Do you read obituaries? I do, and the older I get the more faithfully I check the obits. But not for what you might think- to find out if anyone I know has died, or their mother or father. My purpose is more to find a good story. And recently I also found a good lesson for Black History Month.
I especially enjoy the “news obituaries” in my paper. These are short articles about local individuals. I have read juicy details too unexpected to imagine; the Korean immigrant, successfully building up his dry cleaning establishments, whose most proud accomplishment was the moment he hit a hole-in-one on the golf course. The seamstress for the New York City Ballet, creating skin-tight confections and available behind the scenes at every performance in case of a costume emergency, who never sewed another single stitch once she retired.
I recently cut out the obituary of George Carruthers, who died this December 26. Carruthers was a local Washington D.C. boy who built his first telescope when he was 10, won science fairs, read science fiction, and grew up to work at the nearby Naval Research Laboratory designing sophisticated new telescopes. His inventions had to be small, light, work in heat and cold, and be usable by astronauts’ thick- gloved hands on the moon. They were used to look out into deep space, making critical discoveries about how stars form. A significant life, I think we would agree, even though you and I had never heard of him.
And why did I save his obituary from the recycling bin? Because part of George Carruthers story is that he was a local black boy. His father died when he was 12 and his mom worked at the Post Office to support her family. Her son went on to become an astrophysicist. George Carruthers was a shy person, consumed by his passion for capturing the invisible with telescope and camera technologies he invented himself, but he chose to also find time for science outreach in schools, apprenticing high school students at his workplace, and he even taught summer courses for Washington DC public school science teachers.
I read the obituaries because I believe our lives are enriched by the stories of these quieter lives, of unknown neighbors. The not-entertainers, not-politicians, not-sports heroes, the not-so famous.
I’m lifting up the life of George Carruthers for my elementary science students this February.