In his 48 years with The Baltimore Sun—29 on the newspaper’s necrology team—Fred Rasmussen has written tens of thousands of obituaries. And ever since COVID-19 struck Maryland, the lifelong journalist, like writers on his beat around the world, has had even more subjects to memorialize.
“Since March of last year, we’ve been totally clobbered,” says Rasmussen. “The submissions outstrip our ability to provide.”
Obituary writing was once considered a backwater of the newspaper business, but for the likes of Rasmussen, commemorating the dead—in his words, those who’ve gone to “bliss eternal”—has become a lively, lasting form of art. For him, writing an obituary is a chance to celebrate a person’s life, no matter who they were.
“We have a saying around here,” he says. “There are no boring lives. There are only dull obits.”
Luckily, there’s no chance of that happening here. The genial, 73-year-old journalist was at one time an aspiring character actor. Instead, he’s just a character—and a local institution in his own right.
“A successful obit should evoke a sense of humanity and never feel like a marble statue,” says obituary writer Adam Bernstein of The Washington Post. “In that spirit, a Fred Rasmussen obit has the feel of a celebration of the best of the community. You get through him a sense of a big city like Baltimore that feels more like a tight-knit village of fascinating characters who each have their important role to play.”
Despite writing what’s known around the halls of the Sun as the “mort du jour” (that is, the longer obituary profiles) for almost three decades, he has never changed his reporting process. He doesn’t like Zoom and prefers a good old-fashioned phone call for his reporting. He’s prone to use words like “skid-doo” and “excelsior!”
“I’m the last person at The Baltimore Sun who uses a pencil to take notes,” he says. “I use pencils and legal pads. And I don’t use a tape recorder, I remember quotes in my head—I’ve been lucky that way.”
Once Rasmussen decides on his subject—through the years that’s everyone from Robert Klein, a retired insurance executive and WWII veteran who helped liberate the Landsberg concentration camp, to Betty Bertaux, who founded the Children’s Chorus of Maryland—he culls “clips” from the newspaper’s extensive archives to gather what’s been written before, interviews the loved ones of the deceased, and then “flies into his dance.”
If his interview subject is too distraught, he might suggest that the subject call him back over a cup of coffee. (Though sometimes, he says, he’s the one who is overcome and needs to put a pause on the process.) He encourages everyone he speaks to—no matter how short a life their loved one has lived or how tragically they’ve died—to honor the deceased by talking about their achievements. (He’s even been known to include crab-cake recipes and lines of poetry in his obits.)
It’s that very folksiness and warmth (“his expansive personality,” is how former Sun managing editor Bill Marimow describes it) that enables him to capture the essence of the deceased, even when it means having to call a parent after the loss of a child or a grieving spouse.
“I think of myself as a kind and understanding person,” he says. “And while I’m looking at the clock, I listen as if I have all the time in the world.”
Former Sun editor Dave Ettlin, who edited Rasmussen in his tenure as the night metro editor for 17 years, is quick to sing his praises. “Fred is a storyteller at heart, and he’s in the right place because he’s telling the stories of people,” says Ettlin. “It takes an art to draw people out, to tell their stories, and he does it—he’s one of the greats.”
While he has always been an empathetic soul, lately, as he grapples with his own grief, Rasmussen can relate to his subjects even more. Two years ago, he lost the love of his life, Judy Nall, whom he met at a Christmas party in 2004. It was a second marriage for both—intense and deep. “My God, she was wonderful,” he says, simply.
“Miss N,” as he affectionately calls her, didn’t want to tie the knot—he did. After some relentless pleading (“I just kept bringing it up until I wore her down, and with a great heave one night, she agreed,” he says), they were married on New Year’s Eve in 2007. “We never had an argument, never slammed the door or threw a frying pan,” he says wistfully.
Tragically, on February 21, 2019, their life together came to a halt when Nall died from complications of an infection. “I couldn’t handle it,” he says. “The first day, my therapist said, ‘There’s no magic switch. I can’t make it go away. You’re going to have to walk down this road through the forest and out the other side. And you’re going to have good days, and then something will happen, and you will fall back.’”
“I’M THE LAST PERSON AT THE BALTIMORE SUN TO USE PENCILS TO TAKE NOTES.”
A warm spring Monday just after Easter was one of those days, as he sits on the deck of the West Towson Center Hall home he shared with Nall.
