Oh look! A shiny thing: Writing the tough stories
You can never really do someone justice in a single article, but you can try.
I could not explain Albert.
I realized this fairly early on in the process of writing about Albert Matthiesen, better known to all of Worthington, Luverne and our surrounding communities as “Sonny” or just “Albert,” when I told a friend that he’d passed away on May 26.
That friend hadn’t lived here for very long, and though I arrange words for a living, I remembered very quickly that words have their limits when I tried to explain who Albert was and what he meant to the people of Worthington.
I think I ended up saying something silly, like “Well, he went to all the town festivals, all the events. He was at everything.”
I’m not even sure I mentioned his best-known characteristics: his smile, and his greeting of “Hello, friend,” and its variant, “Hi, buddy,” but even if I did, it was hopelessly inadequate.
I’ve written a few features on people who have passed away since I started working here last August, and I’ve written rough drafts of obituaries for a few of my grandparents in the past few years as well.
I’m well aware that you can never really do someone justice in a single article, whether they only lived a year or, like Albert and three of my grandparents, made it past the 80 mark.
You can usually hit the high points of people’s careers in an obituary, like serving as city attorney or school secretary, or give people an impression of what was important to them, whether it was children, cats, books or education.
My goal, generally, is to give people who didn’t know the person an idea of who that person was, and ideally, to make them wish they’d known that person.
I did the best I could for Albert, but I knew in advance it wasn’t going to be enough.
I even broke a rule or two for him — our newspaper uses AP Style, which dictates that you use someone’s last name to refer to them throughout an article, unless there’s a reason not to write it that way. That felt wrong, so I didn’t do it. Albert was like Madonna or Plato: one name was enough.
I spoke with multiple people to get some different viewpoints for the story, and everyone was kind and helpful and sad. I was sad too. I kept tearing up while I was writing, knowing that I’d not get to see him at another King Turkey Day or International Festival, and knowing the piece wasn’t going to be good enough.
And at one point, my computer ate my notes. I lost my interview with Kathy Lesnar, and she graciously spoke with me again, but I can still remember one phrase from that first interview: Albert, she said, was the real thing.
And he was. He really was our friend.
For days afterward I had Nick Cave’s tribute to Johnny Cash stuck in my head: “Let the bells ring. He is the real thing.”
I could not explain Albert, and fortunately, I did not have to. Kathy and all the other people who spoke with me helped give those who did not know him a small glimpse of who he was: our friend.
The real thing.