Steve Grutzmacher: The Fascinating Stories Found in the Obituary Section

In the course of slowly organizing my home office, I am cleaning out old file folders. One of the reasons for the slow pace, of course, is that a significant amount of the papers I pull out need to be perused before determining whether they are worth saving. And, in the course of perusal I have run across a few gems. So when I came across a newspaper clipping recently, I realized that here was a column I should have written a long time ago.

One of the sections I always peruse in the Chicago Tribune (or whatever other paper I happen to be reading) each morning is the obituaries. It is not that the Tribune’s obituaries are better than any other newspapers – actually, any large city newspaper will do – but the key is that almost daily you will run across an obituary that carries a byline, meaning that the paper thought enough of an individual’s life to assign a writer to report their death.

My interest in this type of obituary has nothing to do with morbidity. On the contrary, it has more to do with the proverbial “writer’s curiosity.” I don’t believe, however, that you are required to be a writer to find these pieces interesting.

When you think about it, an obituary is a miniature biography. And if you read these reports with that perspective in mind, you meet the most interesting people and learn a wealth of things you never knew. A case in point is Lily McNicholas, who died of kidney illness in Oak Lawn, Ill., at the age of 87. Like you, I had never heard of Ms. McNicholas, and I certainly had never met her, yet her story, as related in her obituary, is quite extraordinary.

McNicholas was one of 10 children born in the tiny town of Kiltimagh, Ireland, to a baker and his wife. In the 1930s she went to England to study nursing. With the advent of World War II, she enlisted in the war effort and was an Irish nurse serving on a Dutch hospital ship when it was torpedoed by the Nazis in 1941 off the coast of Normandy, France.

Tradition on the high seas, of course, dictates that, in the event a ship is going down, women and children receive priority seating in the lifeboats. McNicholas, however, relinquished her seat to an immobilized wounded soldier. She then continued assisting the movement of wounded men to the lifeboats until the final moments before the boat went down. She saved herself by literally climbing down the side of the perpendicular ship.

Once in the water, McNicholas continued her heroism. Spotting a soldier with one leg, whose injury left him unable to float, she grabbed him and held on as the ship slipped beneath the surface. Hours later, strapped into her life belt and still holding onto the one-legged soldier, she was picked up by an American cutter. Once on board the boat she began administering to patients as they were rescued from the sea.

As if these feats of heroism weren’t enough to merit recognition, there is one other important fact to consider in this story: Lily McNicholas could not swim.

McNicholas became very sick from her ordeal, but she eventually recovered and went on to serve at postings that included London during the Blitzkrieg, Egypt and Bombay. Her nephew in her hometown in Ireland remembered the day she came home after the “incident,” as she termed her ordeal. “Her hair was bleached, she was in the water so long,” he said.

In 1944, King George VI, conferred upon her the Order of the British Empire, in recognition of her act of heroism. She moved to Chicago in 1947 and worked in a hospital and then as a nurse for International Harvester.

Throughout her life, McNicholas seldom spoke of the events surrounding her acts of heroism. As seems so often the case, the overwhelming tragedy of the hospital ship being torpedoed was particularly personalized for McNicholas. According to her nephew, “Her best pal went down with the ship. She [McNicholas’ friend] was trying to get out by the porthole, but got stuck. [McNicholas] saw her go down. It disturbed her quite a bit.”

As I said earlier in this “item,” obituaries can introduce us to fascinating people and Lily McNicholas was obviously an amazing individual with a fascinating life story. If you read obituaries regularly as I do, though, what is truly amazing is how many people like Lily there are/were in the world. My only regret, of course, is that I meet these people only after they have left the world.

Still, the stories they leave behind are remarkable and inspiring.

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