Barry Saunders

Obituary should look at person’s whole life – not just a bad part

The new city manager for Gary, Ind., had committed some now-forgotten, irrelevant indiscretion in his distant past and I was the only reporter who’d found out about it.

When asked to explain it, he was suitably aghast, and I reveled in the scoop that would be on the next day’s front page. Despite his protestations, my only question of him was “Is my story accurate?”

“It’s accurate,” he reluctantly admitted, “but is it fair?”

Such nuances were of little concern at the time. Only after seeing the story in print, though, did I realize that a story can be accurate without being fair.

Vernon Hatley’s friends and family members are discovering that now.

Hatley, 67, was killed July 6 in a car wreck near Atlanta while visiting family, more specifically while on his way to church. His wife, Willie Mae Hatley, 65, also was killed in the wreck – which was caused by a drunk driver running a light – as was Hatley’s sister-in-law.

Local television coverage of his death concluded a very short report by noting that Hatley had been convicted of participating in a kickback scheme when he was transportation director for the Wake County Public School System and had been to prison.

That was accurate, but was it fair?

The people who knew and loved Hatley don’t think so. Neither do I.

To Dave Nickel, chaplain at Orange Correctional Center, Hatley “had the voice of God. ... I met him while I was a student at Duke Divinity School and he was a chaplain’s assistant at Orange Correctional Center,” Nickel told me.

“He helped facilitate Yokefellows” – a prison ministry – “and he would always pray at the end. ... He was a wonderful prayer ... he was always so pleasant. He got out in 2012. ... He was a great, great guy. Anytime we needed anything, he’d help.”

The prison is having a cookout Tuesday for inmates and volunteers, and Hank Elkin, a volunteer who worked at the prison with Hatley, was already lamenting Hatley’s absence. “To show you how thoughtful and committed he was,” Elkin said, “he’d already bought the chips” for the cookout.

Natalie Flowers, who met Hatley while she was volunteering at Orange Correctional Center, told me she wanted people to hear “the rest of the story” about the man who “served his time cheerfully and faithfully and was a witness to the other inmates.”

She noted that Hatley had worked at Whole Foods in Chapel Hill while incarcerated and won associate of the year. Twice.

Chaplain Nickel said he was “incensed” and “conflicted” by the way his friend was portrayed on TV news.

The journalistic bon voyage given to Hatley is nothing new. Happens way too often – unforgettably in 1995, when two people were killed on a Fayetteville street in what turned out to be a racially motivated execution. Even before a motive was established or a suspect identified – even before the rain had washed away the chalk outlines of the bodies from the street– the TV reporter solemnly intoned into the camera that one of the victims had an arrest record. It was for something like drinking a beer in public or public intoxication.

That tidbit was accurate, but was it fair – or even needed?

No way.

Nickel said, “I’ve made mistakes, but I’m glad mine are not being presented as the sum total of who I am.”

Hallelujah. Nobody has ever called me, as Nickel called Hatley, “a wonderful prayer.” Here, though, is my not-so-wonderful prayer: Oh Lord, please help me outlive some of the bad stuff I’ve done so that it won’t be the last thing people read about me.

As the report on Vern Hatley’s death shows, just because he had been freed from prison doesn’t mean he was free from his past.

Are we ever?