Book review: “Dead Lines”

And that’s the final word.

Just a few lines, a handful of dates and names, an accomplishment or two, and then that’s it. You’ll be done, dead, end of story – or is it? Will you be remembered only by a few lines in a newspaper or online? Or as in the new book “Dead Lines” by George Hesselberg, have you left small footprints on a lot of hearts?

Whenever a celebrity dies, we know it almost instantly. It’s on the news, online, passed by word of mouth along with reminders of their work or their lineage. We can tend to forget, then, that ordinary people accomplished things, too, but as “general assignment reporter, a crime reporter, and a columnist” for the Wisconsin State Journal, George Hesselberg remembered those folks. 

In fact, he wrote a lot of their obituaries.

There was Sister Pat, an “alley-haunting, parking ramp-camping” one-woman missionary who never met a piece of paper she didn’t like. Harry Specht was a meticulous man who laid all his paperwork in a row before shutting his garage doors and starting his car…

There was Kenny Stout, whose mother died of hypothermia, though he’d cared for her “the best he could.” Bill Matheson’s claim to fame was that he’d taped and archived twenty-five years’ worth of radio programs from his local station. Willie Chatman left hundreds of people who’ll always remember his kindness. 

A man named Thomas outlived an incorrect obituary for more than a decade. He thought about correcting it, but he didn’t. Vivian Husting left a legacy of professional work as a volunteer. And Angel Babcock Burns Richardson left questions and a couple of twisty puzzles.

Hesselberg wrote about an unidentified skeleton found in a chimney. He wrote about parents whose daughter died, and then saved lives. He wrote of love in a nursing home, a community looking for a dead man, a soldier’s bravery, “an accomplished ham-boner,” a circus heiress and a circus-lover, and of the miracle of a child in the cold…

Here we are, all of us walking around with stories to tell. You’ll hear some of them as time passes; others, you’ll read in “Dead Lines.”

There’s something irresistible about the tiny tales you’ll find inside this book; no kidding, they’re kind of like potato chips, in that you can’t enjoy just one. From 1977 to 2017, author George Hesselberg lauded each person well, making ordinary lives seem like important bits of history and letting readers imagine each subject as they went about their days, quietly hiding who they were before they fell on hard times or disappeared or went out in style – and that, in a wonderful number of tales, is just what happened.

Some of these obits will make you snort, while others will give you pause. At least one will baffle you like no mystery could. Some will sadden you, and they’ll all make you pay attention to the invisible people among us. 

And for that, you’ll love “Dead Lines” until its very last word.

“Dead Lines: Slices of Life from the Obit Beat” by George Hesselberg

c.2021, Wisconsin Historical Society Press $20.00 / higher in Canada 200 pages

Author George Hesselberg.