Total Pageviews

Friday, 24 September 2021

Vale Jim Sheeler: An Obit for a Master of Obituary Writing

Jim Sheeler had an action figure of Pulitzer Prize-winning, typewriter-toting American war correspondent Ernie Pyle on his office desk. He told journalism students, He’s the only GI Joe without a gun - but his weapon is far more powerful. He has a typewriter.”

On a day of vile abuse of readers’ trust by lying young reporters in Australia, it was especially sad to learn that Jim Sheeler had died last week at his home in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, aged just 53. Sheeler will be best remembered for his obituary writing, an art form now lost to many newspapers, the more so since US papers started charging for them. Of course I never knew Sheeler, but I am proud to have once worked for a man who had one of the obituaries he wrote included in a collection of some of the finest printed. This was Jack Waterford, former editor of The Canberra Times, a paper now an embarrassment of its former self. Jack’s most noted obituary was a warts-and-all tribute to the New Zealand-born journalist Bruce Juddery. On the same newspaper, an assistant editor, Crispin Hull, once allowed his computer’s spell check to meddle with an obituary Juddery had written about an Australian National University professor who was survived by, among others, a daughter called Ingrid. Juddery’s obituary appeared in print and the daughter’s name had been changed to Ingrate. Ingrid was less than grateful.


Sheeler began in journalism the same way I did in 1965, by writing an obituary. On the Case Western Reserve University’s College of Arts and Science website, Sheller, who was the university’s Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism and Media Writing, had written of himself, “As a young boy, reading late at night with a flashlight under the covers, I revelled in stories of darkness and light. As a journalist and teacher, I continue to search for stories in the shadows, revealing everyday philosophy and wisdom hidden in people and places that are too often overlooked. As a young newspaper reporter, I specialised in narrative obituaries of people whose names had never before appeared in the newspaper, but whose stories were often more fascinating than any celebrity or politician.”


Sheeler went on to say he was “handing off the flashlight to students, teaching them to find hidden stories. In that search, they’ll use traditional reporting tools – a pen, a notebook and heaps of curiosity … Whichever medium they choose for publication, I expect my students’ work to remain rooted in a simple request that hasn’t changed for centuries: tell me a story.” If he had known what was going to happen in Australian journalism, he might have added, “But make sure your story is true. Do your research, garner all available facts of the matter, and present them in a truly honest manner.” It’s too late for that advice here, I’m afraid. The ugly horse has bolted.


Sheeler made his name with the Rocky Mountain News and won a Pulitzer Prize for his extensive and compassionate reporting on the families of Colorado soldiers killed in the Iraq War and the man tasked with notifying those families. For a year, he followed US Marine Major Steve Beck, whose job was to inform families of the deaths of soldiers stationed overseas. Sheeler’s 12,000-word “Final Salute” won the feature writing Pulitzer in 2006 and was expanded into a book of the same name that received a National Book Award nomination two years later.


James Expedite Robert Sheeler III was born in Houston, Texas, on May 3, 1968, to Baton Rogue-born Jim and Brenda Sue (née Cammack) Sheeler. Jim II, prominent in the oil business and later a “gentleman rancher”, died of cancer at his home in Brenham, Texas, on December 9, 2018, aged 79, with his children beside him. Brenda Sue had died suddenly in 2013.


Jim III majored in journalism at the University of Colorado and started out at the Boulder Daily Camera. He wrote for the Boulder Planet weekly paper and the Denver Post before joining the Rocky Mountain News in 2004. Sheeler's books also included Obit: Inspiring Stories of Ordinary People Who Led Extraordinary Lives (2007) and he contributed to an obituary writing guide Life On the Death Beat. He is survived by his wife Annick (née Sauvageot) and son James Sheeler IV, a recent graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology.


In April 2002, Michael Roberts interviewed Jim III for "Dead Lines," a salute to "A Colorado Life," the obituary column Sheeler wrote. “Writing obituaries is usually a beginning reporter's job,” Sheeler told Roberts. “I think that's usually why they're done so poorly. But obituaries can be stories that teach you a little bit more about life through death. And I don't really think it matters how old you are to learn those lessons.”


“A lot of people probably think I'm this 60-year-old guy who's all burnt out. They're surprised when they see me. But when they realise I'm there to get a real story with a beginning, middle and end to it and that I'm trying to learn everything I possibly can about this person, they really open up.”


Roberts said a prime example of Sheeler’s work was a 1999 piece about Johnny Richardson, “whom Sheeler picked to memorialise simply because his official obituary was the shortest on the page one day: ‘Jonathan 'Johnny' Richardson, of Denver, a shoe-shine worker, died August 13 in Denver. He was 74. No services were held. He was born June 24, 1925. His interest was listening to jazz. There are no immediate survivors.’ But as it turned out, there was much more to Richardson's tale than that. Sheeler discovered plenty, including an old lover turned friend who had ordered a headstone as a way of ensuring that some record of Richardson would remain. He'd always wanted to write a book about his life, the friend said, but he never got around to it. Being immortalised by Sheeler was the next best thing.”

