were accepted, and her pride–always repressed by a lively sense of the ridiculous figure she was cutting–was a really gorgeous thing to see. No successful artist every drank a deeper draft of satisfaction than she took from the little fame her work was getting among her schoolfellows. In her glory, she almost forgot her horse—but never her car.

 

For she used the car as a jitney bus. It was her social life. She never had a “party” in all her nearly seventeen years—wouldn’t have one; but she never drove a block in her life that she didn’t begin to fill the car with pick-ups! Everybody rode with Mary White—white and black, old and young, rich and poor, men and women. She like nothing better than to fill the car with long- legged High School boys and an occasional girl, and parade the town. She never had a “date,” nor went to a dance, except once with her brother Bill, and the “boy proposition” didn’t interest her—yet. But young people—great spring-breaking, varnish-cracking, fender-bending, door-sagging carloads of “kids”—gave her great pleasure. Her zests were keen. But the most fun she ever had in her life was acting as chairman of the committee that got up the big turkey dinner for the poor folks at the county home; scores of pies, gallons of slaw, jam, cakes, preserves, oranges, and a wilderness of turkey were loaded into the car and taken to the county home. And, being of a practical turn of mind, she risked her own Christmas dinner to see that the poor folks actually got it all. Not that she was a cynic; she just disliked to tempt folks. While there, she found a blind colored uncle, very old, who could do nothing but make rag rugs, and she rustled up from her school friends rags enough to keep him busy for a season. The last engagement she tried to make was to take the guests at the county home out for a car ride. And the last endeavor of her life was to try to get a rest room for colored girls in the High School. She found one girl reading in the toilet, because there was no better place for a colored girl to loaf, and it inflamed her sense of injustice and she became a nagging harpy to those who she thought could remedy the evil. The poor she always had with her and was glad of it. She hungered and thirsted for righteousness; and was the most impious creature in the world. She joined the church without consulting her parents, not particularly for her soul’s good. She never had a thrill of piety in her life, and would have hooted at a “testimony.” But even as a little child, she felt the church was an agency for helping people to more of life’s abundance, and she wanted to help. She never wanted help for herself. Clothes meant little to her. It was a fight to get a new rig on her; but eventually a harder fight to get it off. She never wore a jewel and had no ring but her High School class ring and never asked for anything but a wrist watch. She refused to have her hair up, though she was nearly seventeen. “Mother,” she protested,” you don’t know how much I get by with, in my braided pigtails, that I could not with my hair up.” Above every other passion of her life was her passion not to grow up, to be a child. The tomboy in her, which was big, seemed loath to be put away forever in skirts. She was a Peter Pan who refused to grow up.

 

Her funeral yesterday at the Congregational Church was as she would have wished it; no singing, no flowers except the big bunch of red roses from her brother Bill’s Harvard classmen—heavens, how proud that would have made her!—and the red roses from the Gazette forces, in vases, at her head and feet. A short prayer: Paul’s beautiful essay on “Love” from the Thirteenth Chapter of First Corinthians; some remarks about her democratic spirit by her friend, John H. J. Rice, pastor and police judge, which she would have deprecated if she could; a prayer sent down for her by her friend Carl Nau; and, opening the service, the slow, poignant movement from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which she loved; and closing the service a cutting from the joyously melancholy first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetic Symphony, which she liked to hear, in certain moods, on the phonograph, then the Lord’s Prayer by her friends in High School.

That was all.

 

For her pallbearers only her friends were chosen: her Latin teacher, W. L. Holtz; her High School principal, Rice Brown; her doctor, Frank Foncannon; her friend, W. W. Finney; her pal at the Gazette office, Walter Hughes; and her brother Bill. It would have made her smile to know that her friend, Charley O’Brien, the traffic cop had been transferred from Sixth and Commercial to the corner near the church to direct her friends who came to bid her good-by.

 

A rift in the clouds in a gray day threw a shaft of sunlight upon her coffin as her nervous, energetic little body sank to its last sleep. But the soul of her, the glowing, gorgeous, fervent soul of her, surely was flaming in eager joy upon some other dawn.”

