Why the Obituary Page Is My Favorite

Great reading on The Times‘s obit page today. Not just “Jack A. Weil, 107, the Cowboy’s Dresser” — a cowboy couturier and a centenarian?! — but two other gentlemen, Henry B.R. Brown and L. Rust Hills.

Hills was the longtime fiction editor at Esquire, a landmark job that he took very seriously.

Brown was a finance guy who helped invent an idea that we now take for granted: the money-market mutual fund. Here’s a bit from the obit:

Mr. Brown and [Bruce R.] Bent observed that it was possible for investors to get higher returns on certificates of deposit or commercial paper, but only if they could afford the six-figure sums it cost to buy into the higher-yielding instruments. Their solution was a mutual fund that essentially allowed many small investors to pool resources and share in the higher returns.

And then this section, which is also testament to the power of the press, especially when it concerns people who are trying to figure out what to do with their money:

Mr. Brown did the research, reviewing the banking laws of all 50 states. Over the next few years, trying to finance what they called the Reserve Fund, they reportedly fell $250,000 in debt. According to Time magazine, their fortunes turned after The New York Times published an article about the fund on Jan. 7, 1973. By the end of 1973 they had $100 million in deposits.

Brown was mentioned in a very good book from some time ago, A Piece of the Action, by Joe Nocera. Nocera adds an interesting caveat to Brown’s “invention” of the money-market fund:

The two men generally credited with inventing the money-market fund are Henry B.R. Brown and Bruce R. Bent. … What their story misses, though, is any larger sense that a money fund — or something quite like it — was inevitable right about then. If Brown and Bent hadn’t come up with the idea, somebody else would have; indeed, a handful of people were already moving in that direction.

This subject, that big original ideas — even far more esoteric than a money-market mutual fund — are often not so original, was the subject of this interesting New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell.

A very small side note: two of the three men on today’s obit page had the middle name of “Rust.” Strange, no? I am guessing that Rust was a family name. Name Voyager shows that “Rusty” was a pretty popular name in the 1960’s, hitting No. 385 in popularity; but these guys were both born in the 1920’s.

When I read the fascinating obits of guys like these from their generation, I can’t help but thinking: are any of us living lives half as interesting as them?

nickle young

This doesn’t mean the same series of events would have happened however, even a butterfly flapping it’s wings can have a huge effect.

Thank you for the reference to the Malcolm Gladwell article. we really enjoyed it!Thank you!

Ben Karol

Monarchy is not kept in power by the monarch that is nearly impossible above the warlord level they are kept in power by the power structure behind the monarch. If the pentagon, big business, and evangelicals decided to get on the same page and declare martial law since we are in two wars we could have rex Gorge tomorrow and they could pick between princesses for succession. Who would see that coming and would we say it was inevitable since we would just be repeating the Romans


As a completely irrelevant aside, are obituary authors the original ghost writers?


I believe that over a relevant sample size (like a million years) a lot of historical "trends" can be predicted with a very high degree of certainty. For example, I predict that at some point in time, there will be no real monarchy anywhere in the world. (In the sense of kings and queens having all the power through inheritance). This seems obvious, because a monarchy benefits only a very few people, which makes it an unstable form of society to uphold in the long run. Also, democratic leaders, in the long run, will be more competent because of the free market style they are chosen.

Of course, this is not a very bold prediction and historians would say "Well it's obvious, the principles of the french revolution apply etc..."

I often feel like the historical sciences look at a big box, containing 800 red and 200 black balls, dropping out in random order and at random times.

Instead of trying to get to the end result, that 80% of the balls are red, they obsess endlessly about each random occurence "red-red-black-black-black".


Steven Thacker

Thank you for the reference to the Malcolm Gladwell article. I really enjoyed it!

science minded

Dear Caliphilosopher;

How about history always seems inevitable when looking back on it.

Dear Blake;

You are close to understanding a real important difference between the treatment of phenomena as things and the study of experience. The problem I am having with your logic is that it almost seems to warrant the conclusion that we will become extinct- the fact that nuclear weapons exist and are in the hands of more than one group (with a tendency to be at odds)makes it so or likely in the future. I would argue that knowledge of what happened in China way way back, makes it possible to avert what some have regarded as the inevitable i.e., history somewhat repeating itself . Or let's take the end of the earth caused by our polluting it. There was a young girl in my daughter's class who tried an experiment. She took a name brand soda- I won't mention its name and soked human teeth in it for a few weeks straight monitoring what happened to the teeth- it was truly amazing what happened and gross. Curiously, the school gave out awards for the best experiment. She did not get one even though her point was well taken--and perhaps too hard to take. Trying the experiment with two different soda types would have been the next step to see if there is a difference. And seeing whether brushing the teeth daily slows the process down or can reverse it. (especially if toothpast or ajax is added).

And by the by, the sociologist, Max Weber made the point more than 100 years ago that in the Middle East, the program of social reform was almost entirely directed toward unifying the faithful against "the infidel" by "mainataining the largest possible number of warriors." His recommendation back then was truly amazing for its time- we should keep out of the region i.e., their turf. Perhaps if Weber were required reading- we would not have ever had a 9/11. and by the way, Weber's mother was a devout Protestant. Weber just learned for himself the difference between science and faith. So I stand by comment 2.