“I pulled out a cookbook and a note from her fell out,” he says. “What I’ve learned about grief is that it’s endless. When you lose a child or a spouse, they are irreplaceable.”
Given that he asks others to be candid, Rasmussen is willing to be open about his own love and loss, and he never takes the stories people share for granted.
“You get to meet a lot of great people at the worst moment of their life, after they’ve lost a loved one,” he says. “It’s an honor to have that privilege.”
Ask Rasmussen to name a favorite obit and he’s quick to say, “I like them all in some way,” pointing out that it’s not always someone’s profession that makes them interesting, as was highlighted in the May 2002 obit he wrote on Mt. Vernon dentist Hugh Hicks.
“He collected lightbulbs from all over the world, including lightbulbs from the Empire State Building,” Rasmussen recalls. “The obit hadn’t cooled off before the Smithsonian was at the door wanting to acquire the collection.”
His November 2019 reflections on The Prime Rib owner “Buzz” Beler, for example, are just one example of his pithy prose. “C. Peter ‘Buzz’ Beler, whose out-of-the-way East Chase Street restaurant, The Prime Rib, came to define a certain 1930s sophistication and was known for generous slabs of its namesake dish, signature fried Greenberg potato skins, steak au poivre prepared ‘bleu,’ as the French say, and precisely chilled bluepoints so large they ought to be renamed Titanics, died Oct. 23 in Charlottesville, Virginia,” Rasmussen wrote. “He was 90.”
When asked about his own trajectory from suburban Plainfield, New Jersey, to the hallowed halls of a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper, it’s clear that Rasmussen, an avid reader and history buff at an early age, was destined for a life in journalism. As a teenager, he subbed for his friend Jimmy Maude on his newspaper route, delivering The Plainfield Courier-News on foot.
“That bag was like carrying an 800-pound baby on your side,” he recalls. “And then it was raining or snowing, and people would bitch about the paper because it went in a bush or on the roof. I gave the route back to Jimmy.”
Despite his first failed newspaper job, “printer’s ink was in my blood,” says Rasmussen, whose father worked in production on Fortune magazine, and whose grandfather, Frederick M. Rasmussen, was superintendent of the Jersey City Printing Co. and a close confidante of Time founder Henry Luce.
Rasmussen also grew up in a household where the written word was revered. “My father came home with 18 newspapers because he commuted on the train,” he says, “so we always had piles of newspapers. The New York Herald Tribune, The New York Daily News, with its great pictures of a railroad wreck or a car upside down on the highway. The World Telegram and Sun. All the papers were there, and we’d go on the floor and pore through them—that’s how I was raised.”
After high school, in 1966, Rasmussen attended Boston’s Emerson College in hopes of pursuing an acting career.
“I wanted to be a character actor, but in those days, you had to sing, dance, do comedy, and the straight stuff,” he says. “By my junior year, I thought, ‘Well, I have nothing to give to the American theater, and I really like eating three meals a day, so I know what I’ll do. I’ll do the next best thing. I’ll be a writer!’”
Along the way, he entertained the idea of other careers. “I was interviewed for a job selling insurance at John Hancock in Boston, but I didn’t get the job,” he muses. “One night, I was out drinking with friends at the Copley Plaza, and the man who interviewed me appeared. I went over to him and said, ‘I’m Fred Rasmussen. I’d like to ask a question. Why didn’t I get the job?’ And he said, ‘You wore a bowtie…people who wear bowties are independent—you can’t control them.’”
Ever since, he wears them as a reminder. “The bowtie saved me from a miserable life as an insurance man,” he says with a laugh.
Instead, Rasmussen pursued journalism, working as a freelancer for Boston magazine before setting his sights on the Sun. His then-mother-in-law had worked at the paper and knew legendary columnist H.L. Mencken.
“I always loved the Sun and was a Mencken nut,” he says. Having worked in his college library, he was first hired as a photo librarian in 1973, a position he held for 19 years, overseeing the vast collection’s seven million photographs, while also writing on the side.
“I clawed my way onto the paper and wrote features, book reviews, food and travel stories, and stories about Maryland history,” says Rasmussen, who also wrote the Sun’s long-running “Back Story” column, which looked at historical events and their link to Baltimore.
In the early ’90s, when the paper expanded its coverage and started producing local sections, he was made an editorial assistant for the county editions.
