Season 2
29 Minutes

E87 | James R. Hagerty | What An Obituary Writer Knows About Life

As a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal, James R. Hagerty, known as Bob, writes obituaries, mostly about prominent people in business or economics, Bob has been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years at The Wall Street Journal and the International Herald Tribune, in the U.S,, Europe and Asia.

In his just-published book, Yours Truly, An Obituary Writer’s Guide to Telling Your Story, Bob synthesizes what he has learned about a well-lived life by writing obituaries – and he exhorts all of us to write our life stories before someone else writes them for us.


To help make this podcast more accessible to those who are hearing impaired or those who like to read rather than listen to podcasts, here are our show notes.

These show notes come via the service. The transcription is imperfect. But hopefully, it’s close enough – even with the errors – to give those who aren’t able or inclined to learn from audio interviews a way to participate.

James R. Hagerty  00:00

I never would have dreamed that I would want to be writing obituaries that would have sounded like about the worst possible outcome. But for me, it turned out to be the best outcome.

Achim Nowak  00:09

Hey, this is Achim Nowak, executive coach and host of the MY FOURTH ACT podcast. If life is a five act play, how will you spend your FOURTH ACT? I have conversations with exceptional humans who have created bold and unexpected FOURTH ACTS, listen, and to be inspired. And please rate us and subscribe on whatever platform you are listening on. Let’s get started. I am just delighted to welcome James Robert Haggerty, who is known as Bob to the MY FOURTH ACT podcast. Bob has been a staff reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal for over 40 years. He writes, among other things, obituaries, mostly by prominent people in business or economics, his latest book yours truly. And let me get the subtitle right. It’s called an obituary writers guide to telling your story is just out by Kensington Citadel imprint. Bob also authored the faithful history of Fannie Mae, about the manager of his senior softball team, and the founder of a Scrabble club in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Bob clearly loves, and celebrates life stories. Welcome, Bob.

James R. Hagerty  01:36

Thank you. Great to be here.

Achim Nowak  01:38

It’s good to be here. And I’m glad I get a chance to celebrate your book with you, but also the tenor of the book, which is a celebration and encouragement of writing down our life stories. Because I read your book, I’m going to ask a question to which I know the answer. But our listeners haven’t heard it when you were a young boy growing up, was your first thought, hey, I want to be a writer for a magazine or what was percolating in your brain?

James R. Hagerty  02:06

Well, when I was a little kid, I mean, I first wanted to be a baseball player. And then I wanted to be an architect. But eventually, I settled on journalism. That’s what my parents did. I never would have dreamed that I would want to be writing obituaries. Now what it sounded like, but the worst possible, how can but for me, it turned out to be the best outcome.

Achim Nowak  02:32

My sense is that you love writing obituaries, and you’ve done it for a long time, you state that you’ve written over 800, which is amazing to me. What do you like about writing an obituary?

James R. Hagerty  02:46

I really love history. I love explaining why things happened. And for most of my career, as a journalist, I was covering current events. And the editors always wanted to figure out what was going to happen tomorrow. Really, most of the time, we don’t know, I prefer to look back at what has happened and try to figure out why. So this was just a perfect job. For me. It was something I really never thought about when I was young. And I think one reason I never thought about it was because most obituaries you see in newspapers are very adult.

Achim Nowak  03:22

Yeah. As your right and your book is, many of them are a chronology of this happened. And that happened. And that happened. And that happened. Right? And you’re right, quite a bit about the craft of writing. And one word of encouragement. And if we can elaborate on that you say is, when you think of writing your story, you don’t have to go in chronological order. You can that’s the basics. There’s nothing wrong with it. But there are different ways of putting a story together, would you because many people who are listening may go like I want to write my life story. But gosh, I don’t know where to begin. What would you tell them?

