There is so much to tell about the life of a person — their joys, suffering, loves, dislikes, accomplishments and so on — in the space of an obituary in the hometown newspaper.
But it is what we have always done. It is tradition.
This most significant telling of every woman’s or man’s story often is left to a family member in the chaotic hours after death has claimed our loved one.
And so it was when Harry Weathersby Stamps of Long Beach, Miss., died Saturday March 9, his daughter Amanda Lewis of Dallas found herself writing the obituary for her beloved father on the road back to Mississippi.
The obituary, edited by her sister Alison Stamps, may just be the best ever written, perfect even, as it captured the essence of a man whose spirit, good humor, irascible nature and oversized humanity will live on through the finely crafted words of this loving tribute.
The obituary was first published in the Sunday Sun Herald, and then again Monday.
By midmorning Monday, the wonderful story of Harry Stamps was being shared through Facebook, Twitter, email and all of the other magic of the digital age to points very distant from Long Beach.
Oh, how it spread
One person recommended it to his friends, they to theirs, and so on.
Omniture, the application that reports the metrics on SunHerald.com, was showing remarkable life as the hourly numbers shot upward into unexpected territory for what was otherwise a slow news day.
In the days that followed, the tsunami-like power of the Harry Stamps obituary washed away records on our website, with only Hurricane Katrina remaining above this viral surge of page views.
By Tuesday, our website recorded more than 530,000 page views with the obituary drawing a considerable part of the traffic. Wednesday likewise exceeded 500,000 page views.
Meanwhile, Tammy Smith’s front page story about the obituary was also gaining considerable interest, and in the next days became our all-time single-story record-holder with more than 100,000 page views. Over the course of last week, Harry Stamps and his obituary were receiving acclaim worldwide.
Untold thousands heralded the late college dean and the perfect obituary. One tweet called him "the most interesting man in the world."
The instant success of the obituary was an affirmation of the power of the Internet in its most positive form. The viral nature of the Web usually derives from the fascination with celebrity or the less than savory side of human behaviour.
It was as if the world was just awaiting the good news of a man as decent, self-effacing and smart as Harry Stamps. His everyman common sense, taste and humour brought to mind a modern-day Will Rogers.
Although the obituary was long by Sun Herald standards, it apparently was read to the end by most. For like the perfect country and western song, You Never Even Called Me by My Name, written by Steve Goodman and John Prine, the obituary covered all of the principal themes of human history — love, food, style, resistance to daylight-saving time, and so much more.
Amanda’s seamless story of her dad’s life painted the picture of a man perfectly happy with his place in the universe, and of a loving father, grandfather and teacher who had left much to all of those who were touched by his wit and wisdom.
In the end, his greatest gift to all of us may be this obituary — one that placed a blessing on its readers, and a yearning in our hearts for more like him.
And we were reminded of the great power of obituaries, and the hope that all of us will have a teller of our life’s story to be even half as good as the author of his.
Where is he now?
As for Harry, I see him now at a table at the Heavenly Buttermilk and Cornbread Martini Bar, surrounded by a group of smart women, and he’s regaling them with wondrous stories of his life and times.
He is wearing a Fruit of the Loom T-shirt that says "There is no DST in heaven," and his grass-stained MSU baseball cap is back on his head in a relaxed, comfortable place.
He looks beyond his table, over our way, raises his glass in a toast. And he smiles.
Stan Tiner is vice president and executive editor of the Biloxi Sun Herald.
—McClatchy Tribune Services