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Originally published Sunday, February 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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No ordinary coroner, no ordinary life

Like any coroner, he has seen some things. But one case stays with him nearly 70 years after the fact, like some old song he can't get out...

The New York Times

PENNEY FARMS, Fla. — Like any coroner, he has seen some things. But one case stays with him nearly 70 years after the fact, like some old song he can't get out of his head.

He couldn't shake this case even if he wanted to, what with all the videotapes, the DVDs, the television broadcasts replaying the gruesome aftermath over and over, in vivid Technicolor. Those striped socks, curling back like a pair of deflating noisemakers.

The coroner's name is Meinhardt Raabe, and he lives in a retirement community tucked between here and there. He can't see or hear too well, and his short legs need the assistance of a three-wheeled walker with hand brakes. But none of this means that at 91 he has forgotten much, because he hasn't — especially about that case.

Sitting on his small bed, his coroner's outfit stored in a closet, Raabe recalls a rich and varied life but makes clear that he accepts, even embraces, how his obituary will read: Munchkin City coroner, handled case of woman killed by house that fell from the sky.

It's hard to imagine now, but the freak accident was just one of many wacky events in a wacky, politically charged time, a time when monkeys could fly and trees could talk and life could change on a witch's whim.

With enchantment — or was it poppies? — infusing the air, a coroner's role was not so much to determine a cause of death as it was to determine whether death had indeed occurred. The victim's identity only complicated matters: As luck would have it, she was a witch, a bad one, from the east.

That is why curious residents in curious garb, led by a mayor whose shoes sprouted flowers, surrounded Raabe as he unfurled his scroll. With cameras rolling, he announced his findings:

"As coroner, I must aver, I thoroughly examined her. And she's not only merely dead, she's really, most sincerely dead."

If his words seem mannered, one should remember they were delivered in the singsong language indigenous to the region. And if his ruling caused some problems for the Kansas-based driver of the house and some grief for the victim's green-skinned sister, it was good news for Munchkinland, Oz — and Raabe, whose name rhymes with "hobby."

"I'm still getting mail," he says, pointing to stacked milk crates packed with letters. He just cannot get to them all.

As Raabe recalls in his autobiography, "Memories of a Munchkin" (Back Stage Books, 2005), he did not follow a coroner's typical career path. The son of Wisconsin dairy farmers, he endured years of schoolyard teasing about what he calls his "abnormal lack of height" before wandering one day into the Midget Village attraction at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.

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Walking its streets, meeting its inhabitants eye to eye, he realized that smallness was no impediment to happiness. "It was a new world," he says.

For the next three years, Raabe worked summers with other little people at expositions around the country, often as a pitchman. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a bachelor's degree in accounting, only to learn that no firm would hire him.

"You don't belong here," he remembers being told. "You belong in a carnival."

Raabe eventually got a job as Little Oscar for Oscar Mayer. Then, in 1938, came word through the grapevine of a demand for little people in Hollywood. Sensing opportunity, he boarded a train due west.

In a place where people came and went so quickly, the casting director first chose the Mayor, the three Lullaby League dancers and the three members of the Lollipop Guild. Then he lined up Raabe and several other little men and asked them to say the fateful line: "As coroner, I must aver. "

Raabe's pronouncement lasted only 13 seconds, and his lines were dubbed over. But he had made his mark.

After filming ended, he returned to real life. He learned to fly airplanes. He joined the Civil Air Patrol during World War II. He earned a master's degree in business administration. He married a cigarette girl who was about his height; her name was Marie, and her beauty stole his breath. Fifty years they had, until her death in a car accident a decade ago.

Now Raabe lives alone at the Penney Retirement Community, behind a door with a sign that says "No Place Like Home." Above his bed hangs a portrait of that girl from Kansas and her unusual pals; they've all passed on. So has the Wizard, who liked his drink, and the Good Witch, who was a bit of a prima donna, and the Wicked Witch of the West, who was the kindest of them all.

Every once in a while, though, Raabe's presence is requested at some Oz-related function; he is, after all, the oldest living resident of that faraway world.

Despite that unfortunate house-on-woman matter, Raabe says his days in Oz were among the happiest of his life. And for anyone who asks, he will say that as coroner, he must aver, which means to assert with confidence.

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