One word of advice from me. Reading well-written obituaries can often provide some excellent ideas for characters in works of fiction. In Australia, unfortunately, so called “journalists” are now writing fiction as news reports.

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

When Four Great Rivals Joined Forces for a Common Cause: The Educational Bureau of Portable Typewriter Manufacturers


The L.C. Smith-Corona, Remington, Underwood and Royal typewriter companies gave a brief pretence of unity, and of appearing to bury their hatchets, in the northern summer of 1928, all for the cause of getting portable typewriters into American classrooms. The four fierce competitors in the typewriter market formed the Educational Bureau of Portable Typewriter Manufacturers, with headquarters in New York City at 247 Park Avenue, Manhattan. The organiser and first director was Frank Nicholas Kondolf (right, 1863-1944), who had been president of the Remington Typewriter Company until replaced in mid-November 1922 in a peace deal struck between shareholders and the board of directors.

From 1931 the EBPTM was under the control of Joseph Lee Sweeney (left, 1891-1964), originally from Owensboro, Kentucky, who in 1919 had worked on a shorthand machine for the Stenotype company in Indianapolis and had been patenting typewriters since at least 1923. Before moving to the EBPTM, Sweeney had organised the Master Reporting Company in New York, offering the services of expert stenotypists. Sweeney quickly tired of trying to keep an uneasy peace between the four major typewriter manufacturers in the EBPTM, the more so when his suggestions to them that they accept a typewriter keyboard specifically designed for school use were ignored. Sweeney quit the bureau and in 1938 patented two “educational” typewriters (below). For one of these typewheel projects, Sweeney joined forces with the ubiquitous Harry Bates of the Bates Laboratories Inc (Bates’s typewriter enterprises have been extensively covered previously on this blog).

In forming the EBPTM, each company put up $8000 to get the bureau’s operations started and forked out an additional $19,000 each to continue the promotional campaign to the end of 1930 (the total represents $1.645 million in today’s money). Much of this $108,000 went toward advertising, with five different advertisements placed in publications such as Boy’s Life in November and December 1928, The American Magazine, The Literary Digest, Cosmopolitan, The Nation’s Schools and St Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks. Among those endorsing the campaign was Patty Smith Hill, (1868-1946), an educator who stressed the importance of the creativity and natural instincts of children. She was on the faculty of Columbia University Teachers’ College from 1906-36. Another was Angelo Patri (1876-1965), a 1904 Columbia graduate who set out to engage students with tasks that went beyond book learning. He wrote a syndicated column on child psychology, “Our Children”, for newspapers and magazines. Others were educational psychologist Frank Nugent Freeman (1880-1961), who taught at the University of Chicago from 1909-39 and served as dean of the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Education until 1948, Claude Anderson Phillips (1871-1960) of Missouri and Michael Vincent O'Shea (1866-1932) of Wisconsin.


Freeman worked closely with the leading force behind the short-lived EBPTM exercise, Benjamin DeKalbe Wood (1894-1986), an educator, researcher and director-professor at Columbia, and the man who had convinced the four major typewriter companies to join together on this project. With EBPTM backing, Wood and Freeman embarked on a typewriters in schools experiment – almost certainly the largest systematic investigation of the impact of placing writing technology in a classroom environment ever undertaken anywhere at any time. In the first year of the experiment, 24 schools, 239 teachers and 8824 students were in a control (non-typewriter using) group and 1993 typewriters were supplied to 27 schools with 180 teachers and 6125 students in the experimental group (1839 typewriters were allocated to students, a ratio of about two typewriters to every seven students, and 154 to teachers). The performance of the students in the experimental group was tracked for a second year, when 100 more typewriters were supplied. Typewriters were used to do work in all subjects, including art. Students were also taught about care of the typewriters. The experiment started in September 1929 in public schools in Albuquerque, Altoona (Pennsylvania), Chicago, Elizabeth and Montclair (New Jersey), Pittsburgh, Roslyn (NY) and Springfield (Massachusetts), and in private schools in New York City, Philadelphia, Utica (NY) and Chicago.


The experiment showed children could learn to type before they were able to develop writing skills. Children who had trouble coordinating their fingers at an early age developed a dislike for handwriting, but those who used a typewriter got a head start in self-expression. They also had a much higher output and a higher quality of work. They found typing to be glamorous and had much improved spelling, grammar and arithmetic. As well, they formed good habits in concentration and had excellent neatness.