 

Mary’s father, journalist and newspaperman William Allen White, Feb. 10, 1868-Jan. 31, 1944

Don’t you feel like you know Mary through her father’s words? Have you ever read an obituary that touched you deeply? One that made you laugh? This one, especially that last lovely paragraph, brings tears every time I read it.

 

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A native Oklahoman, I've been influenced by the west all my life. I love to write short stories and novels in the historical western and western romance genres, as well as contemporary romantic suspense! Check my Amazon author page to see my work: http://www.amazon.com/author/cherylpierson
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31 thoughts on “A BEAUTIFUL REMEMBRANCE–100 YEARS LATER by Cheryl Pierson”

  1. Wonderful obituary.

    I have read a few humorous ones.

    Newspapers charge a lot for wordy obits and other announcements. Around here, they’re submitted through the funeral home as part of the package, and while the family can write them, the one sent to the newspaper may be edited compared to the one on the funeral home site.

    • Denise, I’ve read a few humorous ones, too–and some really heartbreaking ones. I imagine it’s the same here as far as the funeral home submitting it to the paper. I’ve never used an obituary in my writing of my stories, but I’ve often thought it would be a great way to get information across about that character–especially in a time travel tale. This one really touched me when I read it. I had to share.

    • Isn’t that beautiful, Laura? Her father was an interesting person in his own right, as well–living at a time when he was “kind of a big deal” in the Progressive party and he was well acquainted with both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. I would love to know more about this entire family!

    • Janine, I don’t get a newspaper anymore, either. I still love them, but I vowed I would not become like my mom who saved them and basically hoarded them like they were treasures (as they were when she grew up during the Depression). You’re so right–reading this, sweet Mary comes to life again, and we as complete strangers feel like we knew her.

    • Debra, I think it’s so amazing that this obituary became so well-known at the time it was written, but also that it has lasted and is still so meaningful for us 100 years later!

  2. How beautiful! I love the way her father writes about her ride through town, and how he mentions all of the townspeople in her life. She sounds like such a sweet girl who loved life and lived it to its fullest. Thanks for sharing, Cheryl.

    • Sharon, that struck me too–she was obviously very well loved by many and I’m sure she was mourned by the entire town. Such a loss–she seemed so full of life and just on the verge of being able to become independent and do so much more, even, than she had already!

  3. I fell like I know her. I use to read the listings but haven’t done it in years. I don’t get the newspaper anymore. Its like you said they keep it short and sweet anymore and don’t go into detail.

    • Seems a shame, doesn’t it, Quilt Lady, for someone’s obituary to have to be “cut down” to fit space or the budget of the family of the bereaved. I just love that her father owned the newspaper and was able to use as much space as he wanted (of course, back then, people wrote longer obituaries than now, anyhow, but this one is stellar!) and give us such insight into his precious daughter.

    • I agree, Carolyn! Oh, how she lived! It sounds as though every moment was filled with doing good, having purpose, and being joyful. Lots to learn from that young woman! What a role model.

  4. This was amazing. She packed so much life into her short one. My aunt who passed away last November always read the obituaries. My cousin would call me when her mom found someone we knew from the old neighborhood or a family member we had lost touch with. They are important.. Thanks for sharing this with us Cheryl.

    • Kathleen, how well I remember my parents talking about old friends/acquaintances and so on who were listed in the obituaries of our local paper, and the one from their hometown, as well. If nothing else, those obituaries provide others with knowledge about the deceased they may not have known, or a way of reminiscing about time spent together in younger days. In those ways, it’s important to the living in many ways, just as it honors the deceased. Mary did pack a lot into her young life. I’m glad she had a wonderful life, though short.

    • It really is, Caryl. I can only imagine how her dad must have agonized over her death, but you can also see how much he rejoiced in her life by the description of her in this obituary. Just a lovely piece of writing. So loving, and so heartfelt.

