Yesterday I learned a colleague from my newspaper was found dead in her Colorado apartment.
I learned the news, ironically, by stumbling across her obituary while I was reading the same newspaper for which she and I both wrote. It struck me, for the first time, that the final consequence of working at a newspaper is that your colleagues – the people you see everyday — are the ones who write your obituary.
Your co-workers also decide how much prominence your death gets in the news. Hers made the front page. Several other papers across Colorado, including the Denver Post, also ran stories about her sudden death.
Wendy Kale was only 58 when she died. No one can explain – or even guess – her cause of death. She seemed to be in fantastic health. The coroner is conducting an autopsy. Police are saying it’s probably “not suspicious.”
Wendy weighed on my mind as I contemplated what to write for today’s Afford Anything post. Wendy lived a more frugal life than almost anyone I know. She lived in a small apartment. She didn’t own a car. She bicycled to work each day wearing the same baggy jeans and sweatshirt, which was acceptable in her role as the newspaper’s music writer. She packed her lunches, never took vacations, never styled her hair. In the three years she and I worked together, I only saw her wear makeup once.
She didn’t earn much money, and neither did I. Yet even I – a generally frugal person – drove a car, ate at restaurants, and enjoyed snowboarding in the Rockies during those lean years working at the paper.
I don’t know what Wendy did with whatever money was left over from each paycheck, but I imagine someone as responsible as she was prepared for retirement.
Her sudden death makes me face an uncomfortable question – a question so uncomfortable I’m afraid I won’t be able to express it in a tasteful manner. But — deep breath — here it goes:
What if we never make it to retirement day? Financial planning focuses on delaying gratification in order to make our grey-haired years even sweeter. We’re taught to defer life experiences – trips to Italy, designer handbags – for the sake of our future. So how can we come to grips with the fact that our future isn’t guaranteed?
About a month ago, long before Wendy’s death, I scanned the Web for articles and blog posts that touch on the intersection of financial planning and early mortality. I saw hints of this everywhere, usually expressed with truisms like “I want to die broke” or “You can’t take it with you.”
Some articles explicitly asked these questions; some just brushed on the idea. Here are a few examples:
#1) Money Magazine ran a profile of a couple who – although now prolific savers – had to overcome the wife’s initial anti-saving attitude: “I’d say, ‘We could die in a car crash tomorrow, so let’s enjoy ourselves now!’”
#2) The blog MoneyNing touches on this topic in the post, “Money Isn’t Just for Hoarding”: “Neither of us care about leaving a fat inheritance for our son … Instead, we want to be able to enjoy a few things now …. what good is having all that money later if we never actually use it?”
#3) The blog Get Rich Slowly featured a letter from a reader who struggles to balance saving for the future with enjoying her money while she still can: “As we watch friends and relatives succumb to cancer (mostly) in their late sixties, I wonder about our financial goals. … When I look at our retirement accounts, it never looks like enough … If we reach 70, I don’t want to do so without having traveled to places we’ve talked about seeing.”
#4) An annuity website, in a post “Die Rich or Die Happy,” touches on this question: “the best time for consumption is during youth … Dying on retirement day would be less than a grand tragedy because life’s principal purpose would already have been fulfilled.”
#5) The blogger Marianna writes with emotion about her father: “One thing I learned about my father’s passing is that no matter how much we accumulate here on this earth … it’s the memories we take with us … Plan for your future (retirement, paying off the bills) but at the same time remember to simply enjoy life.”
#6) There’s even a quote about it on The Simpsons:
Financial planner: It doesn’t look like you’ve been saving anything for the future!
Police Chief Wiggum: Well, you know how it is with cops. I’ll be shot three days before retirement. In the business, we call it retirony.
Planner: Well, what if you don’t get shot?
Police Chief Wiggum: What a terrible thing to say! Oh, look! You made my wife cry!
I searched for answers to that uncomfortable question by reminding myself of other truisms: “Live for today, plan for tomorrow.”
But feeling unsatisfied with clichéd expressions, I hunted through Wendy’s obituary for more answers.
Obituaries, by the way, are one of the most challenging pieces for any journalist to write. Obit writers must conjure the best tone and depth to describe a person whom they’ve never met. The Society of Professional Obituary Writers – whose tagline is “Writing About the Dead for a Living” – hand out annual “Grimmie” awards to honor the best obituaries. The best obit writers even receive the ironically-named Lifetime Achievement Awards.
Writing an obituary for a close colleague is an entirely different challenge. Heck, just reading an obit of a colleague is tough enough.
Wendy’s obit was done beautifully – written so well that it laid my questions to rest. When you read the highlights, you’ll understand why:
Her years (as a music promoter in the 1970’s) allowed her to “live the life” of a music-scene insider, hanging out backstage with luminaries such as Jerry Garcia and B.B. King and dealing with disasters like equipment not showing up for sold-out shows or musicians getting falling-down drunk.
(Wendy) Kale held numerous jobs doing public relations and marketing for bands, concert companies and other local businesses. She continued to draw on those connections throughout her career as a writer for the Colorado Daily.
“Every show I brought to Colorado, she was the first call I made,” (prominent Los Angeles music producer Phil) Lobel said.”
She interviewed everyone …
She published thousands of interviews — with musical groups like Dave Matthews Band and Smashing Pumpkins and with New Age celebrities like Deepak Chopra.
She was a fixture on the scene …
“Wendy Kale may have gone to more concerts than any person in the state of Colorado in the last 20 years,” said Don Strasburg, vice president of Denver-based concert promoter AEG Live and co-founder of Boulder’s Fox Theatre.
You wouldn’t have guessed …
Colorado Daily Editor Dave Burdick said people who saw Kale riding around Boulder on her old bike might not have pegged her for a pop music writer.
“But she was one, and she was pretty amazing at talking to bands, no matter how unwilling they sounded,” he said.
Several times a week, “she’d get some newly successful … musician on the phone who’d just woken up or was heavily intoxicated or just otherwise a painfully difficult interview, and she’d just pry some kind of reasonable quotes out, against all odds,” Burdick said.
She worked her dream job …
“She was very much plugged into the after-hours entertainment scene in Boulder,” said Clint Talbott, who was editor at the Daily when Kale started there. “She got paid peanuts for doing this, but she seemed to really enjoy talking to people about who was coming and who was playing.”
And that’s when – mid-way through her obituary – it hit me: Wendy lived the life she wanted.
She lived frugally, this I know for sure. Even her obituary mentions her “old bike.” She saved for retirement (I assume). But she never sacrificed her dreams.
She didn’t suffer through a dull desk job because it paid the bills. She accepted getting “paid peanuts” – as her own editor admits – because she loved her job. She was passionate about her work. She surrounded herself with the things she loves most – music and writing – and dedicated every day of her life to these two arts.
That she lived frugally is besides the point. She lived a life she loved, filled with purpose and excitement. And in her passing, we remember a woman who found meaning in her work.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Wendy Kale, a dedicated music lover and a talented old-school journalist who loved getting the scoop. Read her full obituary and read some stirring words about her from our close friend, the features/layout editor, Christy Fantz.