THE SPJ DEATH RACE: A POST-MORTEM
The first and maybe annual SPJ Death Race has been laid to rest.
On Saturday, Jan. 19, 16 college and pro reporters – from Naples, Miami, Orlando, and points in between – covered three fake deaths.
They ate Domino’s pizza in a Fort Lauderdale funeral home while listening to advice from Miami Herald obit beat reporter Elinor Brecher. Then they covered a mock memorial service that featured eulogies from real friends, family, and coworkers.
Afterward, they drove to the newsroom of South Florida Gay News and wrote an obit in an hour.
The winner was Naples Daily News reporter Kristine Gill . She walked away with an engraved funeral urn filled with the ashes of the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald, and Palm Beach Post.
Second place went to Sun-Sentinel reporter Heather Carney and third to freelancer Brandon Ballenger. They won nothing. But below are their obits, as selected by Brecher and the corpses themselves: South Florida journalists (and cigarette smokers) Mariam Aldhahi, Gideon Grudo, and Cassie Morien.
Just a note for any cynical journalists who might read these with an attitude…
Nothing below has been edited, and all were finished in exactly an hour by a bunch of young reporters who had never written an obit. So before you get judgmental or self-righteous, ask yourself if you could do better. Because I really doubt you could.
If that pisses you off, sign up for next year’s Death Race and prove me wrong.
– Michael Koretzky, SPJ Region 3 director
Cassie Morien: “Spastic and Squiggly”
By Kristine Gill
Kathleen Ross hated Cassie Morien the moment she laid eyes on her.
Tall, impeccably dressed and bubbly, Morien seemed a threat staff at Boca Raton Magazine her first day on the job. Ross resisted, but a month later Morien’s charm, her wit, her awkward mannerisms had won her over. ”You can’t not like her,” Ross, 25, said.
The two ate lunch together each day for two years since, taking turns swapping stories in a rush against the clock. ”The hour was never long enough to share everything,” Ross said.
That’s why friends and family of Cassandra Morien said her death has left them with a baffling void, a 6’1″ chasm usually occupied by a quirky, bursting force in heels.
“She just has a different kind of presence,'” her mother Julia Morien said. “She finds joy in everything.”
Morien, died Jan. 17 of the lung disease emphysema despite having smoked a cigarette just once in her short lifetime. The 26-year-old fashion and web editor at Boca Raton Magazine lived in Boynton Beach and is survived by her parents Julia and Dennis, her younger siblings Gillian and Trevor, and her boyfriend Angel Melendez.
A writer since the second grade, Morien loved journalism, Julia Morien said.
In fact she tweeted April 15 that “The notion that I will be spending the next 10 hours writing is both exciting and overwhelming. #ondeadline #lovemylife”.
Becoming an expert on something and sharing that knowledge thrilled her, Julia Morien said.
It was that way with music, especially indie and electronic, Melendez said.
Despite habit of awkward movements, Melendez called them “spastic and squiggly,” Morien wasn’t afraid to dance. She tweeted from the Miami Ultra Music Festival in March: “Miami, you are so insanely beautiful. I love every single second of this life. Ultra Music Festival (& all music!) is the reason I breathe.”
Her Twitter feed is riddled with the names of obscure bands, The Bloody Beetroots, Avicii and her favorite M83.
If you haven’t heard of those artists, don’t worry. That’s the way Morien would have liked it, Melendez said.
“I was everything she was not into: tall guys, writers, music know-it-alls. She liked to be the best,” Melendez said. The couple dated for a year during which Melendez enjoyed Morien’s baking, the love notes she left tucked in the pages of his books and her willingness to parting in sporting events with him despite her own lack of enthusiasm for the pastime. At 6’2″ tall, Melendez said he will miss his partner who stood with him at nearly eye level on most things. ”She said once our relationship was easy,” he recalled.
Funeral arrangements for Morien are pending, but will no doubt include all the bells and whistles she was famous for incorporating in her “balls-to-the-wall” approach to all things in life.
“She was a constant. A constant good thing in my life,” he said. “It’s going to be incredibly different without her.”
