Sometimes, even after all this time, a newspaper’s work simply takes my breath away. Such was the case with The Shelagh Gordon Project.
Last winter, the Toronto Star sought to describe the impact of one “ordinary” person on the lives of those around her. From its own obituaries, editors pulled the name of Shelagh Gordon, who died on Feb. 13. “When Gordon’s obituary appeared in the Star, with its description of her as ‘our rock, our good deed doer, our tradition keeper, our moral compass,’ we knew we’d found the perfect subject,” editors wrote.
The Star’s response was likely unprecedented in the annals of journalism. It sent 20 staffers to the woman’s funeral. Another half-dozen editors, designers and online experts also took part. The result is beyond spectacular.
Catherine Porter’s column serves as a sort of mainbar to the project. It begins with the words, “I met Shelagh Gordon at her funeral.” Porter ends it like this:
Wandering around her house one recent afternoon, I fished one of her mud-caked Blundstones from the closet and slipped it on, wondering “What is a life worth?”
In the past, I have often answered this question with achievements — campaigns, masterpieces, spiritual or literal changes to humankind and the world. The measure, I’ve thought, is Sophie Scholl or Charles Darwin or Nelson Mandela.
Shelagh’s life offers another lens. She didn’t change the world forcibly, but she changed many people in it. She lightened them. She inspired them, though she likely didn’t realize it. She touched them in simple ways most of us don’t because we are too caught-up and lazy. …
Her life reveals that it doesn’t take much to make a difference every day — just deep, full love —and that can be sewn with many different kinds of stitches.
Some of Shelagh’s friends feel terrible they didn’t get a chance to say goodbye and tell her how much she meant to them. There is a lesson there.
For, as I see it, Shelagh herself didn’t need to say how much they meant to her. Her daily life was a kiss of love.
A dozen staffers are listed as contributing to the column. I’ve never seen anything like it. The project also includes videos, sidebars and a simply indescribable interactive photo from the funeral. Run your cursor over any of dozens of mourners in the funeral and see a tale of how Gordon touched that particular life.
The project reminds me of the opening of baseball season, when the Orange County Register threw the kitchen sink at the big local story of the day, Albert Pujols’ first day as an Anaheim Angel.
Our world is a collection of small revelations, of little people doing things we think of as ordinary. Community newspapers exist to bring those snapshots of unexamined life into focus. I was profoundly moved by The Shelagh Gordon Project and I bet you will be too. How can you shed an extraordinary light on the ordinary in your hometown?