Sunday, March 30, 2008

Earl, I Barely Knew Ye

Each year nearly 100,000 young offenders are sent to juvenile detention centers around the country. In Texas, the recidivism rate is more than 50 percent. In California, it is between 70 and 80 percent.

In Missouri, it is 7.3 percent.

Why? Here in Missouri, the goal is to help these kids get their lives back on track. For some of these kids, their only “crime” is that they are unwanted and have no homes, no families to guide them. So the Missouri Division of Youth Services works with them so that these young people don’t turn to, or continue in, a life of crime.

For example, here in Missouri, we use the “Token Economy Program” an innovative program for juvenile detainees, a system by which kids earn credits toward privileges. It was created by Earl Ross, who died last week. Earl also worked to recruit tutors and mentors for the young offenders.

Today I attended services for Earl; he was the husband of my friend Donna. To make sure I had the details (where and when) correctly in mind, I looked up Earl’s obituary online. That’s when I learned about his involvement with the “token economy program.” I’d heard about Missouri’s success with young offenders on an NPR program, but I didn’t know about Earl's contribution. (You can read about the program at )

I wish I’d had the chance to talk with Earl about his work. I wish I could have learned more about it. And, geez, I could have…I just didn’t know enough about him BEFORE he died!

Which got me thinking: How come we save obituaries for after people are gone? What a waste. I needed to know more about Earl Ross and his good work while I had the chance to talk with him. To ask questions. To learn more.

I think we’ve got this all backwards. I think I’ve probably missed all sorts of chances to learn from people. To hear their stories. To become a smarter, more educated person.

I wish we could introduce ourselves and hand over our obituary “to date.” Okay, it seems odd, but I think it would be useful. First, it would remind each of us that life is fleeting, so we better be making the most of it. Second, it would be an excellent ice-breaker. And third, we could bypass all the meaningless chatter and talk with each other about what matters.

Like Earl Ross’s work.

I wish I hadn’t missed my opportunity to know Earl better.

How about you? Have you ever missed the chance to know someone better? Do you think you should write your own obituary as a way to keep track of your goals? What would you want it to say?


Linda O. Johnston said...

Interesting concept, Joanna. I'm not sure I want to start thinking about my obit in advance, even as a method of tracking goals. On the other hand, obituaries of all public figures are prepared early by the media. They're updated often for use quickly when someone dies. At least that's what I was taught as a young journalism student a long time ago.
Your acquaintance Earl must have been a very special person.

Dr. Ellen said...

I don't think people who create things NEED much of an obituary - their works live on to speak of them. The Norse of the Viking era had a poem:

Cattle die, kinsmen die;
Someday we ourselves must die.
I know one thing that never dies:
The lasting fame of the storied dead.

Works just as well when we tell the stories, instead of being in them.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...


I remember seeing the obits "in progress" when I worked for a newspaper. It was...fascinating and gruesome all at once.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Dr. Ellen,

I love that. Trust you to find a poem that's perfect.

I think that's one reason I write--so the stories will live on.

Camille Minichino said...

I like Woody Allen's take on all this ... "i don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying."

Kathryn Lilley said...

I'm with you and Woody, Camille, lol! I feel that we live on through the people whose lives we have touched along the way. Friends and family come to mind.

Monica Ferris said...

Even after reading a self-written obituary, I don't think I'd care to leap immediately into a deep, far-ranging conversation with someone I don't really know. I think those frivolous chats we have with people are a way of feeling them out, finding if they are good-humored or doctrinaire or depressed (or depressing). Only when that's out of the way dare we venture into deeper waters. OTOH, I'd kind of like to write my own obituary.

Julana said...

I heard a minister read his obituary during a sermon a number of months ago. He had to write it as an assignment for a leadership class he had recently taken at Case Western. How would you like your obit to read? It is a tool to chart life goals.