Mariam Aldhahi: “She Was a Ball-Buster”
By Heather Carney
Mariam Aldhahi had big shoes to follow, but she filled them in her own way, said friends and peers who worked with Aldhahi at her university’s newspaper.
“She was a ball-buster but then she eased up,” said Phaedra Blaize, 24, a colleague of Aldhahi’s at the Florida Atlantic University Press. “She expected a lot, she knew what she wanted – she wanted the paper to be the best.”
Aldhahi died Tuesday. She was 22. A memorial service was held for her and her mentor, Daniel Gideon Grudo, Saturday at Broward Burial and Cremation in Fort Lauderdale. Grudo was 27 when he died Wednesday. Both died from emphysema related illnesses.
Aldhahi, a Sun Sentinel graphic designer and former Editor-in-Chief at the University-Press, learned the ropes of the newspaper business from Grudo. Blaize called them the “mother and father of the newsroom.”
But friends said Aldhahi was different from Grudo, her former Editor-in-Chief at the paper. Aldhahi was patient and gentle, but strict when she needed to be, they said.
“She taught me not to be so proud,” said Michael Chandeck, 21, who worked on the newspaper with Aldhahi. “I screwed up an issue so bad, I misspelled the name of a coach but she told me to reach out to people who I could learn from, to reach out of my shell.”
Blaize called her a realist and said that Aldhahi looked beyond the small mistakes to the big picture. Her patience and empathy made her a respected leader, she said.
A good friend, Regina Kaza, 19, remembers Aldhahi outside of the news world as someone who loved food, festivals, and exploring new places. And Kaza said her friend had a strong sense of skepticism.
“She didn’t trust people right away,” said Kaza. “But once you got her trust, she opened up.”
Aldhahi was born in Dubai, said Kaza, and she dreamed of moving out of Florida one day.
Gideon Grudo: “Always Looking to Improve”
By Brandon Ballenger
Daniel Gideon Grudo, the first non-gay in management at the South Florida Gay News, died Jan. 16, 2013, of complications related to the lung disease emphysema. He was 27.
Grudo is survived by both his parents, Cynthia and Doron, and a half-brother, Ezra. He grew up in Israel, but moved to the States in his adolescence. He attended high school in New Orleans, before moving to South Florida to attend Florida Atlantic University. He graduated in May 2012 with a degree in multimedia journalism, after serving as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The University Press.
He was named managing editor of SFGN, a weekly publication, straight out of college.
“He had freelanced for me for six months, and we were always on the same page. He was not afraid to take on big stories. I trusted him,” said editor-in-chief Jason Parsley. Grudo accepted the position only after turning it down – he had a competing offer of news editor at The Jersualem Post, back in Israel.
“But he came back the next morning and said, ‘I made a mistake.’ I think the reason why was because we’re a small company with an opportunity to learn everything and he saw a better chance to expand his skills,” Parsley says.
Grudo was also executive vice president of the South Florida Society of Professional Journalists alongside Parsley, who is president.
“He wanted to be a journalist his whole life. The only other thing he considered was in music production,” said his sister-in-law, Erin Lubow. “He was always looking to improve.”
His desk and 22” Mac monitor are covered in pink sticky notes with story ideas and reminders. A chart with the NATO phonetic alphabet (You know: “tango whiskey foxtrot”) and Morse code hangs nearby.
There are also VHS tapes, and a dog-eared, yellowed copy of All the President’s Men, the chronicling of the Watergate scandal by investigative journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. (According to Lubow, Grudo was an avid reader, but strictly nonfiction.)
Grudo also had taped up hate letters he had received, stapled to the stories they complain about. One begins, in all-caps black Sharpie: “DON’T BELIEVE IN HELL? WON’T MAKE IT ONE DEGREE COOLER WHEN YOU AND ALL YOUR DEMOCRATIC PARTY FRIENDS GET THERE!” Lubow and Parsley agree: Grudo enjoyed competition and debate, especially to play devil’s advocate. It seems he enjoyed a measure of infamy as well. On the floor lies a crushed, empty pack of Camel Crush bold cigarettes.
Color photos by SPJ FAU’s Michelle Friswell