In Service

Editing obituaries and class notes

Portrait of Debby Smullyan, retiring obituaries editor
Debby Smullyan
Photograph courtesy of Debby Smullyan

When Debby Smullyan ’72 began writing obituaries for the magazine in 1993, she didn’t know at first if the job would stick. She had been enjoying being a stay-at-home mom, her kids then eight and 11 years old. Now a grandmother, Debby calls herself a “connoisseur of obituaries” and says the work long ago “settled into her bones.” She retires from her post with this issue, having served as the careful steward of thousands of alumni obituaries over the course of three decades.

Debby’s gifts to alumni are immeasurable—it is hard to encapsulate them. But her most defining contribution is this: because of her sensitivity and style, bereaved family members and friends trusted her to convey the arc of alumni’s lives. Given the space of only two or three hundred words, she cultivated a subtle ability for plucking out the sparest details that could still make the departed known. In writing an obituary, Debby always tried to imagine “what the subject himself might have liked to see mentioned. For this last word, I want his approval. And I would want him to feel proud of how he spent his time on earth. I like to think he would say, ‘Okay, yeah. It’s true, I did that. Not bad! Not bad at all.’”

As much as Debby has given to readers of the magazine, she says crafting these biographies has given her something in return: “It has taught me a good deal about the human condition—about promise and aspiration and resilience, about the curve balls life can throw, both good and bad, and about the power of hard work and patience and love. At the same time, there is the overarching, aching impermanence of everything and everyone.”

As she leaves her editorial job—looking forward to a retirement free of deadlines, with plenty of time to garden, practice the piano, and study weaving—the staff of Harvard Magazine extend to her our hearty, deep-felt thanks for her service to so many families and friends.

Alexandra Grimm
Photograph courtesy of Alexandra Grimm

Turning toward the next era, we welcome incoming obituaries editor Alexandra Grimm ’17, a summa cum laude graduate in English who is a librarian at Colgate University. As it happens, several years ago, Debby briefly worked with Alexandra in the Alumni Affairs office and so passes the torch with these last words: “[Alexandra] is a fine writer and reader and a fount of kindness and joy. The obituaries are in superb hands.”

Colleen Lannon
Photograph courtesy of Colleen Lannon

Finally, we also want to take this opportunity to thank Colleen Lannon ’89 for her exemplary work editing the class notes section. The obituaries and class notes represent a crucial service to Harvard alumni; the extraordinary efforts of colleagues like Debby, Colleen, and Alexandra have set (and will sustain) a high standard in these sections every issue.

—the editors

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