Speak of the dead

"Strom was a man of integrity and honor, and he helped many people." — South Carolina State Sen. Kay Patterson, eulogizing former Senator Strom Thurmond, July 1, 2003

"If a guy's a cocksucker in his life, when he dies he don't become a saint." — Morris Levy, music-business pioneer and convicted felon, date unknown

Chicago Tribune, Nov. 29, 1934:
Nelson, 25, was expert in commerce law

George "Baby Face" Nelson, whose matinee-idol looks and highly direct business style made him the toast of Chicago's alternative economy, passed away Tuesday after an extended disagreement with FBI agents. He was 25.

In his short life, Nelson distinguished himself as a leader in the personal-entertainment industry, specializing in the manufacture and distribution of liquid refreshments. He was also a defining force in Illinois banking, and his famous visage became a key design element at countless postal establishments.

Born Lester Joseph Gillis, Nelson was a go-getter from an early age. Though his formal schooling continued all the way to the eighth grade, teachers recall that his interest in entrepreneurship began much earlier, with an after-school job that focused on the acquisition and trading of preowned automobiles.

In 1931, an armed misunderstanding at a local financial institution led to Nelson's prolonged residency at the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet. But Nelson secured early release by practicing his renowned powers of persuasion on prison guards. "Don't give me a reason to kill you," Nelson instructed as he fled the scene — a statement that obviously reflected his lifelong belief that violence should be the last of all possible solutions.

His deep-seated wanderlust eventually carried Nelson to Reno, Nev., where he had a tragic quarrel with a prospective witness in a mail-fraud trial that was to involve several of Nelson's associates. The man intended to testify against Nelson's partners; Nelson felt strongly that he should not. The result of their confrontation is said to have inspired the famous Johnny Cash lyric, "I shot a man in Reno/ just to influence his views of the American system of jurisprudence."

On June 30 of this year in South Bend, Ind., Nelson again helped streamline the modern banking industry's withdrawal procedures, this time as part of an ad hoc reform group that also included noted efficiency expert John Dillinger.

Nelson is survived by a wife, Helen Gillis, who accompanied him on many of his business trips. Following Nelson's funeral this week, she will take up temporary residence at the Women's Federal Reformatory in Mila, Mich.

In lieu of sending flowers, the family requests that you urinate on a cop.

Waco Times, March 1, 1993:
Spiritual paragon Koresh is dead at 33

Vernon Wayne Howell, who found fame as the religious activist and children's advocate David Koresh, died yesterday at his home outside Waco. Representatives of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms blamed a freak winter fire, which they said must have started when the deceased nodded off in an easy chair while holding a Lucky Strike. Howell/ Koresh was 33, which, his disciples were quick to point out, was also Christ's age at the time of his demise.

Although he came to prominence as a spiritual figure, Koresh spent several years pursuing a career in popular music. He began as a roadie for Al Jarreau, and then parlayed the experience into a record deal that saw him releasing several LPs for the kiddie market. One of these, "Free to Be ... Whatever Your New Messiah Requires of You," was listed by Redbook magazine as one of the 10 top family albums of the year.

But Koresh's star only began to rise in earnest when he joined the Branch Davidians, a devotional organization dedicated to private worship and the preservation of the Second Amendment. Within a few short years, Koresh had assumed control of the group, capping a meteoric rise that his disciples attributed to his intense personal magnetism and possession of nearly 400 rounds of ammunition.

As top man, Koresh performed a total overhaul of the group's daycare arrangements. He also instituted a popular series of singles' nights for married couples, and invited government representatives to Waco for a series of seminars on the separation of church and state. It was one of Koresh's proudest accomplishments, he said, that the body count from these seminars remained in the single digits.

In his final days, Koresh had taken an interest in criminal justice. To his already-overstuffed daily schedule, he added the ritual of conducting regular late-night phone conversations with law-enforcement officials.

"He could go on for hours," recalls family friend Janet Reno. "You name the subject, he knew about it: biblical prophecy, federal kidnapping statutes, the '69 Mets. He was truly a man among demagogues."

A stipulation in Koresh's will that his body be cremated has already been carried out to the letter, authorities say. He is survived by a select group of followers and a camera crew from TV's "Nightline."

Steve Schneider writes for the Orlando Weekly, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]

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