Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Speaking of eulogies ... here's my take

     Eulogies, whether written or spoken, can be difficult ... if you let them be.
     I try not to. And, in what might be a surprise to many (including me), I have become a eulogist (is that even a word?). This is not a role I envisioned.
     The one I did last Friday for Mr. Cook -- J.W. Cook Jr., the longtime Woodlawn High School assistant principal, principal and friend -- was my sixth.

A couple of the Woodlawn graduating classes
sent beautiful flower arrangements for
Mr. J.W. Cook Jr.'s memorial service.
      As I said at the start of my talk, and have said every time, it is an honor to be asked. Although at two of my eulogies, the ones for my father and mother, I wasn't asked; I just did it. They were two of my favorite people.
       Eulogies, in my opinion, require propriety, respect and tenderness. These are not everyday qualities for which I'm known, but I can get there when need be.
       What one wants to convey to the audience, or the readership, is the sense of the person's life and personality, of their values, what they meant to you and those you're addressing. Mostly, one wants to give the family comfort, an expression of the love for them and the deceased.
        I think I've done that; I've been told so. After this many times, I would hope I've gotten the idea.
        But if you think I'm comfortable doing eulogies ... no, not quite. It's not scary, but it is a challenge. I'm not nervous beforehand (I know nervous from involvement in athletics, and this ain't it). I'd say I'm anxious.
         I thought the two speakers before me at Mr. Cook's memorial service, Coach A.L. Williams (my good friend for so many years) and Janis Hill, did wonderful jobs. So did the Rev. Tom Harrison of Broadmoor Baptist Church, whose eulogy was as good as any we've heard in recent years (and we've been to a bunch of funerals).
          I so admire members of the clergy, who do these eulogies -- among many other tasks -- so often, sometimes in tragic situations.   
        Two disclaimers:
        (1) I made my living as a writer and editor, not as a speaker. I sometimes tell the audience of this before I speak in public, reminding them to bear with me.
        (2) As I write this, I am not -- emphasis, not -- looking for compliments. I have received many over the years and particularly in the past few days, and I'm grateful.
        The purpose of writing this piece is to explain what it feels like to do a eulogy. I talk about this with good friend Teddy Allen, who has done several eulogies and like a lot of us with newspaper and sportswriting backgrounds written many more. We, of course, have North Louisiana in common.
        Us Louisiana-based writers all, I believe, greatly admire Teddy's ability to dazzle with his writing, so I was surprised when he said that he finds writing a eulogy more difficult than delivering it in spoken form before an audience.
        My view on that is that I can erase or change what I'm writing. Speaking, I sometimes lose track of where I'm going.
        I know Teddy is also quite entertaining as a speaker; he has emceed events, and even gotten paid for speaking engagements. Whatever he's earned is more than I've been paid to speak (it's never happened). Nor has that even been my desire. An orator I'm not.
        Sure, I took speech in high school (Judy Bordelon) and college (Ed Luck), and I was a solid "B" student -- as I was  in most everything, except science courses) -- but I'm glad they weren't at the eulogies I gave to grade me.  
       Makes me wonder, though, how I could've done if my career path had turned toward television or radio, or if I'd have stayed in the writing/reporting end of sportswriting -- rather than editing -- later in my career when so many writers crossed into TV reports and videos.
        I did do enough P.A. work on sports events and analysis on football/basketball/baseball on radio to enjoy it. But I know that writing/editing was the best route for me.
        Still, I'd be interested in giving speeches or reading TV news with the use of a teleprompter. I've heard people do that, and it works.
        Maybe I'll go to the TCU journalism school and ask if I can sit in on some classes with instruction in teleprompter use. But my goal is to improve as a public speaker.
          Yes, I know people "enjoyed" the eulogies I gave, if enjoyed is the right word. Maybe appreciated is better. And they were satisfied with them. But I wasn't ... totally.
          Tried to do one (on my Dad) off the cuff, but stumbled around too much and was too disjointed. Tried "talking points" notecards for my mother's service; it went a little better.
          I've written out the last three I've done and read portions of them, but when I do that, I lose eye contact with the audience. Don't like that. And sometimes when I go "off script," I have trouble getting back to where I was.
           You might be saying, "He's too hard on himself." OK, I am often that way, always have been. That's my insecurity. But my motivation is to improve. I want to be a smoother, more comfortable speaker.
           Teddy and I agree on this: The most difficult part of doing a eulogy is to keep a check on your emotions. He remembers that in the first one he did publicly, his emotions were hard to control and he had a tough time getting through it.
           I've had my moments of choking up each time. But I find I have to try to stay detached, and it is hard.
           Talking about my parents, my father-in-law (Howard Shaw Sr.), brother-in-law (Howard Shaw Jr), one of my very best friends (Ken Liberto) and the man who meant so much to so many (Mr. Cook), it was hard not to break down in tears. But it was also easy because these were people who meant so much to me.
           What a eulogy should be, what I want it to be, is genuine, heartfelt (even if it's not smooth). I was -- again -- honored to represent all those Woodlawn kids over three decades.
           Don't mind doing eulogies. But you know, really, I hope it's a long, long time before I have to do this again.             


