Memory  /  Obituary

Jim Nicholson, Champion of the Common-Man Obituary, Dies at 76

“Who would you miss more when he goes on vacation,” Nicholson liked to ask, “the secretary of state or your garbage man?”

Mr. Nicholson, who spent the next 19 years as one of the country’s most influential chroniclers of “common man” obituaries, the everyday Joes and Joannes who labored on docks, drifted from one address to another and filled or fell off bar stools, died Feb. 22 at a hospital in Camden, N.J. He was 76. The cause was a heart ailment, said his brother Robert Nicholson.

The obituary-writing job took some adjustment. At first, Mr. Nicholson had to endure colleagues whose eyes betrayed a distinct sense of pity. The one upside, he figured, was having a desk seven floors above the main newsroom, a distance he relished. He readily agreed to an editor’s dictum about the parameters of his job. As he described it: “The newsroom handles the big guys, Nicholson writes about the nobodies.”

There was a sense of liberation, he said, in writing feature-length obituaries for people of seemingly meager accomplishments. His style, almost from the start, was colloquial but tart: “He had the di­gestive juices of a shark”; “They were married three months later and not because they had to.”

Local newspapers had long been home to obituaries about non-newsmaking citizens, filled with quotes as barren as an abandoned home and anecdotes as predictable as the sunrise. In that shopworn approach, flaws were never exposed. Lives, as the platitude went, were all well lived.

Mr. Nicholson was one of the first writers for a leading metropolitan daily to see the potential in redefining the community obit, to bring an audacious flair to the form.

He chose poker-playing grannies and a man he ranked as “a world-class scammer.” When detailing the life of a tradesman, such as a plumber, he tried to include at least one useful tip, like using hot water and Tide to clean a clogged toilet.

A sister-in-law of one Lou Koreck, a writ server, conjured a most unusual memory to convey his personality.

“I had unfortu­nately burned up my cat Smokey in the dryer,” she told Mr. Nicholson. “Lou gave me a book, ‘101 Uses for a Dead Cat.’ You loved him and, at the same time, you wanted to strangle him.”

One of Mr. Nicholson’s finest obits was a 1993 ode to a man named Christopher Kelly. “Society today,” he wrote, “does not assign extraordinary attributes to a 35-year-old heavy-equipment mechanic who is living with his parents and whose possessions do not appear to much exceed a Miller Light and a pack of Marlboros on the bar before him, a union card in his pocket and a friend on either side.”