Between my mother’s slow death, at 45, in 1968 and my dad’s sudden passing in 1996, much had changed about how we process those losses and the grief that follows. What hadn’t changed so much was the way deaths were announced in obituaries: death notices were still, for the most part, fairly straightforward without much flourish or fanfare. Not many of the special traits and eccentricities that make us all unique were included in those days.
But with The New York Times’ raising the bar with the poignant and personal obits for all the victims of the 9/11 attacks and with the Baby Boomers’ increasing interest in more colorful “final resumes,” obituaries continue to garner attention and creativity.
Several years ago, I re-wrote my mother’s obituary, recreating what had appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to more contemporary standards – and leeway.
Like many people often are, I was caught completely off guard when my dad died in his sleep on June 29, 1996. He was only 73 and in seemingly great health, but, for whatever reason, his heart stopped and he never woke up.
With input from my brother in South Carolina and my sister, in Virginia, I hurriedly put together an obituary to run in the Sunday paper in Atlanta – where he had spent most of his adult and working life – and then quickly high-tailed it to Florida where he lived then.
One offshoot of his death was that I became an ardent and avid reader of obituaries and have watched them evolve from recitations of facts (born, lived, worked, married, had children, etc.) to lively, colorful and memorable short stories.
Now, as an ardent and avid writer of obituaries, I would like to try my hand at updating the rather flat original obit to put a more accurate and personality-driven focus to his life. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!
George McLeod Soper, 73, died early Saturday morning, June 29, just hours after spending a pleasant evening, over drinks and dinner, watching a big storm move across the Atlantic Ocean onto Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
It was a beach he had walked and enjoyed for more than 40 years – first as a visitor with his wife Hebe and their three young children, and later, as a widower setting up a new life – and a new marriage. It was his go-to place for exercise, for entertainment, for surfcasting, for introspection and, most of all, for the sheer enjoyment of the sun, sand and sea which nourished him. “That sun has got some authority,” he liked to say.
He had moved to Ponte Vedra after the death of his wife in 1968 and where, following more than 20 years with the Simmons Company in Boston, New York, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., he continued working as a sales representative for a handful of North Carolina furniture companies. During his Simmons years, he was outfitted tie-to-wingtips in Brooks Brothers and always left home wearing a suit and a hat.
After his retirement and remarriage, he became an avid tennis player, beach walker and world traveler. He regularly played singles with much younger players, right up until his death and was a familiar sight up and down the beach. He was known to be charming and elegant, and was drawn to and interested in people of all ages – particularly women, it must be said – with an enthusiasm and playfulness that never wavered. Among the many “Dad-isms” he raised his children with were: “If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.” It was a guaranteed ice-breaker.
George – or Cloudy, as he was known to friends and grandchildren – was born in New York City on Oct. 8, 1922 to George Albert Soper Jr. and Carmen Whitman Soper. Cloudy, his sister, Jean, and his mother – then remarried to Edward Mulliken – moved to Old Saybrook, Conn., when he was just a boy and it was there he learned to fish, hunt and ride his beloved Foxy on the farm where his family raised pheasants and quail.
He attended Berkshire School in Sheffield, Mass. and was accepted to Harvard but because of the worsening economy he went straight to work and joined the Simmons Co. in New York, rising through the sales and management ranks until he left the bedding company in the mid-1960s. During World War II, he served in the United States Coast Guard and was stationed in Hilton Head Island, S.C. and Jacksonville, Fla., where he rode beach patrol keeping a lookout for submarines out in the Atlantic Ocean.
At the time of his death, he was the director of transportation for the Association of Tennis Professionals in Ponte Vedra where he became acquainted with many of the top players and staff as they set up headquarters in Florida. “He was the heart of the ATP Tour” the CEO said. “His effervescent personality and quick wit never failed to cheer weary travelers coming home…”
He was a superb cook, famous for perfectly grilled steaks, fried corn, cornbread and salad dressing (he added a touch of sugar to both) and was known to always – always! – keep a stash of chocolate (Hershey’s Kisses or Minis) on hand, not far from the Dewar’s Scotch. He was partial to sporty black convertibles and, as a young father, he often ate a bag of Hydrox cookies and a quart of milk at night, but he became very health conscious – except for butter, mayonnaise and sweets! – as he aged.
He and his surviving wife, Kit White Soper, enjoyed many trips to New York, Italy, France and England – including the French Open and Wimbledon tennis tournaments.
Among many enduring legacies he leaves are the birthday parties he produced for his three children when they each turned 40: a black-tie dinner at a private club for Susie (Atlanta), a trip to Paris for Wendy and her husband Pat McSweeney (Richmond) and a chartered boat through the Virgin Islands for Mike and his wife Bess (Bluffton, S.C.). After their mother’s death he had more than filled that gap in many nurturing and supportive ways, popping in often for quick visits and participating closely in each of their lives, careers and families and of his five grandchildren. In return, for his 70th birthday, the siblings treated him to a surprise bonefishing trip in the Bahamas – George M the Birthday! – where they had spent time in the 1960s.
Cloudy was a lexicon of aphorisms to grow up on – "Carpe Diem;" "Courage and a sense of humor is all you need to get by in life;" "The wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the grease;" "When in doubt don’t;" "Every cloud has a silver lining;" "A bit of sweet makes the meal complete" and, finally, "Be bright, be brief and be gone." He lived each of these to the fullest and will continue to live on through them and the many wonderful memories he left.
Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband. More info on Facebook and at www.obitkit.com.