Ben D. Wood, left., and Frank N. Freeman.

As a result of the experiment, Wood and Freeman published through MacMillan in May 1932 An Experimental Study of the Educational Influences of the Typewriter in the Elementary School Classroom. Their work was quickly followed up in August 1932 by the second book in a two-volume report, Ralph Haefner’s The Typewriter in the Primary and Intermediate Grades
(also MacMillan). Haefner (right, 1894-1986), a New York teacher, had worked in conjunction with Wood and Freeman. The two books are available to read in full online. Rollo George Reynolds (1886-1958) of Columbia acted as an administrative adviser for the experiment. 
Wood was a pioneer in learning technologies and automated testing methods. Born in Brownsville, Texas, he graduated from Columbia in 1922 with a MA in philosophy. From 1927 he headed Columbia's collegiate research bureau. At the start of An Experimental Study of the Educational Influences of the Typewriter in the Elementary School Classroom, Wood and Freeman acknowledged, “This investigation was made possible by two grants, secured through the Typewriter Educational Research Bureau [that is, the EBPTM] … These two grants, one made early in 1929 and the other in the summer of 1930, were made as outright gifts for the support of the research program, and were set up as irrevocable trusts under the exclusive control of the undersigned [Wood and Freeman] as directors of the investigation.” Wood and Freeman said the four typewriter companies had made available 2100 portables (525 each) to use in the experiment. The authors thanked the companies for “their effective cooperation in avoiding publicity and in maintaining the scientific integrity of the experiment … ”


Wood believed a person's ability to think was innate, not acquired, and he considered thinking was based on a knowledge of facts. Associated Press in New York in March 1967 reported that Wood, after half a century of work in the field, had “brought to stake many of academia’s sacred cows”. AP said Wood believed “teachers spend too much time teaching … [He] has long insisted that the task of the teacher is not to follow a rigid curriculum, but to get the student to learn by thinking”. AP quoted Wood as saying, “A child’s mind is not an empty basket to receive what the teacher pours into it. It has taken us more than 2000 years to appreciate the lesson of Socrates – that education is the stimulation of creative thinking.” Wood went on, “Our schools are turning out intellectual paupers who come to depend on the teacher. Curiosity is a precious gift, and we must be careful not to vaccinate the child against it.”


In August this year Seattle education writer Audrey Watters published a new book, Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning, in which she devoted a chapter to the EBPTM. Watters, an independent scholar, is author the Hack blogs. Watters wrote that the four companies involved “agreed to contribute equally to the bureau, which, according to its initial arrangement, would not sell typewriters or be operated for financial gain. Although they were underwriting the research, the typewriter manufacturers promised to abstain from directly marketing their products to the schools participating in the experiments or from using Wood or Freeman’s names in their advertising materials. Nevertheless there were numerous episodes when salespeople did approach the schools – ‘bootleg typewriter activity’, as the head of the Columbia University bookstore described some of the attempts to peddle products to the students and parents at Horace Mann School, a private school with ties to Columbia’s Teachers College where some of the typewriter research was being conducted. The companies were admonished for this behavior, but there were no real consequences.” 
Watters went on, “After the initial flurry of good publicity from the release of the Wood-Freeman report, the typewriter companies became increasingly frustrated with the bureau’s direction and the slow pace of adoption of typewriters by schools, most of which found making any purchases of any instructional devices utterly unfeasible during the Great Depression. The majority of the sniping in the correspondence to the Educational Bureau of Portable Typewriter [Manufacturer]s involved one manufacturer accusing another of improper behavior, as everyone involved was trying, if nothing else, to keep their heads above water during desperately difficult economic times.” The Wood-Freeman experiment is also covered in The Computer and the Page: Publishing, Technology and the Classroom by James Robert Kalmbach (1997).

Images from Wood & Freeman's book:







Images from Haefner's book:














Sunday, 19 September 2021

Lazarus, the 1950 All-Black Olivetti Lexikon 80 That Came Back From The Dead

Less than a week ago, nothing worked. The carriage refused to move (after all, it had a very large concrete-hard wasp's nest stuck in it). The shift keys wouldn't budge, the typebars stayed put. The innards were full of rust and densely thick rubbish. To paraphrase the Monty Python Norwegian Blue parrot skit, it was stone dead, definitely deceased; it was demised, it had ceased to be, it had expired and gone to meet its maker; it was a stiff, bereft of life, resting in peace, its metabolic processes were history; it was off the twig, it had kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This was an ex-typewriter.

Now it's like Lazarus, it has risen from the dead. It has been reborn. It's typing beautifully. It's a 1950 (serial number 2096861) Ivrea-made Olivetti Lexikon 80 and it was worth all the effort. 

What it was like:













Below, after the first first wash: