ST. PETERSBURG — Craig Basse spent decades writing obituaries in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times. Civil rights leaders and celebrities. Jewelers, politicians and teachers. Saxophonists, philanthropists and librarians.
He compressed their accomplishments into deft, newsy clauses.
James Earl "Doc" Webb, the businessman who parlayed a drugstore, talking mermaid and a dancing chicken into a multimillion dollar empire, died Thursday. He was 85.
Henry A. Jones Sr., a pioneer black service station operator, died Tuesday at Sun Bay Medical Center. He was 87.
Bishop Emeritus W. Thomas Larkin, who led the St. Petersburg diocese through a decade of explosive growth and was a friend of the late pope, died at his Clearwater home about 1:50 a.m. Saturday after a long battle with leukemia. He was 83.
He wrote obituaries into his late 70s.
He wrote obituaries while four cancers infiltrated his body.
His wife, Joyce Basse, pleaded for help with his obituary. He gave her some notes, but he wrote no article, no memoir, no esoteric thoughts on death. The man who earned a living distilling the lives of others didn't summarize his own.
"Dying is emotionally messy," she said. "Craig was kind of a formal person. He was a by-the-book person. He was a person who wore a tie to work every day. Dying is not easy, but he handled it with great dignity."
Mr. Basse died Tuesday. He was 77.
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He was born in Memphis, an only child whose family moved around.
He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Arkansas, where he was editor of the school's newspaper. He spent 17 years working for the Associated Press before joining the St. Petersburg Times in 1972.
As city editor, he was a masterful rewrite artist. Reporters sent strings of information from chaotic scenes and he wove it together into stories that made sense on deadline.
He spent more than 20 years editing the paper's funeral announcements, scanning the hundreds of briefs for morsels that could evolve into a larger story. Mr. Basse had a steel trap memory for local history and people.
He developed a gentle interview style, putting people at ease to draw out personal details. Commonly, a single conversation lasted 30 minutes.
"He was the consummate professional, steady and unflappable" said Paul Tash, chairman, chief executive and editor of the St. Petersburg Times. "He honored the humanity of countless people with dedication to the record of their lives."
He was quiet in the newsroom, always padding by in a sweater and a tie. When friends got to know him, he'd let loose and joke about being on "dead-line." Or he'd point out that his story subjects were never going to call him to complain.
Even when sick, he kept a happy face.
"That's the one thing he would never say," said Ceska Sutton, who compiled obituaries at the Times and sat next to Mr. Basse for four years. "He wouldn't even tell you if he was feeling bad."
When he updated managers on his cancer, he took an apologetic tone — it interfered with his work. He stopped working shortly before his scheduled retirement this past October.
He left the Times quietly, as he wanted, without a big party or cake or cheers. Employees sent well wishes anyway. Dozens of colleagues posed for a huge group photo, which was hand-delivered to his home. He was touched.
"He was a very private person," said his wife, 61. "But, you know, that was part of who he was. He treasured people, but he treasured them within his heart, not in a flamboyant way."
He leaves behind four children, eight grandchildren and volumes of work that has never been seen.
He wrote more than 400 obituaries in advance of people's deaths.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or