Obituary Writing Guide

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Shipmate Obituaries:

The Class Executive Committee policy is to have an obituary published for each deceased classmate. The obituary is a permanent record of the life of each alumnus, and is retained in the Naval Academy Archives, which is a unit of the National Archives. A classmate is asked to volunteer to prepare the obituary for someone whom he knows well, and, of course, coordinates with the family in preparing and submitting to Shipmate. Consider writing your own obituary now, even if you are in perfect health. Instructions for writing an obituary for publication in Shipmate can be found below.

A Fitting Tribute: How to Write an Obituary

By Chester H. Shaddeau Jr. '47


One of the most difficult tasks a person can have is writing the obituary of a friend or shipmate. This is especially true for younger writers, who, fortunately, have not had the duty of doing so. How does one do it? Where to begin? A few of our Alumni have become very adept at writing obituaries for publication. They include Jesse Gay '35, Bill Ruhe '39, and Chet Shaddeau '47. I have asked Chet Shaddeau '47 to provide a Dutch Uncle's Guide to writing obituaries, as a service to those who face this difficult task. Perhaps this will be of some help as you try to prepare a fitting and dignified tribute to a fallen shipmate. Mike Collins


First of all, get the obit into print ASAP. The normal print lag is about seven weeks. Don't add to it! I generally begin the obit with a flat statement, including full name and title, of the time, place, and cause (if available) of death.

I then proceed to place of birth, date of birth, age, early schooling and parents, as available and appropriate, followed by the source and type of appointment to the Academy. The description of their Midshipman career is usually very short, but may well expand if he was an All America, six-striper, Rhodes Scholar, or whatever, and I try to include clubs and sports as available. I always indicate which Company he (or she) graduated with, as it is invariably asked for by Classmates. If married, I try to include wife's maiden name (or husband's name), home, and date of marriage. If multiples, be as accurate as possible these can be dangerous rocks and shoals!

I generally follow this with his (or her) service career, in as much detail as possible, but keeping it concise. I try to ignore routine "meritorious" and "attendance" medals but highlight decorations for valor. Ships, stations, aircraft squadrons I attempt to pinpoint as fully as possible, but exact dates are not usually included hard to get right.

Civilian careers should be covered in just as much detail, and include honors, fraternities, and civic distinctions as appropriate.

Advanced education and degrees are important in both civil and military careers. Fit them in where they occurred.

In full retirement, hobbies, charities, and clearly interesting activities should be included. Use judgment about detail in listing survivors if there are only a few, be detailed, but if he had 14 grandchildren, don't name them all.

Finish off with known details about place, date, and manner of final disposal of remains and services. Probably best to avoid matters regarding memorial donations unless requested by family. Remember that the family will be extremely attuned to details, so be cautious about making any assumptions as to relationships. Avoid them if unsure. Try to talk with a member of the family other than the widow, in most cases, who will be able to get details without inflicting further pain. I refer here to divorces, estranged children, live-in girlfriends, etc., but it refers to all details.

Try to get an obit from the local paper it usually has much of what you want, but remember that you are writing for an audience (Academy Alumni) who is possibly interested in some things that the paper (and the family!) may not understand. (References to driving battleships when he was a DD skipper are not uncommon!) Correcting that is your job.

If you write the obit, sign it, if you wish. If the family writes it, credit them, even if you edit. Keep in mind that the family will probably clip and retain the obit, and it will be a keepsake for them. They deserve good work.

For God's sake, try to get all the names spelled correctly!

The following is just one (fictionalized) example, but you may find others in previous and subsequent issues.



Water T. Door died of a stroke at Albion, KY, on 26 June 1999. He was 75 years old. A native of Albion, "Leaky" attended Kansas State University prior to receiving his congressional appointment to the Academy from Alabama. He graduated with the Class of 1947 in June of 1946, a member of the 15th Company.

Upon graduation, he served briefly in JONES (DM-36), and decommissioned it, then operated from the Philippines for a year in PCE-871 and another year out of Kwajalein in PC-1186. He served thereafter in WALDRON (DD-699) until his resignation in 1949.

In 1949 he began his engineering career with Southland Widget Power Co., where he was to spend his entire civilian working life. He climbed the corporate ladder, and on the way up served as plant superintendent of two widget producing stations; superintendent of production; assistant chief engineer, then chief engineer; vice-president, executive vice-president, president in 1970, president and CEO in 1971, then chairman and CEO from 1984 to 1989, when he retired as chairman emeritus.

He served on the boards of numerous businesses, as well as on the Robert E. Lee Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the Board of Trustees of Beauregard College and of Agnes Scott College, was a past president of the Albion Chamber of Commerce, and of the Paul Jones Society of America. He held membership in numerous professional, business, and technical societies, was a member of Sigma Chi and of Rotary, and was particularly active in working to keep Albion as host city for the 1960 International Widget Competition.

He is survived by his wife of 53 years, the former Mary Lee; sons, Water and Explosion; ten grandchildren; and one great grandchild.

Memorial services were conducted at the Albion Memorial Church.

Chet Shaddeau '47


***Please note that we have recently instituted a maximum word limit of 400 words. Obituaries may be submitted electronically to, or via USPS to: Shipmate obituaries, 247 King George Street, Annapolis, MD 21402-5068. One photo may accompany the text and will be returned once the magazine has been printed. We request that irreplaceable photos not be sent in case of loss or damage in transit. If sending the photo electronically, please be sure that the resolution is least 300 dpi. If you have any questions regarding submission of obituaries to Shipmate, please contact either your Class secretary, or Shipmate's obituaries editor, Timothy Elizabeth Woodbury (410-263-4448 x112 or, December 2001, page 29.