Writing your Own Obit: RIP John Truesdale

Written by on July 16, 2011 in Healing - 2 Comments

People at work make fun of me because I read the obituaries in the NY Times every morning. I realize this is a custom of older folks, but I have been doing it since I was in my 20s. I have always been “inter-generational” in my approach to life and over the years have collected a good number of senior friends who are intellectuals and public servants—the types of people featured in the NY Times obituaries. So I hold my breath, when I open up the newspaper every day that I don’t personally know any of the deceased.

In addition to my “news” interest in the obituaries, I’d say I have a personal attachment to the exercise of obituary writing. Over the years, with a hospice training course as well as my studies at the Celebrant Foundation, I have been asked to write my own obituary. Like writing a resume, it is an excellent exercise to focus one’s mind on what she has been doing with her life and where things are lacking. And, maybe sometimes I used those Times obits as a measuring stick of some sort to consider my life with strangers who have just passed. Take for instance John C. Truesdale, who recently passed at the ripe age of 89. As I was seated over lunch, just now, I scanned the obituaries (no one that I know today). His photograph was very pleasant ….I liked his surname “Truesdale”….and I noted he was the Chief of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). So I read on.

By the time I finished the three columns devoted to his life, I felt a certain fondness and admiration for him. Here’s what I mean. Mr. Truesdale was born in Grand Rapids Michigan, the heart of America. And, if I am not mistaken the childhood home of the greatly admired former President Gerald Ford. His father moved the family to Grinnell, Iowa where he was a basketball coach. Young Mr. Truesdale attended Grinnell College (as I am sure his father received free tuition for his kids as part of his salary from the College). I had a former boss who went to Grinnell which is a tiny, but very good, little liberal arts college—in the middle of nowhere.

The obit continued that Mr. Truesdale served in World War II, in the Coast Guard. Much has been written about the so-called Greatest Generation, but I continue to have a sense of awe about all of those young men—from all backgrounds, including ones of education and privilege (although I don’t think this was necessarily the case of Mr. Truesdale) who served in that conflict. We may never know that kind of patriotism again. When returning home from war he received a Master’s degree from the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell, arguably the finest program of its kind in America—a real gem of academe.

Perhaps what really drew me in to this man’s story was that he started at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as a “field investigator,” apparently the lowest rung on the bureaucratic ladder.  He worked there his entire career, eventually reaching the pinnacle of the organization.  (For those not government or labor junkies, the NLRB is an independent agency of the U.S. Federal Government that investigates and resolves unfair labor practices and union-related matters in America.)  The moderate Jimmy Carter appointed him to the five member NLRB–the very top of this Agency. It shocked me when I read on to see that he was able to  remain on the board during the Reagan administration; for, we can all recall labor’s blood-letting immediately after Reagan took office with the firing of the PATCO workers, the air-traffic controllers union. That fact alone, spoke volumes about this man’s integrity and capacity to be effective, regardless of the individual players.  Indeed, the obit included a generous quotation from James Gross, a current ILR Professor at Cornell who underscored Truesdale’s practicality and genuine concern for resolving labor issues as quickly as possible, partly to avoid disrupting much needed streams of income for affected workers.  On a side note, I was favorably impressed that he took a law degree at Georgetown, nearly 25 years after he finished grad school, somehow meeting the demands of a fine law school and serious career as a public servant. He ultimately retired in 2001.

Then we come to the end where it mentions the deceased family. “He is survived by his wife of 54 years, the former Karin Nelson” (along with many kids and grandkids). In a word: wonderful. The field of mediation and labor relations is not exactly on the minds of most students in college, and it takes a special person to be drawn to that field: someone who values fairness, just results, and compromise. Someone who puts principles before personalities. No doubt those attributes served him well in family relations, too!

And so I say, Mr. John Truesdale, may you rest in much deserved peace. Your family was gifted by your presence for a very long time and no doubt you will be in their hearts forever. And, I, too, enjoyed getting to know you a little today.

About the Author

Life-Cycle Celebrant Sarah Ritchie respects all faiths. She has received diplomas from the Celebrant Foundation & Institute, USA, where she now serves as a faculty member. Sarah wants to lead the way in creating a ceremony that reflects you, your love, and all the things that you hold most dear in the world. She lives in New York City, but brings along a hospitality that she attributes to her home, Oklahoma. In addition to this work that she adores, she devotes herself to a variety of charities on issues relating to education, children, health, and the arts.

2 Comments on "Writing your Own Obit: RIP John Truesdale"

  1. Margaret Truesdale Quigley August 22, 2011 at 1:47 am · Reply

    Dear Sarah,

    I was surprised to come across this on the internet. Pleasantly surprised. I was very close to my Dad, John Truesdale, and miss him very much. I was “googling” his name and reading about him and getting teary eyed again when I came across your writing. You are 100% right about my Dad. He was quite a remarkable person and if not for the cancer, would be here with me today. He was still working, part time, until last year. Flying around the country doing labor arbitration! He had more energy and spirit than anyone I know. He and my mother had just moved in with me and my family two weeks before he died.

    It is such a loss for me personally, but you made me smile. Thank you.


  2. Sarah Ritchie August 26, 2011 at 3:31 pm · Reply


    I am delighted to say that I have had a wonderful set of exchanges with John Truesdale’s daughter Margaret. I have learned more about her father and recently made a donation to a wonderful charity in his name: The Peggy Browning Fund (www.peggybrowningfund.org). Based in Philadelphia, it provides scholarships for law students interested in workers’ rights.

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