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Obituaries tell us not only about who died, but who lived -- and how. In reading them we discover that some of the lives that have had the most impact on our own were lived by men and women we have never heard of. Other lives have had an impact that is small or even nil, but seem to suggest something large or telling about what it is to be human in a particular place and time.
Few people had a greater impact on the way we live now than J. Presper Eckert, Jr., and John W. Mauchly, who are regarded as the principal developers of the computer. Their pioneering work changed the world forever, but when they died they were hardly household names, even in the households in which their invention has become a common appliance.
Maggie Kuhn, who had worked twenty-five years for the United Presbyterian Church in New York, commuting daily from her home in Philadelphia, reached the mandatory retirement age of sixty-five and was forced to leave her job in 1970. "They gave me a sewing machine," she recalled, "but I never opened it. I was too busy." Within months of her retirement, she was organizing the Gray Panther movement to campaign against age discrimination.
Anne Scheiber had no close family and no friends. She had no projects, no charities, did no volunteer work. She lived simply and cared nothing about possessions. After she retired a half century ago from the Internal Revenue Service, she devoted herself to the stock market, turning her $5,000 savings into a $22 million portfolio. She lived reclusively until she was 101, and when she died, she left her entire fortune to Yeshiva University -- an institution with which she had no direct contact -- to set up scholarships for needy womenstudents.
J. Prosper Eckert, Jr., and John W. Mauchly, Maggie Kuhn and Anne Scheiber, are among the hundred or so men and women you will meet in the pages of this celebratory book. They had little in common except that they were Americans and that when they died their lives were illuminated in obituaries and farewells in The New York Times. These brief and elegantly written accounts of their time on earth -- however glorious or humble, happy or sad, long or short -- evoke laughter or tears or wonder at the astonishing variety of human experience. At least that is what I thought when I chose them from among the thousands of obituaries and farewells that have appeared in The Times since the early 1980s.
The selection process was quite personal. I responded largely to storytelling that was lively, that stimulated or moved me or made me smile. I particularly enjoyed reading about the remarkable life of someone I had never encountered before and feeling that with his or her passing, the world had become a duller place. I also rooted for people who sustained hardships and came out all right in the end. I'm sure my reactions matched those of legions of Times readers who have discovered that the obit pages are the best read in the newspaper, invariably satisfying and even joyful on occasion. These readers understand that there's nothing morbid about a good obituary because a good obit is about life and not death.
The Last Word. Copyright © by Marvin Siegel. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.