James R. Hagerty  04:05

Yeah, I think it really doesn’t matter that much where you begin, just so that you do begin. And I think people just need to think about what are some of the most important things that have happened to them, and try to explain why those things happened, what they were trying to do in life, why they were trying to do that, and how it worked out. And then when you talk about the things that worked out well and the things that didn’t work out, so well, you can talk a little bit about why they why that happened. That’s what I find interesting. In our life story. One of my problems is the word obituary. Yes. Because that’s, it’s not something people really want to think about. Because it’s, it sounds like death and it’s people’s idea of what an obituary is, is different. And my idea, they think is just going to be this thing where we give a few basic facts about the life and maybe some flowery sentiments and then details on the funeral service. But what I want people to do is not really worry too much about that somebody else could do that part. But to really talk about what mattered to them in their lives, and share whatever they want to share. Some people want to share a lot. Others maybe very little, but whatever, you can save and share, I think can be precious to your loved ones. And to do two generations, no kids, children not even born yet who may one day want to look back at their family history. I think it can be telling you story can be is likely to be one of the best stories you’ve been one of the best gift you ever give to your family and your friends

Achim Nowak  06:00

will make this wonderful point from us summarize the thing like if you are very famous person, somebody will write an obituary for you, they probably do some research, and they pull together all sorts of resources. But most of the time, if you’re not in that 1% of folks, somebody who doesn’t know much about your life will cobble something together that doesn’t at all represent what you valued in life, or what you value about your story. And why the heck not own your love story and your life story and tell it on your own terms. Right?

James R. Hagerty  06:35

Exactly. Yeah. And the the, who if you don’t do anything is likely to be written by a family member, or friend. And it’s going to be done in a hurry. And your family members and your friends often really don’t know that much about you. You know, when you told them things and they weren’t taking notes, they can maybe give a rough idea of what you were all about. But it’ll be very rough. And it’s unsatisfying. So it’s best for you to do it yourself. Though, sometimes you might want to get some help with from somebody else to read, whatever you have written or to listen to whatever you recorded, and tell you well, what’s not clear in there, what you didn’t really explain clearly. So it can be a collaboration, it can come in just about any form you want. It’s just important to get started on it before it’s too late. Don’t wait till you’re on your deathbed. Well,

Achim Nowak  07:36

to build on that my writing our life story, and you talk about how you you in many ways prefer the word life story to obituary, which means more, but if we do it earlier in life, it can be therapeutic, we gain insight to ourselves, and it can possibly encourage us to make different choices going forward, so we can have a forward shaping influence our lives. Did I understood I understand that correctly?

James R. Hagerty  08:09

Exactly. Yes. There’s psychological research showing that telling about your life experiences actually makes you feel better. And maybe an improve your health. It helps you understand yourself better make sense of your life. So it’s gonna be good for you. And when you look at when you ask the question, What am I trying to do in my life, and what’s really happening in my life, you might find some disconnects there. And so it’s good to do that every now and then, in any case. And you might find, you know, that you can make some corrections so you can improve the narrative. So I think people should start writing things down when they’re young. And just keep a file. I happened when I was young, I happen to write a lot of letters, because my mom told me that, you know, civilized people write home once a week. And I did that for 40 years, maybe. And my mom kept all of them. You know, I’ve now got the stack about two feet high of letters I wrote. And that’s really a great resource. For me, it’s also a bit of a burden to try to get them all sorted out. Not many people would write so many letters. But even if you just write things down occasionally, you can keep a diary. You can write letters, you can just make notes that will give you something to build on.

Achim Nowak  09:40

And I would say keeps us more, more conscious of how we’re living our lives and the choices we’re making. Makes complete sense. Since you mentioned your mother, you have a wonderful chapter in your book about your color. Your amazing mother was a journalist instead of me telling what I got from that chapter, I’m gonna throw the ball to you. What was amazing about your mother? And how, what, if anything, did you learn from your mother?

