Steinberg gives the dead their due with words that matter

Neil Steinberg was nine years old in 1969 when a fellow Ohioan with the same first name took the greatest step of the 20th century.

On Saturday, Steinberg wrote Neil Armstrong’s obituary for the Sun-Times.

“He was the first man to set foot on the moon, and he lived the rest of his life in such a manner as to never detract from that enormous accomplishment,” Steinberg’s prose began. For the next 43 years, he wrote, “Armstrong conducted himself as a hero should — modest, self-effacing, neither capitalizing on his global fame nor seeking a return to the spotlight.”

For all his acclaim as a columnist (and notoriety as a provocateur), some of Steinberg’s finest work in his 25 years at the Sun-Times has come through his ability to capture the essence of a great person’s life. In this case, as he has many times before, Steinberg did it with precision and grace. “To me, there is an ‘obituary tone,’ ” he told me Sunday. “You need to know who these people are.”

Steinberg was at home Saturday afternoon and had just learned of Armstrong’s death from a Facebook post when the Sunday editor at the Sun-Times sent a text message asking him to write the piece. A little more than an hour later, Steinberg turned out a concise and eloquent 892-word essay on a man he considered a true American hero. (As a personal sign of respect to Armstrong, he put the flag out on his front porch.)

Although Steinberg never crossed paths with the astronaut, he did spend two summers working for NASA as a public relations writer early in his career. His father, Robert Steinberg, also worked for the space agency, retiring after 30 years as a physicist studying lasers, subatomic particles and weather patterns. He never met Armstrong either. But growing up in the era of Gemini and Apollo must have provided the future journalist an understanding that informed his work Saturday.

“I’m proud of having done it so quickly and I'm glad we got something in that was written locally, but I would like to have had more time,” Steinberg said of the Armstrong obit. “What bothers me is that it goes contrary to how it should be done ideally.”

Some obits are written months or years in advance. At the moment, Steinberg said, he has “about half a dozen” ready to go on Chicago notables who may or may not know their final send-offs are just an editor’s click away from publication. And he’s always got at least one or two others in the works. “I’d just started writing [Cardinal] George’s on Wednesday, and then they pulled me off to write that circumcision column,” he said.

But most, like Armstrong’s, are turned out on deadline. Among the ones Steinberg is most proud are those he wrote for Walter Payton, John F. Kennedy Jr. (both of which were written on deadline), Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, Alderman Leon Despres, and Irv and Essee Kupcinet. He can still recite the opening paragraphs of all of them from memory.

Steinberg devotes a chapter to obituaries in his new book, You Were Never in Chicago, to be published in November by University Of Chicago Press. “Writing obituaries is such a great way to see people’s lives,” he said. “As a journalist, I find it so satisfying — and it’s something I really care about.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)