If Myrna Oliver, BA’64, was writing about you, it was usually a sign of something good and something bad.
The good: You were a noteworthy person.
The bad: You were dead.
Oliver’s 40-year journalism career culminated with her position as the Los Angeles Times’ obituary reporter. She paved the way for future female journalists as one of the only women in the newsroom when she entered the field.
Obituary writers are usually on their way in or out of a publication, given the grunt work of the heavy research and unexpected deadlines, Oliver said. But the work was meaningful to Oliver.
“I liked doing obituaries because I love history,” Oliver said. “Obits are the way to tell history through the eyes of one person.”
The obituaries gave her a way to feel connected to whomever had passed, no matter how different or disconnected their lives had been from Oliver’s. She never envied them, no matter how wealthy or famous, she said. She felt like an objective observer.
“I didn’t know them, but I’d feel like I did at the end,” Oliver said.
Before she found her niche in the obits, Oliver struggled to be taken seriously and be trusted with heavy-duty reporting work, she said. She was assigned to the women’s section at The Indianapolis Star and The Washington Post. During Oliver’s stint at the Journal Herald in Dayton, Ohio, she was even asked to be a ghost editor for the women’s section.
When Oliver arrived in Los Angeles, she began at the Herald Examiner, where she covered the Charles Manson trial, among others, as a court reporter. When she joined the Los Angeles Times in 1972, there wasn’t even a women’s restroom in the newsroom. Oliver was the newsroom’s third-ever female employee.
“Nothing was going to be easy,” she said.
Before Oliver got the job as an obituary reporter, she clocked 18 years covering civil courts. At the time, Oliver said, there were very few female lawyers. Female reporters had to follow a strict dress code of a dress and heels.
Her career move into the obituary section was a happy accident. It was a holiday, and Oliver was one of the only reporters in the office when legendary country singer Gene Autry died. She had a one-day turnaround, and the story ran on the front page the following day.
Her Autry obituary remains one of her favorites, alongside her obituary on Al Hirschfeld, a caricature artist who depicted New York and Hollywood stars and broke the bounds of the genre. She went on to write the obituaries for Broadway composer Leonard Bernstein, Walmart founder Sam Walton and esteemed character actress Frances Bay.
Despite her extensive obituary past, she does not want one for herself, she said. She worries the writer would get something wrong, and she wouldn’t be there to fix it.
While her work getting the facts right might be over, Oliver keeps busy. She visits Bloomington — neighbor to her hometown of Ellettsville — at least once a year.