James R. Hagerty  10:13

Well, I learned a lot from my mom. You know, in my book, I explained it when my dad died, we did a very bad job on his obituary, because like many families, we just did it in a rush. And we got the basics, right, but we didn’t reflect any of his personality. So a few years after that, I sat down with my mom for several hours, and interviewed her about her life story. And at the time, she was 78 years old. So I kind of figured, well, probably not too much more is going to happen. So this is a good time to write it all down. Well, I couldn’t have imagined much more was going to happen. My mother is a newspaper writer and Grand Forks, North Dakota for the local paper she has been since the 1960s. She still is at age 96. And one of the things she does for that local paper is writes about local restaurants. She doesn’t really she doesn’t consider herself a critic, but she just likes to tell people about what things what they have, how much it costs, what the atmosphere is like. So one day, about 10 years ago, there was a new restaurant in Grand Forks, North Dakota called the Olive Garden. It took them a long time to get to Grand Forks, North Dakota, but people that were actually kind of excited that the Olive Garden is in town, she’s something new. So my mom dutifully went out there and had a couple of meals and then wrote a story about it. I don’t think she thought too much about it. It was just a routine, little item. But for some reason, this got picked up on the internet. And some bloggers started making fun of my mom for writing an earnest and fairly positive review about a chain restaurant. And for some reason, this spread like wildfire on the internet, and reporters from all over I started calling up my mom and asking her about this. You know, here’s this grandmother in North Dakota, what does she know? And they asked her, you know, what do you think of all this, all these people criticizing you on the internet? And my mom said, Well, you know, I’ve got to get my column done for tomorrow. And then I have to go to bridge club. And I don’t have time for all to read all this crap. Well, without one line, I’m just gonna repeat it all over. My mom became a beloved figure. And she was invited to appear. Good Morning, America. Almost every national TV show you can imagine, she had to turn down the tonight show because she was doing interviews in New York that week. And Anthony Bourdain wanted to meet my mom. And he eventually told his publisher that they were going to publish a book up for restaurant reviews, which they did. So my mom for several years was really quite famous. And she, you know, she was written up in the New York Times, and every time we thought it was gonna die down, it kept going. So this one story kind of a baffling story. But it shows that, you know, your life is not over at age seven, eight surprising things may still happen. I don’t know what else it shows. You know, my mom has had an interesting story. If this hadn’t happened, she still would have had an interesting story. And I’m glad we wrote it down. You don’t have to be famous to have it. They’ve had an interesting life and have something to say.

Achim Nowak  13:41

What really touched me in your book, you. You include a story, a Christmas story that your mother wrote, that you said was reprinted every year and it’s I saw what a wonderful waiter your mother is, with an amazing eye for the simple detail. Right? Very. And then I mean, the superb were very, very folksy. Very approachable, very real. Not slick, but it’s highly skilled writer. And I’m going Yeah, I can see why. Why this story has a long run. Now. To come full circle. When when your mom went viral, you heard a story about your mother. That was published on the front page of the Wall Street Journal called when mom goes viral and it’s this very sweet to be into your mother. And I mentioned that because we’re in the middle of time, our life stories, your mother’s life story, the stories she wrote in your writing about your mother. What was it like to have a story about your mother that you wrote, published on the front page of the Wall Street Journal?

James R. Hagerty  14:45

It was an unbelievable thing. My mom when she went viral, she’s the New York Times wrote about her everybody was writing about her. And I kept waiting for my editors at the Wall Street Journal to ask me to write something and they didn’t. So I had a couple days I just I sat down and I wrote something. And I sent it in. And they put it on page one. And this proved to be the most popular story I believe I have ever written in 40 years of journalism. I’ve lived in various parts of the world, I’ve covered all kinds of important things. But nothing matched this for that reaction. I had people contacting me from all over the world, saying they wanted to meet my mom, they wanted my mom to adopt them. They loved my mom. And one thing that I learned from it is that these personal stories are really important. That’s what people want to read. And there are so many of them that we just lose, because nobody writes them down.

Achim Nowak  15:51

A word from your sponsor, that’s me, I invite you to go to the website associated with this podcast, fourth, you will find other equally inspiring conversation with great humans. And you will also learn more about the my fourth act mastermind groups where cool people figure out how to chart their own for tax, please check it out. And now back to the conversation. One thing you share in your book, which even you chuckle in a really good ways, you’ve written your own obituary that you gave your family permission to use. Obviously, some details are missing, like the date of your death, and all those things, because we don’t know that. And my hunch is like your mom, you may have many years ahead of you. But what struck me, you know, I want to read this out loud. I wanted like you respond, you, you sort of share a few life lessons at the end of this obituary where you work for yourself. And I’m quoting you now, Bob’s advice included? Don’t hold grudges. Don’t believe everything you think? And don’t forget to write your own story. What about the grudges part?

