I had an odd jolt this week when I saw a name in the obits and thought, “That sounds familiar.” I suppose that’s a by-product of aging.
When I was a master’s student, my advisor sent me over to the University of Missouri Press for a class/internship in academic publishing. I suspected then, and still do, that it was some sort of payback, in the “do me a favor, and I’ll send you some free labor” way—I’ve done that myself as a teacher. There were four of us students, as I recall, and our tasks were to proofread, read the manuscript pile, and perform the general publishing grunt work.
Our supervisor was the managing editor, whose name was Sue Kelpe, and she oversaw us effectively, although like managing editors everywhere she had the air of someone who had twenty pressing tasks waiting for her at all times, so our conversations were usually swift and surgical. I had some familiarity with blind proofreading from my newspaper days, when we did it for our major advertisers, so I often took that task. One person would read the proofs aloud while another followed the manuscript; the reader had to pronounce every punctuation mark, every capitalization. Some of my fellow students hated it, but I always found it a weird but calming task, this microscopic tour through the text, although I was never the perfect proofreader because I would usually be revising the work in my head at the same time, cutting extraneous words, replacing dead verbs with live ones.
The director of the press was Ed King, whom Sue treated with respect bordering on awe, and who didn’t deal with us passing lowlies a great deal. Occasionally he would glide through our workspace, exuding distinguished geniality, and exchange a few words. But mostly he was elsewhere, his office or meetings, although everyone knew that the U of M was his press, and the selection, design, and overall feel of the books were his.
So this week I saw Ed King’s obit in the paper and remembered droning on to my proofreading partner in the sunlit space in the press’s offices, and what I learned there about care and precision. And I walked over to my bookshelf to take down a book from that era. I noticed its design—impeccably elegant if a little old-fashioned, perfectly proportioned, a book designed to last—and it occurred to me that no obituary could be as insightful, as honest, or as honorific as that finely crafted book.