A surprise funeral gift
Gifts are not customary at funerals, or for that matter programs printed on newsprint. Then again, the deceased was far from being ordinary.
Roswell Bosworth Jr. died Feb. 7. He was 90 and as I learned at his service Saturday at St. Michael’s Church in Bristol far more than the newspaper publisher I knew him as. I’ll get to that in a bit. First was my introduction to a service that I knew as soon as I saw the church was a town gathering. In many ways Bristol was Ros’ family and the paper he published, The Bristol Phoenix, before selling the business to his stepson Matt Hayes some years ago, was a personal connection to the community.
Ros was a planner and a doer and when the Phoenix sent over his obituary, which chronicled his life in perfunctory terms - none of those flowery words that make copy editors cringe – I learned he had written it. Pre-written obituaries used to be a practice of newspapers. Of course this was not the case for everybody in a community, but in slack time reporters on larger metropolitan papers would be assigned to research the backgrounds of important people so that when they died the editor could fill in the last-minute details.
In the day before the paid obituary, my father carried out such assignments as a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It was a task that included poking through the newspaper’s archives, reading clips and making phone calls. My father took it a step further and interviewed those he was asked to write about. He soon realized it gave him great access to often some of the more private people in the community. When informed he was there to write about their life’s history, doors opened and he often left with stories that couldn’t wait for death to be told.
Maybe Ros did the same early in his newspaper career. He certainly prepared for his own passing.
I arrived a half-hour early at St. Michael’s, yet the church was starting to fill up. I was handed a tabloid sheet. There was no screaming headline. This was not the New York Daily News. There was Ros’ photograph on the cover. It was the same one used in the obituary and the one I remember from when he was inducted into the Rhode Island Press Association hall of fame. That was Ros, find something good and stick with it. On the back page was an even larger picture of Ros in a leather-flying jacket as an Army Air Force Cadet at the age of 17. That couldn’t have been Ros’ doing because he never would have let such prime advertising space go unsold.
As the congregation was to learn in Matt’s eulogy, Ros left behind a three-ring binder with the full particulars of the service down to the selection of hymns and the inclusion of a service conducted at the draped casket at the front of the church by the Masonic Lodge of Bristol where Ros was a member.
I found an empty pew near the front and moved in as far as I could go. There was a rustle of paper as people in front and behind me looked through the program.
“Something I can finally read,” I heard a woman say. She was right, the print was large and bold. Ros’ planning, no doubt.
But as I said in starting this column there was also a gift waiting for each of us. It was a Zip Loc bag containing what looked to be potting soil. Accompanying was a card with the words, “Ros’ compost.” The explanation talked of Ros’ stewardship of the earth. Matt touched on the compost gifts in his remarks, noting to the laughs, this was probably the first time the compost had been given out for free. “Ros was a Yankee.”
The compost, I’m sure, wasn’t in Ros’ funeral plan.
As the church filled, Emma Diamon and her husband slid in beside me. A Bristolian whose ancestors predate the American Revolution, Emma immediately recognized me as an outsider. Once I got her approval as a newspaper friend, she shared Ros and Marcia’s 2016 Christmas letter that she brought along in an effort to identify all of his grandchildren. Then reaching into her purse, she pulled out a manila envelope that contained a black and white photo of her as a bridesmaid to Ros’ sister taken in 1946.
I was getting a glimpse of the Bristol community.
Matt talked of how Ros taught him the value of work as a boy, first having him and his brother Jonathan clean out an office and then setting him up with a lawnmower that became a source of summer income as he established a base of clients. Later the boys worked at the press. There were more stories and the touching account of Ros’ sudden passing on Cooper Island in the British Virgin Islands where he and Marcia spent many of their winters after he sold the newspaper.
Ros had spent the night before enjoying a meal as the sun set with Marcia in a place he loved.
There was the story of how the “Scribe,” as Ros’ father was known and Ros, cranked out the town news on a school mimeograph following the 1938 Hurricane. Geoffrey Davis, described how as a cub reporter Ros had put him to work reporting on Bristol manufacturers for a special commerce and industry section. Ros’ advice was “to picture” the work of the laborers’ hands rather than focus on the rhetoric he was certain to get. He recalled, also, a day when Ros called him into his office to hear the story of a man stopped for drunk driving. The man confessed he was in wrong for drinking and driving, but questioned why the police had beaten him up. Telling that story was also the role of the paper, as Ros made clear.
As Matt related, Ros recruited him to return to the paper after he had set off on another career path. He made Matt’s transition to publisher easy, stepping aside, but not away, from the newspaper. He also was always at the side of Bristol as evidenced by this litany of his contributions to the community.
When the service ended, Emma wished me well.
“Have you got your compost?” she asked, slipping the bag beside her into her purse.
I didn’t answer. I just tapped my jacket pocket. She nodded knowingly.
Hours later after getting home, I reached into my pocket to pull it out.
I was in for a surprise.
The bag was hot.
It was Ros’ doing, no doubt.