A daughter’s humorous obituary unravels the mysterious life of her father

"All of this is bittersweet."

Rick Stein.
Rick Stein. –Courtesy of Chandler Funeral Home and Crematory

The obituary that ran last week in Delaware Online is a mystery – the tale of a globe-trotting Renaissance man who disappeared in a single-engine plane over the Atlantic Ocean after learning he had cancer.

It was written by Alex Walsh about her father, Rick Stein, 71, a man who she said had an endless appetite for comedy. The huge response on social media has been comfort to the mourning family, she said, as people who never knew her father have been sending condolences by the dozens.

“All of this is bittersweet,” Walsh, 45, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

The obituary begins:

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“Rick Stein, 71, of Wilmington was reported missing and presumed dead on September 27, 2018 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. Philadelphia police confirm Stein had been a patient at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital where he was being treated for a rare form of cancer. Hospital spokesman Walter Heisenberg says doctors from Stein’s surgical team went to visit him on rounds when they discovered his room was empty. Security footage shows Stein leaving the building at approximately 3:30 Thursday afternoon, but then the video feed mysteriously cuts off.

“Authorities say they believe Stein took an Uber to the Philadelphia airport where they assume he somehow gained access to the aircraft. ‘The sea was angry that day,’ said NTSB lead investigator Greg Fields in a news conference. ‘We have no idea where Mr. Stein may be, but any hope for a rescue is unlikely.’ ”

Walsh, 45, a former television news writer in Washington, D.C., then goes on to detail both mundane and extraordinary achievements in her father’s life, saying “It seems no one in his life knew his exact occupation.”

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She writes:

“He owned restaurants in Boulder, Colorado and knew every answer on Jeopardy. He did the New York Times crossword in pen. 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.”

She quotes Stein’s brother as saying Stein couldn’t have been a pilot; the two owned a jewelry and Oriental rug gallery together. His sister says she thought Stein was a cartoonist and freelance television critic for the New Yorker.

Then the rest of the family weighs in:

“David Walsh, Stein’s son-in-law, said he was certain Stein was a political satirist for Huffington Post while grandsons Drake and Sam said they believed Stein wrote an Internet sports column for ESPN covering Duke basketball, FC Barcelona soccer, the Denver Broncos and the Tour de France. Stein’s granddaughter Evangeline claims he was a YouTube sensation who had just signed a seven-figure deal with Netflix.”

One nephew said he is sure Stein was a trail guide in Rocky Mountain National Park. Another said his uncle was a consultant for a record chain and ran a group of legal recreational-marijuana dispensaries. A niece said her uncle had worked as a contributing writer for “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and was currently consulting on a new series with Larry David.

“Police say the volume of contradictory information will make it nearly impossible to pinpoint Stein’s exact location,” Walsh wrote.

She then writes of her stepmother, Susan Stein, “his wife and constant companion for the past 14 years”:

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“Detectives say they were unable to interview Mrs. Stein, however neighbors say they witnessed her leaving the home the couple shared wearing dark sunglasses and a fedora, loading multiple suitcases into her car. FAA records show she purchased a pair of one-way tickets to Rome which was Mr. Stein’s favorite city. An anonymous source with the airline reports the name used to book the other ticket was Juan Morefore DeRoad, which, according to the FBI, was an alias Stein used for many years.”

Walsh ends it with an emotional final line that unravels the mystery:

“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.”

The truth about her father’s occupation, she said, is that he owned a jewelry and Oriental rug store with his brother for many years in Delaware, until he moved to Colorado and opened a few restaurants. The rest were just embellishments of interests and activities he shared with different family members.

Walsh said she knows it is unusual to make an obituary humorous, and some people might have even been confused by it, but it was fitting for her dad.

Her father was a devoted follower of all things comedy, and Walsh has vivid memories of watching Monty Python and various comedy specials with him every weekend when she was a kid. As she got older, the focus shifted to Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. He also enjoyed “Breaking Bad.”

“With his sense of humor and personality, it seemed the best way to entertain his friends,” she said of the obituary, adding it is full of inside jokes.

The idea came to her to when she thought back to writing an obituary for her aunt in 2013 in which she said, “Some believe she died of disco fever.”

Once the obituary, also posted on the Chandler Funeral Home and Crematory site, was published, dozens of friends and strangers alike joined the goof and wrote in about many fantastic and outlandish achievements they said belonged to Stein.

They included Stein’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera, saving a man from a shark attack with a piece of chewing gum, fighting off a bear while wearing a Speedo, carrying a man down Mount Everest on his back, winning second place in the Boston Marathon and running whisky out of Canada over the frozen lakes.

Walsh loved them all, saying they took her humor to a new level.

“Finding humor in the darkest times is how our family copes with sadness and loss, and it is comforting to know people have found joy reading my dad’s story,” she said.

The hardest part, she added, is knowing how much her dad would have loved it, too.

“He is the one person I want to call and say, ‘Oh my gosh, did you see this one?'”

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