“I covered the boilerplate government stuff and did features,” he says. “They made me a Charles Kuralt-type. I’d go all over the county and write about the people.”
On weekends, he penned the occasional obituary. One day, he wrote an obituary on a businessman who had done a stint in jail for tax evasion. He mentioned the subject’s jail time in the obit—“this is news, not a love letter,” he says—but focused on the fact that the man had redeemed himself.
Shortly after the piece went to press, Rasmussen, who’d received threatening calls from the subject’s friends and acquaintances, was summoned to the Sun offices on Calvert Street by his then-editor Gil Watson. “I got a message, ‘Please come to Baltimore immediately,’” he recalls. He was told to go to the conference room.
“I’m thinking, ‘I must have really done something wrong. This is the end of my life.’ Then [editor] John Carroll and Bill Marimow walked in. Carroll said, ‘We’re going to redo the obit page. We want to open it up to all kinds of people, not just people from Guilford, not just society swells and doctors and lawyers and bankers. We want people from all walks of life, because Baltimore is a city with all kinds of people who live here.’”
Marimow recalls thinking that Rasmussen was the perfect person to put on the obit beat. “I thought, ‘This is a guy who is intelligent, steeped in history and culture, very likeable, and a good writer,” Marimow says.
“The quality, the variety, and the depth of his obituaries really were A-plus journalism,” he continues. “I thought Fred was doing Pulitzer Prize-caliber work. I gave him one mandate, and that was to bring [his subjects] to life. I’d say, ‘Bring ’em back alive’—we joked about that for years to come.”
“PEOPLE LOVE OBITS—WE ARE INNATELY CURIOUS ABOUT EACH OTHER’S LIVES.”
Decades later, Rasmussen is still doing just that. “I really like this job,” he says. “It allows me to combine my love of Maryland and Maryland history. This is an interesting town with lots of great stories, and I like knowing what makes people tick.”
And despite dealing with death on a daily basis—or maybe because of it—Rasmussen retains a sort of gallows humor about the job, including making the occasional gaffe, from the accidental curse word (a typo when referencing the Duda-Ruck Funeral Home once proved unfortunate) to mixing up high-school alma-maters (almost a criminal offense in Baltimore, he notes).
But knowing that his pieces are often framed or scrapbooked as the final word on a person’s life, he always takes great pains to get the facts right.
“Once a piece is published, you sweat watermelons over it,” he says. “You open the page carefully like a door to a haunted cellar. Did I forget to mention Uncle Walter?”
When he’s not at The Sun, the father of two and grandfather to eight reads books—John O’Hara is a favorite writer—and listens to opera. On weekdays, after work, he enjoys the company of a circle of friends, dubbed “The Merry Pranksters,” a rotating gang that includes Sun journalists past and present, WYPR’s Tom Hall, former Governor Martin O’Malley, and retired and working teachers, lawyers, and social workers with whom he happily meets for drinks at Zen West before heading home.
Still working through his grief, he welcomes the distraction. “In the evenings and on weekends, oh, boy, does time hang heavy,” says Rasmussen, whose friends call him “The Razz.” While the pandemic, which hit a year after Nall’s death, has been a “double whammy,” he takes comfort in nature and early mornings, rising before 5 a.m. on weekdays to get to the Sun by 7.
“I’ve had a really fulfilling career,” he says. “The thing is that people love obits—we are innately curious about each other’s lives. They call obits the ‘Irish sporting pages.’”
Rasmussen was ready to retire in the summer of 2018, when the Sun moved from Calvert Street in downtown Baltimore to Port Covington, adding an additional 20 minutes to his commute, but Nall stopped him.
“I wanted to quit, but I think Judy had a premonition that she wasn’t going to make it,” he says. “She said, ‘You’re going to Port Covington’—it was her last great gift.”
As for his own mortality, he says that when the time comes, like Nall, he wants to be cremated.
“When I go to cemeteries, there are people there and no one even knows them,” he says. “All they are is a flicker on a genealogy chart. They died a hundred years ago, and no one can say even one sentence about them—with cremation, you’re free.”
And though the Sun has a strict nepotism rule when it comes to writing obits, how would Rasmussen wax rhapsodic about his own life?
“My obit wouldn’t need much space,” he says. “It’s six words. ‘He came. He saw. He went.’ That’s it. Over and out.”