Do Your Own Obit Now – Vennie White Did!

May 16, 2013 | 4 comments

While most folks avoid the idea of writing their own obituaries, Vennie White has already penned hers and shared it with family and friends – to mixed reactions.

I met her over the weekend at the Southwest Book Fiesta. She very enthusiastically told me about her own obituary project. Here’s what she wrote to me about it:

Though I have six siblings and I’m next to the youngest, I became the person to plan my mother’s service and write my dad’s obituary (on a laptop at a conference I was attending). Early in my newspaper career, I wrote obituaries, often calling funeral homes and families for more information. I usually wished that I’d met the person I was writing about and even received thank you notes for my efforts to include special details. This was in the early 1980s, when obits were free rather than being an important source of a newspaper’s income.

More recently, when my brother died unexpectedly, I again became the person to handle arrangements. There were some small family disagreements–did my brother graduate from U of Colo or Colo State? Where did he work before mental illness took over his life? The pastor who wrote his obituary  mentioned my brother’s imaginary children, dolls that he carried with him everywhere. I thought that was perfect; my sister was not so pleased.

All of this led me to write my own obituary–so that no one else would have to figure out what to say. I sort of fell in love with myself as I reviewed my life–which is so much better than feeling blue about some of the twists and turns I’ve made. Writing this so cheered me that I wanted to share the experience with others.

Reactions were mixed. When a niece read it, she said, “Now would you write mine?”  Friends in their 80s, who’d been reluctant to consider their passing, said they were inspired to write their own obituaries. On the other hand, when I shared it with younger friends in their 50s, they seemed reluctant to have a conversation about it, and made comments like, “Oh, you’re going to be around for a long time.”

So, here it is. I’m so pleased to share it with you. I know it’s way too long for publication. I’ve just sent it to family and friends, who can pass it on to other friends, so a published version might not even be necessary. I am, however, creating three short versions for newspapers in the places I spent most of my life, just in case someone decides there should be some sort of published obit.

Here is Vennie White’s obituary. What can you learn from what she’s written about her life? How do you want to be remembered? What stories do you want to tell? Like the awesome obituary of Harry Stamps that went viral, what can you say that will be passed along and enjoyed by people who didn’t even know you?

Vennie White

Vennie Eline White

Vennie Eline White

Vennie Eline White, whose restless spirit seldom stayed in one place for very long, is off on another adventure, the only difference being that she left behind her cameras and car (Vennie’s Vibe).  Though she moved often, she just as often returned to former homes to visit friends and places she loved, so it’s very likely that the whisper you hear in the wind over Wild Bill Hill or Lake Superior, at a parade or a festival, is just Vennie, stopping by. She donated her eyes so perhaps someone else might see the world in special ways.

Vennie lived in and worked in 11 states: Minnesota, Massachusetts, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, California, and Kansas, as well as Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. She attended Durango (Colo.) High School and had fond memories of making banana splits, chocolate malts, and cherry phosphates at Basin Drug on Durango’s Main Street and of playing flute with the band at the Music Man Festival in Mason City, Iowa.

Vennie attended Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Mont., and the University of Colorado in Boulder.  She earned bachelor’s degrees in university studies from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and in journalism from the University of Kansas in Lawrence.  She earned master’s degrees in creative writing and community college education from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. (She was also pleased about her Bachelor of Square Dancing from the College of Do Si Dos and Allemande Lefts).

Vennie Eline, who loved her middle name, was a social services worker, a photojournalist, and a community college instructor. She served as a VISTA volunteer on the Colville and Spokane reservations in Washington and worked with pregnant teens, people with disabilities, foster children, and others for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Maternity and Infant Care Project in Albuquerque, N. M. She also enjoyed waiting table and bartending at O’Henry’s Country Barbeque and ward clerking on labor and delivery and newborn ICU at Bernalillo County Medical Center.

Vennie’s award-winning photographs and stories appeared in several newspapers, including the Somerville Journal in Massachusetts, the Green River Star in Wyoming, and the White Mountain Independent in Arizona. One of her favorite UNM journalism professors, Tony Hillerman, tried to persuade her not to transfer to the art department, where she could study photography. He knew she wanted to change the world, he said, and since she couldn’t do that with photographs, she should stick with reporting. Vennie happily told him years later that she thought she’d been able to change the world with both her writing and photography.

While she enjoyed seeing her own work in print, Vennie was just as pleased when her students’ writing led to scholarships, publication, or selection as graduation speakers. She taught writing full-time at community colleges in Grandview, Wash., Flagstaff, Ariz., and Austin, Minn., where she also ran the Riverland Writing Center. She was a nominee for Teacher of the Year in Grandview and Flagstaff and received a Minnesota state award for excellence in teaching. She held an abiding belief in the value of community colleges and the abilities of community college students. She viewed her students–who came to her classrooms from reservations and asparagus fields, from abandoned canneries and factories, from Mexico, Peru, Sudan, Somalia, Vietnam, China, Ukraine and other countries–as her teachers, and she felt privileged to know them.

She especially appreciated her four years of freelancing and working as an artist in residence for the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, providing Literacy through Photography workshops at a detention center, alternative school, pregnant teen program, elementary schools, a food bank, and a dormitory for Native American high school students. While in Flagstaff, she also enjoyed being involved with Literacy Volunteers, the Northern Arizona Book Festival, and Flagstaff Friends of Traditional Music.

Though Vennie’s curiosity pulled her in many directions, one constant was her love for photography and for telling the stories of the people, old and young, who filled her pictures. From the time she began her study of photography at UNM in 1968 at the age of 22 until the day of her death (I hope), she was seldom without her camera. In addition to appearing in Arizona Highways magazine and other publications, her photos hung in galleries in Minnesota and Arizona, appeared on websites, decorated walls and refrigerators, and, more recently, found a place on Facebook pages, Youtube videos and blogs. She loved giving her pictures away, sometimes returning to festivals and, to the delight of those who received them, handing out prints to people she’d met the year before. She followed the philosophy of one of her heroes, Gordon Parks, who said that creating lasting photographs required good eyes and a good heart.

Vennie adored her nieces and nephews and their children and the two young women she cared for when they were young, Amber and Tamara Roshay. The kindnesses of friends who stayed in touch despite her peripatetic lifestyle (she always wanted an excuse to use that word) sustained her, and she was grateful for the nourishing meals they shared, the cozy beds they offered and the cats who often curled up beside her.

She was preceded in death by her parents, Inez Fillerup White and John Robert (Bob) White, and her brothers, Joe White and Scott White. She is survived by her sisters, Claudeen Wert of Aurora, Colo., and Laura McLane of Seattle, Wa., and brothers, Lane White of Denver, Colo., and her twin, Vernon White of Fairbanks, Alaska. Vennie mourned the passing of her beloved Kodachrome as well as the deaths of the Seattle P-I, Rocky Mountain News, and other great newspapers.

Vennie Eline loved to dance, sing, play her hammered dulcimer, and read good books on rainy afternoons. Celebrate this nomad’s life by doing the same and by spending a few moments with a rising full moon and a setting sun.

A Good Goodbye