During a job interview in the courtyard of a swanky Washington, D.C. hotel with one of the world’s biggest media holding companies, I was asked a pointed and probing question: “What is the most memorable thing you’ve ever written?”
It was the very first question asked by the very experienced marketing executive who had built one of Aegis Media’s many agencies from scratch. He asked the question with such confidence and directness that he leaned back to watch me twist and turn while I tried to come up with the perfect answer.
I had never been asked this question before, and so my lightning quick answer surprised both of us.
“My brother’s obituary,” I said.
The executive, I think, suspected me to struggle with the answer.
At the very least, he probably thought I’d talk about something from my background in the world of experiential marketing, theme parks and museum exhibits. This advertising executive was a man’s man, and so he probably thought I might talk about the concepts I wrote for the Battleship Missouri Memorial at Pearl Harbor or the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame at the renovated Lambeau Field.
Curious by my quick answer, this agency big wig leaned forward and quietly said with sadness, “Your brother’s obituary.”
My oldest brother Stuart’s death was so tragic that even the best and most creative Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t have scripted it. After an abbreviated stint in the United States Army and a very successful career as an entrepreneur, Stuart decided to give up business and focus on flying.
You see, Stuart had originally signed up for the ROTC in college because, in addition to liking how he looked in gold epauletes, he wanted to fly helicopters more than anything in the world.
However, for Stuart, life as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army was not all he had hoped for. For him, the Army’s long-time advertising slogan to be all that he could be was sadly ironic. So, after serving his time in the artillery (and they don’t have flying howitzers), he chose to be all he could be somewhere else.
After the military, he made millions printing billboards and sold his company. With financial security, Stuart returned to his great-unfulfilled love. He earned his pilot’s license, bought an airplane, started working as a flight instructor, and often flew as a charter pilot.
As he grew more experienced, Stuart bought an aerobatics stunt plane. He even began flying gyroplanes, those small airplane/helicopter hybrids made famous by Bruce Spence’s Gryo Captain in the Mad Max movies.
While there was an occasional worry about his safety, Stuart was the oldest of 11 children. He was The Golden Child and role model. He was the kind of older brother who took it upon himself to help all his little brothers and sisters. He always freely gave his time to help others. He was fit, trim and had the perfect family with two adoring children.
He was invincible!
On Tuesday July 16, 2002, Stuart agreed to load up a gyroplane with bags of candy and fly to a church party where he and another dad would drop Twizzlers, Starbursts and LifeSavers to a throng of happy children from my church.
Seconds after taking off from Utah’s Ogden-Hinckley Airport at 6:15 p.m., the gyroplane’s rotor fluttered in a wind gust, hit the tail, shattered into pieces and then the entire flying contraption dropped 400 feet like a brick, bursting into flames when hitting the runway. Both my brother and his passenger, Corry Clarke, died instantly.
I lived across the country and was unable to immediately hug and console my parents and siblings. Instead, I volunteered to write the obituary. Considering that I am the only professional writer in the family, I was certainly the logical choice as well.
I sat down at my desk, wiped away a lot of tears, and began to write. Surprisingly, the obituary was one of the easiest things I had ever written. I simply thought about my brother, what he loved, how he died, and started writing.
Needless to say, this answer about my brother’s obituary shut the big wig executive right up and I got the job.
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