James R. Hagerty  17:18

That’s your something I’ve learned over the years. And I think it’s kind of a cliche that, you know, it’s we shouldn’t hold grudges, it is a burden for us to carry them. But people forget that. And, you know, I get most things wrong, it seems to me. But I think one thing I have learned and I’ve got right in my life is that I’ve learned to let go of things. And if you if somebody does something that, to me, that I think is terrible, I’ll be angry. But you know, if they want to make up later on, that’s fine. And I tried to understand that it probably wasn’t about me in the first place. You know, they had a bad day. They said something, they did something, and just let it go.

Achim Nowak  18:10

You as I started reading your book, I was thinking of probably the lot that you learn as a writer by writing about other people’s lives. One, one piece of wisdom you share early on. And I wonder what your elaborate thing is? I’m paraphrasing now. But it seems that the more successful people are, are more optimistic than the less successful people. And you talk about that the beauty and power of optimism. Would you talk about that some

James R. Hagerty  18:41

more? Yeah. I mean, this is another thing that I think we kind of all know. But we maybe don’t think about an app or remind ourselves of an app. And it just strikes me when I’m writing about successful people, that their friends and family members always told me how optimistic they were. And that’s what allowed them to get things done. Because if you don’t believe that you or the world has a future, you don’t feel very motivated to get up in the morning and do something. So that’s one thing I noticed,

Achim Nowak  19:20

right, a few the obituaries that you wrote in preparation for our chat. And I love your writing. And what struck me as you do this, you’re right about is there a specific writing advice, you could give us a better chronology. But the obituaries are so much fun to read, because there are these wonderful little moments that you take us do that, in a way exemplify something that’s important about the person you write about. How do you as a writer, decide what little moment to highlight? What moment will you go, this moment will show this person. I want to highlight this one rather than that

James R. Hagerty  19:57

one. Well, often is a matter of just choosing whatever I can get. Sometimes there’s not a lot to work with. I do, I like to describe moments where people’s lives eventually caused people’s lives to change, or determine what path they got on in life, or disasters that happened and how they overcame them. And these are things that it’s often hard for other people to explain by your life. So I’m always frustrated if I can’t talk to the person, or the person has talked to somebody else, or written something. My first question when I, I talked to the family of somebody who’s died is, did he or she write anything about his life or record an oral history? And surprisingly, quite a few people have, but not nearly as many as I would like to see. And I think you know, it’s a matter of asking a lot of questions and listening. So when you if you’re trying to tell your life story, try to find somebody who will ask you questions. And you don’t want somebody who’s just going to take down, whatever you write and think they’re done. You want somebody who’s gonna say, Well, why did you do that? You know, explain this. And make it clear to not just to you and me, but to somebody who’s going to read this in 50 years.

Achim Nowak  21:35

I appreciate how you, you mentioned when reading, beginning of the conversation that I say the three key tenants for writing a life story, which is what are you trying to do, why you’re doing it? How did it turn out, and you keep going back to the y, which is what drives and motivates us if you were to reflect on your life? Because I see somebody who has been at the Wall Street Journal for a very long time, that’s like impressive. But has your inner why for why you do stuff. Has that changed? Or has that stayed fairly constant during this time?

James R. Hagerty  22:09

As what change?

Achim Nowak  22:10

What your why the reason why you do?

