Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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Leo J. Neifer died July 13 at a nursing home in Ipswich. I first learned this news from a daily e-mail update I received while in Illinois. Then I got more details as I sifted through a stack of mail and news clippings. Leo was 81.
I am saddened by news of his death. I am also saddened that newspaper obituaries are now regarded as revenue-producing items, like advertisements, and families of the deceased write them and pay to have them published.
Although Leo lived over in Hosmer on the Edmunds County and McPHerson County border, he frequently drove to Aberdeen to participate in events of the Brown County Democrats. He participated in and contributed to many political activities, and wrote articles and letters for publication from a Democratic perspective.
Born and raised on a farm in McPherson County, Leo served in the military as a commissioned officer, obtained a degree from (then) Northern State Teachers College, a Master's Degree from the U. of Arkansas, and eventually a doctorate from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. He taught in public schools, small colleges, and retired as a professor of English from Clark Atlanta University, a college with a predominantly African-American student body.
Leo often sent me manuscripts for review and commentary and we talked of politics as they affect education. I worked closely with Leo in supplying background information for him when he was appointed by the governor to a commission to study and make recommendations about assessment testing in public schools. Leo was the only person on the commission who saw a false premise in the mass testing program system proposed by the state. He pointed out that the tests themselves were dubious measures of what they purported to test. And he pointed out that the tests made no allowances for the wide disparity of resources among South Dakota school districts. And finally, he asked, when tests were refined and reasonably reliable in identifying students with needs and diagnosing those needs, what did the state plan on doing about them? As a token Democrat on a commission stacked with political hacks and academic party-liners, he was patronized and dismissed.
Leo used his academic knowledge and skills in the Germans from Russia Heritage Society. He gave many lectures and presentations and did translations of documents and papers from German to English. Among the items he translated were obituaries that contained important data and information about the German people who emigrated from Russia to America.
At every newspaper I worked at, either as a full-time writer-editor, or as part-time stringer, at least one writer was employed full-time on the obituary desk. Their job was to insure that every obituary contained accurate information about the identity of the people who died. The obituary clippings were kept in the morgue--the news jargon name for the clipping and note library maintained by larger newspapers. The morgues were busy not only with staff members researching background information on stories but with scholars, genealogy searchers, and other people who needed biographical and historical information.
Obits were considered so important that the obituary editors had the authority to press senior writers on the newspapers into service tracking down information and writing when circumstances warranted it. The editor at the paper where I last worked full time insisted that every person deserved an acknowledgement in their obituary and the information had to be thorough and correct. I do not recall the obituary editor ever having to run a correction, except when a family member gave inaccurate information. And we still ran the correction to insure that the record was right.
Newspapers, as is the case with the local one, will run a 75-word death notice that generally announces only the time and place of a funeral or memorial service. If the family wants a full-fledged obituary, it must write it and pay for it. I recall Leo commenting to me once how badly many of these family-produced obituaries are, how unreliable the information, and how clumsy the writing. As a scholar and writer, Leo observed how many lives will in effect be lost to history by the absence of information or by badly written obituaries.
We will miss Leo's visits to Brown County and his work to improve education and the knowledge of our heritage. He donated his body to the medical schoool at USD. Even after death, Leo was committed to education. His story is like that of many who were educated at Northern and left the region to utilize their talents and find prospects. Leo came back.