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A Viral, Very Inventive Obit That Captured The Internet's Imagination


This week we're hearing about people who died in 2018. Their obituaries didn't dominate headlines but told fascinating stories.


Our subject today - a Delaware man whose death notice has all the elements of an action thriller.


ALEX WALSH: Rick Stein, 71 of Wilmington, was reported missing and presumed dead on September 27 when investigators say the single-engine plane he was piloting, the Northrop, suddenly lost communication with air traffic control and disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Rehoboth Beach.

KELLY: Rick Stein's death - a tragic mystery. Or was it?

WALSH: He could not fly a plane, but his favorite dog was named Northrop.

SHAPIRO: When faced with the sad task of writing about her father's death, Alex Walsh chose a creative approach.

WALSH: Yes, I took liberties with the truth, but I feel like for the people who knew my dad, this spoke to them about him more than just a traditional obituary would have.


WALSH: Philadelphia police confirm Stein had been a patient at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he was being treated for a rare form of cancer.

SHAPIRO: Walsh described her father sneaking out of the hospital in the dead of night, stealing an aircraft that was perhaps swallowed by the sea.

WALSH: The sea was angry that day, said NTSB lead investigator Greg Fields in a press conference area.

KELLY: All right, hang on. Let's fact check that one.


JASON ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) The sea was angry that day, my friends.


KELLY: If you're a "Seinfeld" fan, you will recognize that one. It's a line George Costanza uses to begin his epic tale about saving a beached whale. It turns out Rick Stein adored "Seinfeld."

SHAPIRO: And while Greg Fields is not an employee of the National Transportation Safety Board as the obituary said, he is real. Fields was Stein's best friend.

KELLY: But what of Stein's profession? Well, according to the obituary, friends and family differ. Some say he was a jeweler, an Oriental rug dealer, an art gallery owner.

WALSH: Meanwhile, Missel Leddington of Charlottesville claimed her brother was a cartoonist and freelance television critic for The New Yorker.

SHAPIRO: OK, those last two jobs - definitely not true. But Rick Stein did like to doodle, and "Seinfeld" was just part of his avid TV watching.

KELLY: And how about this next detail?

WALSH: People who knew Stein have reported his occupation as everything from gourmet chef and sommelier to botanist, electrician, mechanic and even spy novelist.

KELLY: Stein did cook, and he cooked well. He repaired things. He grew plants that thrived.

SHAPIRO: As for the book, well, he planned to write one but only got as far as setting up a desk.

KELLY: As she spins all of this, Alex Walsh even quotes herself on her dad's mysterious disappearance.

WALSH: I talked to him that day, and he told me he was going out to get some grappa. All he ever wanted was a glass of grappa.

SHAPIRO: Rick Stein really did love grappa.

KELLY: Who doesn't love grappa? Here is how Walsh's inventive tale comes to a close.

WALSH: That is one story. Another story is that Rick never left the hospital and died peacefully with his wife and his daughter holding tightly to his hands. You can choose which version you want to believe.

SHAPIRO: And appropriately enough, the death notice for Rick Stein placed in Delaware's News Journal became an Internet sensation.

WALSH: I think every life is so interesting. And if you ask the right questions and if you really look deeply into what a person loves, I think you could write something like this about anybody.

SHAPIRO: That's Alex Walsh talking about the remembrance she wrote for her father, Rick Stein, who died in September. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.