Dead men do tell tales

Frank Edward Ray

In this 1992 file photo, Frank Edward Ray stands in Chowchilla, Calif., by the bus from which he and 26 students were kidnapped. Ray, the school bus driver hailed as a hero for helping 26 students escape after three men kidnapped the group and buried the entire bus underground in 1976 has died. He was 91. (AP Photo/Merced Sun Star, File)

I started reading obituaries on a fairly regular basis back when I was in college. One of my professors had the class subscribing to the New York Times on a daily basis (this was in the days before the NYT had a digital presence) and another one of my professors shared what he thought were captivating obituaries with my senior writing seminar class on a regular basis. I believe it was under the auspices of “Somebody interesting dies every day.”

Every Sunday, I get the Washington Post delivered to my house. It’s a hold-over from an earlier time for me, in a way–plus, I clip coupons–because when I get the chance, I do like sitting down with a cup of coffee and a newspaper (and there’s something satisfying about washing newsprint off your hands. Call me old-fashioned, a luddite, or non-innovative, but that’s just me).Anyway, Sundays are when I leaf through the Metro section and read the obituaries.

Usually most of the pieces (the obits themselves, not the death notices, btw) are mildly interesting and barely keep my attention beyond the first couple of paragraphs. But today had a great one, that of Ed Ray, a bus driver who once saved a group of students after they’d been kidnapped and buried “Calif. bus driver who helped 26 students escape kidnappers in 1976 dies at age 91”

“I remember him making me feel safe,” said Jodi Medrano, who was 10 when three men hijacked the school bus and stashed the group in a hot, stuffy storage van in a rock quarry. Medrano held a flashlight as the bus driver worked with older students to stack mattresses, force an opening and remove the dirt covering the van so they could escape after 16 hours underground. She never left Ray’s side during the ordeal.

 

The entire story itself–recapped in the article–is so incredible you’d swear it was fiction. And it reminded me that obituaries can make for great reading in English class. It’s been a while since I did anything with obits–not since I was teaching journalism, to be honest–but seeing what a fascinating story exists in Ed Ray, I wonder if this could be a gateway to a really cool research project or something on how “ordinary” or “everyday” people are as extraordinary and important to our society as celebrities and other figures. It’s food for thought at this point as I gather up what’s left of my year and think about what I’d like to do in class next year. But I highly recommend reading the obituaries every once in a while, especially since you don’t know what you’re going to find out.

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