  1. From Kathy Shaw Spillers: As someone who gets choked up even thinking about speaking in front of as few as five people, AND cries emotionally at the slightest provocation, I want to let you know that hearing someone speak from the heart about a loved one is an absolutely beautiful experience. However, seeing/hearing that speaker choke up slightly, or get a little sidetracked in a memory, makes it all the more poignant and "heartfelt," in my opinion. As much as I appreciate a smooth speaker, a smooth eulogy leads me to feel that perhaps the speaker did not really know the deceased, and seems more like they are reciting a prepared script. So, Uncle Nico, please don't try too hard to smooth out your eulogies, as heartfelt means so much to so many at that particular time.

  2. From Roger Poole: You did well. It was from your heart. Sometimes a slick polished speaker does not resonate with emotion. Most want to be touched by sincerity.

  3. From Chuck Baker: Strange subject for us to have in common. Last year I had two very close friends die on back-to-back days. Neither family knew the other. Also unknown to each family was that they both asked me, within a few hours, to do eulogies for my friends, at funerals that turned out to be on the same day, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ... I felt so honored to be asked.
    One attribute you didn't mention that I included in both eulogies was humor. And I have been told literally hundreds of times by attendees how much they appreciated me bringing something lighthearted to the service.
    Since then I've done a third eulogy (as a result of a family member attending one of my doubleheader funerals). Since, I've also had numerous other friends ask me to eulogize them when the time comes. What an honor.
    Also, strangely enough, I had Mrs. Bordelon for speech at Woodlawn.

  4. From Mickey Lowe: I have enjoyed the last two posts. Mr. Cook was a great man. I went to Fair Park and did not have the privilege to have known him as a principal. That might have been a good thing because I was not the best student. I did have the privilege to work closely with him through the PTA at Woodlawn. Both of my boys graduated from Woodlawn. My oldest was in the class of '89. He tells the story about them taking the senior picture. Mr. Cook said he always wanted to be at both ends of the picture. So when the photo started he was on one end and he then moved to the other end, so he is at both ends of the photograph.
    My wife worked at the school quite a bit while both boys were going to school. We both were active in the PTA and she went to several of the state conventions and she always laughed and said “Bubba” always had a great time and was a good dancer.
    Our school system lost a great leader and person. You and I were lucky we had great leaders (Coach Farrar, Coach Williams, Mr. Cook) who taught not only the three R’s but they taught us how to be a good person and a productive member of society.
    I know that without the influence and love that I received from Coach Farrar I could have easily gone the other way. Just think how many young people those teachers influence daily.

  5. From Dr. Donald Webb: I value your moving, helpful words on eulogies, Nico. And your tribute to Teddy: right on target!
    Can't do anything about the word "blog" I suppose, you shapers of the culture? I mean, reading through your wise and touching sentences, then using the ugly word "blog" for them ... UGH!
    By the way, it's no comfort to you both, but as you get older, your emotions creep ever closer to the surface, and funerals get far, far harder to lead without weeping. So serve while you can.

  6. From Teddy Allen: Don, BLOG is ugly and stands for WEB LOG, which I’m sure you knew because you are a doctor. Me and Nico (Nico and I) are just sports hacks, still trying to understand the split infinitive. WOE is one of my favorite words, as is ANGST. They just SOUND like what they are.
    Nico, thank you for throwing plaudits my way. They were not true, but it sure was fun to see them.
    Dr. Webb’s eulogy for Coach Farrar, for a variety of reasons -- the relationship, the wealth of material from which to work, the agreement to "come out of eulogy retirement" and do it in the first place -- is the standard. Touched every base. It was gone when it left the bat. One of those where the left fielder doesn’t even turn around.

  7. From Joe Raymond Peace: I did the eulogies for my Mom and Dad, one of my best friends in Sicily Island and some of my former players. As you do these requests, it makes me think who will do mine. It is indeed an honor for a family to ask someone to give a eulogy for their loved ones.

  8. From Jim Pruett: It IS an honor to be asked to do a eulory.. I was asked to do one some time ago for a Memphis friend. I got through it by the hardest, but the pauses required by the sudden rush of emotions were tough.