  5. Wow what a true honor her father gave her. It also shows that he loved his daughter and spent time with her knowing her. This is beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

    • Yes, Lori–she must have just been the apple of his eye. I debated about sharing this today, but in the end, I wanted others to have the opportunity to read it and remember her. I never knew about her or her family until I saw a posting on FB about her. She was truly a role model for women of all ages and of all eras, it seems. I’m sure her family must have been so proud of her! Her father and mother were very “forward thinking” and her father was heavily involved in politics as well as owning the newspaper.

  6. What a beautiful tribute to his daughter and yes it makes me feel like I knew her at least to wave at as she rode by. In our area the newspapers charge a flat rate for a certain number of words. Anything more than that becomes very expensive. Apparently some families are willing and able to pay because our local paper sometimes has lengthy obits. Most, however, are very short. There are the fun ones listing favorite pets and other survivors my funeral director brother in law would have cringed over a few years ago.

    • Hi Alice! I wrote a reply but somehow it has vanished! I imagine your brother has seen a bit of everything in his years as a funeral director! Our hometown paper where I grew up was a small paper, and I don’t think they had any kind of limit on their obituaries, but of course here in Oklahoma City they do–and this is a different time, too. I’m so glad you stopped by today. I feel the same about Mary–I could see her waving to everyone.

  7. Oh, my. The tears came at the last about the funeral. I can see her father writing this with a sad smile and the tears streaming down his cheeks the entire time. It is a loving testament to a lovely young woman in both visage and heart. You definitely knew her by the time you finished reading and could envision her riding, driving, and involved with everything she was so passionate about. The world lost someone important that day. You have to wonder what impact she would have made had she lived. Even though she didn’t, her spirit and actions did influence for the better those who knew her.
    We have a small local paper that prints once a week. Much of it has to do with local history. They have printed a few of the old obituaries and they are so very different from those today. The word and phrase usage in the old articles is very interesting.Thank you so much for sharing this today. I will spend the day mourning the loss of a special young woman who died much too young.

    • Oh yes, Patricia. That last paragraph about the funeral…like you, I pictured her father writing this with such loving care and while sad, remembering her with such love and pride. I’ve thought of Mary off and on all day long. What a lot she managed to fit in to her young life!

  8. I feel as if Mary very well could be my best friend. Her father did a fabulous job with bringing his daughter to life. Thank you for sharing. I have tried not to read obituaries unless it is someone that I know.

    • Debra, I know what you mean about not reading obituaries, but this one was somehow uplifting and such a light for the rest of us. I feel the same about Mary–she would have been a very good friend and someone who would have kept a smile on our faces, for sure.

  9. Thanks for sharing this Cheryl, it was a lovely tribute. And not only does it make me feel like I know Mary, I also feel as if I know her father as well, just based on his writing

    • I felt that way, too, Winnie. I would love to learn more about this family. I need to go down the rabbit hole of research, I think. I believe Mary had to be such a beautiful soul!

  10. Cheryl, such a beautiful tribute. Truly. Love pours from her father’s every word. It makes you feel a bit like an intruder in a way. I love the emotion it evokes. I laugh when I think about the one my kids will write. “She was a horrible cook and we would’ve starved if not for Kraft Mac and Cheese.” 🙂 People back in William White’s day knew the right way to do things and took their time, using beautiful language. We’ve lost something important.

    • Linda, I agree with you wholeheartedly. When I read this, I felt like I was sitting across the table from her father and he was just having a conversation with me, telling me about her and what happened. Doesn’t it seem that way to you? Maybe that’s what makes this so special. And you know, every word was chosen with care and love. You’re so right that we have lost something important in our culture/times with the thoughtlessness we use in the way we speak, even in every day life. I have been thinking about this post ever since I shared it, and what a loss for her family and the world, really, this was.

      On a lighter note, like you, my kids will probably write something like what you said, too. That made me laugh, because even the recipes our parents and grandparents treasured and made are passe these days. They’ve been crowded out by fast food and frozen dinners. I think our faster pace of life has caused many changes that might not necessarily be for the good in a lot of ways. BTW, cooking is not my favorite thing, either—unheard of in my family. Mom and both my sisters were excellent cooks but they loved it and I didn’t. I CAN cook, but I do not enjoy it. LOL Thanks so much for stopping by, Linda. XOXO I know you are busy!

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