Published May 9, 1996

Obits sell papers in retirement town

SUN CITY, Ariz. (AP) _ Max Johnson takes the newspaper in this desert retirement community to keep up on local and national news, track his investments and maybe clip a coupon or two. But those aren't the only reasons.

As soon as the Sun City Daily News-Sun hits his doorstep, he turns to the obituary page.

``As long as my name's not in there, I'm happy,'' quipped Johnson, a spry 83-year-old who golfs and swims. He says he intends to live to 100. ``It may sound morbid, but all us old folks check the paper every day to see who we know who died. At my age, I go to a lot of funerals.''

Editor Maryanne Leyshon acknowledges that the obituary section is a big reason why many readers in Sun City and Sun City West, with a combined population of 70,000, subscribe to the Daily News-Sun. And the paper, which has a circulation of about 21,000, prints lots of obits _ as many as 4,000 a year.

``It's inborn in folks in a smaller community to check the obituaries daily,'' Leyshon said. ``They do look for their friends or fellow golfers or whatever, or someone they know who has been sick.''

Obituaries, or obits, are taken so seriously that nearly everyone in the newsroom writes or edits them. The paper's five reporters rotate obit-writing duties weekly. Even sports editor Rich Bolas gets in the act, proofreading them in the composing room one last time before they go to press.

John Nick, who edits wire copy and obituaries, has earned the nickname ``Obit King'' for his high standards of accuracy, detail and proper style. He led the newsroom on a field trip to a funeral home last year so his colleagues _ some of whom had never been inside a mortuary _ could better understand the significance of writing a good obituary.

``I learned a lot when my father passed away,'' said Nick, who keeps his dad's framed obituary, which he wrote, on a wall at home. ``I learned the importance people put on reading the obituary. It's the last time a person's name will be in the paper. You have to get the facts right.''

Errors occasionally are made, and Nick usually is the one who hears about them. ``When there's a mistake, I get a lot of calls,'' he said with a smile and sigh.

Because the newspaper doesn't publish a Sunday edition, and death doesn't take a holiday, Mondays typically are hectic for the obit writers. Daily News-Sun reporters say deaths also increase sharply during the Christmas season, which can be a lonely time for elderly living alone or far from loved ones.

``There are some days we have 20 obits and not enough room to publish them all,'' said reporter Jeannie Johnson. ``We declare an obit crisis. You'll hear an editor shout, `Obit crisis!' ''

Editors then scramble to remake pages to find additional space for the notices, trim them or save a few for the next day's paper, Nick said.

Most eager new reporters, and even veterans, dread obits.

Not Johnson. She finds it educational. For example, she'd never heard of the Women's Christian Temperance Union until she wrote the obituary of a member of the anti-alcohol crusaders prominent during Prohibition.

``I look at it as a final testament to a person's life,'' Johnson said. ``There are so many interesting people here, and we learn so much about who they were and what they accomplished.''

Reporter Christine Gow, one year out of the University of Arizona's journalism school, says she's gained greater respect and admiration for older people by writing their obituaries.

``The thing I think is most interesting is the number of children and grandchildren these people had,'' Gow said. ``One lady had 60 grandchildren. 6-0! I was just amazed.

``It amazes me all the clubs they are involved in. It dispels the stereotype of old people sitting around doing nothing. These people are very active and you see that in their obituaries.''

Maryanne (Laskey) Leyshon is former enterprise editor and modern living editor of The Herald. The Daily News-Sun and The Herald are part of the Ottaway Newspapers Inc. group.