I think some historical trends, like in this case the mutual fund, are more or less inevitable once the stage has been set for them. This doesn't mean the same series of events would have happened however, even a butterfly flapping it's wings(or in Lenin's case whatever happened to his brain) can have a huge effect(Stalin, for example). This often happens in science, if i recall correctly a dream was credited with giving the discoverers of DNA structure the idea, however, even if they had both died in a car wreck, DNA structure would have been uncovered before TOO long. 9/11 wasn't inevitable, but some sort of clash with Muslims unhappy with the US's behavior and culture more or less was, and given the disparity in military power terrorism was a likely avenue. I might take a second to point out that the US trained militant Muslims to fight a superpower with terrorism in Afganistan in the 80's. 9/11 was far from inevitable, but the foundations had been laid.




Your logic is severely flawed. Claiming that the same sequence of events would happen, only with different actors is ridiculous. Was 9/11 inevitable even if Al Queda hadn't been responsible? Would someone else have filled those same shoes? Give it some thought.


As a former obit writer, morbid and completely understandable.


History is always inevitable when looking back on it.

science minded

Dear Tom;

But what do you do with this one? If a prince in china around 22oo bc hadn't called the warrior leader Son of Heaven, someone else would have. He stopped his rampage. So every historical event is inevitable. Hence, there are no accidents. And nothing is due to the individual or occurs by chance. Sounds like you believe/have faith in the idea that G-d does not throw dice. And G-d may not i.e., there is no way to take a person's faith away from them. But faith has nothing to do with chance/unique events/the individual's capacity to make a difference. So- let's take another example- we find out that we are polluting our environment from gas- and (assuming the same amount of oil use yearly worldwide- the rate of our destruction of our environment is inceasing exponentially - well should we conclude that there is nothing we can do about it. Perhaps at a certain point that might be true. But always? Or let's take another example And this is a true story. My dad, a diebetic was not feeling good- took him to the hospital- they couldn't find anything wrong- sent him home. I took it upon myself to go to columbia medical school library and look up his symptoms. I spent a day there. And came up with what I thought was the problem and the name of the doctor doing research on it. I called the doctor directly and he told me to put my dad back in the hospital and what the problem was- which I did- my dad survived another 10 years- he would have died otherwise- I was told- so are you really going to tell me that what I did, did not matter- surely, the fact that I am a research scientist by profession probably made a difference. But all the difference, no- I used my noodle. And finally- what about abstract art. So if Picasso had not lived- someone would have come up with with his style of drawing- perhaps even paintings just like his. I could go on and on with this.

Let me be clear- I am not making a religion versus science argument- just claiming someewhat of a difference in perspective. And by the by, are you the type of person who won't go under a ladder because you think it is bad luck or do you think these superstitions are silly. What about ancient warriors who believed that death just means going from one situation to another? In a way, it did not matter to them whether they lived or died and probably that did have an effect on how they fought (fearlessly) since they had nothing to fear. So what you don't know does not hurt you. Reminds me of the patient who goes to the doctor feeling sick. The doctor takes tests and sees nothing wrong. But the patient still feels sick. Should the doctor ignore the patients feelings. Or the opposite, the doctor finds a tumor, but the patient feels great. Should the patient ignore it?


Starr Brown Sears

"Rust" in Henry B.R.Brown's case,comes from "Rust of Virginia"...Ellsworth Marshall Rust,Washington 1940...

See also General George Rust papers,Perkins Library,Duke University...

You know how Virginians can be,we can always supply you with the geneaology! His niece.

Tom Smith

But this is true of much of history. If John Hancock hadn't organised a boycott of imports, somebody else would have. If Lenin hadn't led a revolution against the Tsar in 1917, somebody else would have revolted shortly afterwards. Maybe the details would have been different, but history would still have happened. Brown, Hancock & Lenin just happened to get there first.

T. S.

A bit morbid.


A little morbid to have the obituary page be your favorite, don't ya think?

science minded

Dear Dick;

There is one ghostwriter/ scientist in my case. I was stuck at first and a ghost of a scientist and writer made it possible for me to get unstuck and has remained in my thoughts until now. Perhaps he does not know of his' achievement as yet.

So I thought to say: written as the result of a collaboration with the psychologist ___________ and then continue to acknowledge those occasions when and where this special individual deserves a specific acknowledgement. So I can see how Brian, it might seem a bit morbid at first to enjoy reading obit columns. But I see it as doing right by my friends (real ones and those in spirit), by my teachers and by the members of my family. You may or may not be aware of a reference to "immortals" in science. The idea of immortality is one that needs a bit more cultivating than what I have done (which is to acknowledge the ways in which that particular person was thinking of it at the time.

Food for practical thought- it would be nice to think of a day when acknowledging our sources by name will be the norm of science. No one wants to be forgotten or should be whose made a real contribution to our endeavor.


science minded

Dear Brian;

correction- Should be who've- a grammarian I am not expecially when in a rush.


Here's a way to brighten up the Obits page even further. Play the 'Peacefully, Suddenly or After a Long Illness' game. The rules are easy. You need two players, a newspaper and the ability to read.

One player reads the name of the deceased from the more minor announcements. The other player has to guess if they died 'peacefully', 'suddenly' or 'after a long illness'. A correct answer wins a point. You need to play with the same partner every day, ideally for the rest of your life. Keep score if you like, but in the end, there is no winner.