James R. Hagerty  22:14

Well, yeah, I mean, I guess I’d have to go back at why did I go into journalism? And I think it was because my parents were both journalists. And so I had that example. And as a teenager, I kind of found out that that writing was one one of the few things I could do better than other kids. And you know, when I tried it out in high school and high school paper, and on internships, I had fun. And so for me, unlike a lot of people, it was pretty easy choice what to do. And that’s I’ve stuck with it. A lot of people start out being journalists and go on to other things. Sometimes things that are much more lucrative are much more impressive, but I’ve always liked my job. And I’m kind of a cautious person. So I don’t leap into something totally different without assurance that I’m going to like it better. And amazingly, I’ve been able to work my almost my entire career with one company, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to live in the US, Europe and Asia and cover all kinds of things. So that’s why it worked out for me why obituaries? When I was living in London, for many years, I noticed that the obituaries and British papers were really interesting. They were written, you know, with as much verb as the sports story is a crime stories. Well, that’s a good way to do it. I’m reading the story, even though I never heard the person and I’m enjoying it. So that gave me the idea and obituary could be fun to write. You know, I think like, like a lot of people, many things that happen to me just kind of happen through a series of coincidences. And I’ve been pretty lucky.

Achim Nowak  24:03

That’s a wonderful thing. As we wrap up the conversation, you already mentioned this, but if we can maybe just dig a little deeper, because I could hear some of our listeners going, well, I want to read his book about obituaries. And I like the idea that maybe I should write down my own life story. And yeah, Bob said I should maybe keep a journal or write things down but but I don’t really know how to get started. So beyond taking notes and observing, if somebody goes, I just don’t have the craft of a journalist I, I don’t know how to structure something. I’m not a writer, though. I want to write something down. What advice would you have for them?

James R. Hagerty  24:44

How would you say you know, don’t worry about your writing ability. Your natural trying to write a best seller and you’re not trying to win a Nobel Prize. You’re just trying to give people a message. So just do it in your own voice. It doesn’t matter if you make spelling mistakes or grammatical mistakes. If you don’t know where to start, just start at the beginning and try to explain what happened to you. If you don’t know what people might be interested in, you know, ask your friends about what would interest you? What would you want to know about me? And read other people’s life stories. I like reading obituaries, I love reading Memoirs of all kinds that will give you ideas of what are the kinds of details that other people talked about that were interesting.

Achim Nowak  25:36

I was so struck when you mentioned that, first of all, your mom had a moment of fame at the age of 85. She’s 96. She’s still writing. That’s just extraordinary. Do you see yourself keeping on writing? Do you have other dreams or things that you think about? Or is that something you can’t complete at

James R. Hagerty  25:55

all? Yeah, I mean, I’m 66 years old. So I should be thinking about that. I love what I’m doing now. And so I’d like to do it for a while longer. I don’t think I should try to do it forever. You know, I think I wouldn’t be able to do it as well as 20 or 30 years is I can do it now. But I do think whatever I’m doing I will probably involve writing because I’m just it’s just so ingrained in me. I’m interested in other people, and I can know what makes them tick. So I’d love to write people’s stories you know, for for whatever outlet there might be.

Achim Nowak  26:34

Where your book is called yours truly an obituary writers guide to telling your story. I’ve been calling you Bob, but your your official name is James R. Haggerty. So if people looking for you look for James R. Haggerty, yeah, I can’t imagine our listeners aren’t thinking, darn it. I want to read the obituary see, right? Where can they find your obituaries?

James R. Hagerty  26:58

Well, and the Wall Street Journal, there every week, I usually write about three every week. Yeah, you have to pay for the wall street journal. And so I get paid. But you don’t have to pay that much. If you Google, you’ll find stories I’ve written you might even be able to read some of them for free. But then yes, you can buy my book, if you like. I hope that will entertain people, give them some ideas. And I really think it would make a good gift. Because how often you meet people, and they tell you something about their life. And it’s so interesting, isn’t it? You want to write a book about that? Well, it doesn’t have to be a book, but you have to write something about it. So I think this is the perfect gift for anybody who has a story to tell. And almost everybody does.

Achim Nowak  27:48

And if I may just elaborate on your pitch here. After 40 years of being why the Wall Street Journal, you are an expert at this. But what you also model in your book, which I love as you, you say just don’t worry about getting too fancy or whatever your book is conversational. It’s a pleasure to read. You don’t clutter it up with overly fancy language. That’s a compliment. It’s very approachable. And I think it is a perfect gift. So again, yours truly, thank you for the conversation, Bob. I really appreciate it.

James R. Hagerty  28:21

Thank you very much. I appreciate your interest.

Achim Nowak  28:25

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