The day I killed Lewis Cushman on the front page of the Benton Evening News

Editor’s Note: (This column appeared in the Southern Illinoisan on February 10, 2004 and it remains to this day one of my all-time favorites.)
Lewis Cushman died last week and even though I read the obituary in the newspaper I still attended the wake just to make sure.

I’m certainly not making light of the matter, but I have every reason to be a little bit apprehensive about the death of Lewis Cushman. Medically speaking Cushman has only expired once, but journalistically speaking he’s died twice and the first time I was responsible.

The 84-year-old Cushman and his wife Angie ran Benton Baking Company for more than three decades, an old fashioned bakery that made great homemade bread and an assortment of other fine pastries.

Several years ago when I was working at the Benton Evening News I wrote a story about the Cushman’s daughter Connie (Peterson) who is married and lives in central Illinois. The story revolved around a prestigious award that Peterson and her husband had won on their farm/ranch and a news article that had appeared in a national magazine.

I conducted the interview over the phone and still recall that it was a story that was easy to write, a feel-good feature that are frequently in newspapers about a small town girl making good. The only problem I experienced with the story was that I forgot to ask Connie Peterson if both her parents were still alive.

After several unsuccessful attempts to reach the Petersons and the Cushmans and with a deadline bearing down on me I conferred with Danny Malkovich, managing editor, and we decided that Angie was alive but that Lewis had passed away a couple of years earlier. So, the story ended by saying: “Connie Peterson is the daughter of Angie and the late Lewis Cushman.”

The day the story ran I was out of the office in the early afternoon and returned around 3 p.m., about an hour after the paper hit the street. The first thing I noticed was a note on my desk written in bold letters that were underlined: ‘CALL LEWIS CUSHMAN!” The phone number was listed, also in large print.

I can still recall the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and the cold sweat on my forehead as I dialed Cushman’s number to take the scolding and the heat that I knew was forthcoming.

To my amazement though, Lewis and Angie Cushman proved to be good-natured and took my mistake quite well, even making a few jokes about it. They did ask me to correct the mistake the next day, though.

Using a lead I’m certain has been used many times by other harried newspaper writers the following day’s paper had a front page correction that began: “Much like Mark Twain, news of the death of Lewis Cushman is greatly exaggerated…”

Perhaps one of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard came a few days later when Angie Cushman called to tell me about the reception Lewis received from the elderly gentlemen that he drank coffee with every morning at a local restaurant.

She said the second Lewis walked in one gentleman commented about the speed at which he’d returned to life after his demise was reported a day earlier in the local newspaper.

“You know Lewis, it took Jesus three days to resurrect,” he said. “But you made it back for coffee the next morning.”

Since that forgettable day 10 years ago I’ve seen the Cushmans on countless occasions and we always shared a laugh about the glaring mistake that I made. And in the event that I would see Angie without Lewis I would always inquire, with somewhat of an exaggerated worried tone, how her husband was feeling.

“Lewis is ALIVE and doing quite well,” Angie would always reply with a wide smile.

While I’ll readily admit that I’ve made an occasional mistake with dates, places, and times during my tenure as a writer, reporting the erroneous death and subsequent resurrection of Lewis Cushman remains my biggest blunder.

And while it might be a small token, I hope it’s some source of comfort to readers to know that in the event that I mistakenly kill you on the front page one day … I can bring you back to life within 24 hours.

I stood at Lewis Cushman’s casket last week only a few minutes before the start of his funeral and talked with Angie and her children and we once again recalled and shared a laugh about that infamous day more than a decade ago when I reported his very premature death.

After I exited the church that day the thought crossed my mind that all those laughs and smiles through the years that I enjoyed with the Cushmans happened solely because they had a forgiving nature and a keen sense of humor. If they had blasted me and held a grudge, all those smiles and friendly greetings and even this column would never have happened. We should all be so fortunate when we pass on that people would remember us for those two qualities.

As an epitaph to this story I feel that I should say thanks, Lewis, for taking it easy on me after I erroneously reported your death on the front page of the local newspaper. But more importantly thanks for a classic story for the ages and the warm memories and the many smiles we shared.

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