Friday, January 1, 2016

2015: In Memoriams

As the curtain rises on 2016, here is a look back at some of the titans we lost in 2015:

Maureen O'Hara
I am listing Maureen O'Hara first as a kind of salute to my late grandfather, who was never shy about praising her beauty, but I would have put her on this list even if he never mentioned her name (and please don't say anything to my grandmother about me calling this a "salute").

I first saw O'Hara when I watched a VHS of The Parent Trap, that 1961 Disney classic in which she starred as the divorced mother of twins. O'Hara was 41 when it was released, which is to say that she was older than most leading ladies of the time, yet she owned the screen with her skill -- and yes, her drop-dead looks were more bedazzling than those of actresses 10 years her junior.

Born in Ireland in 1920, she lived an unusual childhood by being both an artistic performer and a tomboy. By the time O'Hara was in her teens she had ridden horses, trained in judo, played Gaelic football, implored her father to found a women's Gaelic football team -- and had won a national acting award for her portrayal of Portia in The Merchant of Venice

She made her screen debut in 1938, and her first major movie role came a year later when she was cast as the female lead in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn. This led to RKO casting her in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which in turn prompted her to move to California, and as they say, the rest is history.

Maureen O'Hara went on to become a Hollywood legend, playing lead roles alongside Charles Laughton, John Wayne, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Henry Fonda, and Brian Keith... Miracle on 34th Street, The Quiet Man, Rio Grande, The Black Swan, This Land is Mine, and The Long Gray Line represent just a mere sampling of the movies in which she shined... She had fiery red hair, mischievous eyes, and was a star during the precise period in history that color movies became common. This combination made her sex symbol status inevitable and resulted in her being nicknamed "the Queen of Technicolor."

But Maureen O'Hara was too talented and too active for her relevance to be limited to one window of time. In 1999, at the age of 78, she served as Grand Marshall of New York City's St. Patrick's Day parade. Six years after that she was named Irish-American of the Year... In December 2010, at the age of 90, she established a center in Glengarriff, Ireland, that is dedicated to training people to become actors and actresses... In 2013 she attended the groundbreaking of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum, and in 2014 she attended the TCM Film Festival.

On October 24th, O'Hara passed away in her sleep at her home in Idaho, 95 years old, still in possession of her mental capacities, and looking decades younger than her actual age. Instead of having her remains buried in a Hollywood cemetery surrounded by the graves of celluloid celebrities, she had them laid to rest in a place where they are surrounded by the graves of heroes: Arlington National Cemetery, next to the remains of her husband, U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Charles Blair .

Dean Smith
When he was 27 years old, Dean Smith accepted a position as an assistant basketball coach at the University of North Carolina. Three years later he became the head coach and remained in that role until he retired 36 years later. Astonishingly, his teams won more than 77 percent of their games across that 36-year span.

Smith retired having won more games than any coach in NCAA history. His legacy includes two national championships, thirteen conference championships, eleven Final Four appearances, and one run of 23 straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament. It also includes a gold medal from when he served as head coach of the U.S. Olympic Team in 1976... He is credited with creating a number of defensive sets, including the point zone and the run-and-jump, and also with being the first person to have his defense double-team the screen-and-roll... Dozens of the players he taught made it to the pros and many achieved stardom, including one particular chap named Michael Jordan.

But those things are only one part of his legacy. Taking a cue from his father Alfred (who had integrated the basketball team of Kansas's Emporia High School when he coached it in 1934), Assistant Coach Dean Smith confronted Jim Crow in 1961 by dining with a black theology student at Chapel Hill's segregated Pines Restaurant. In 1965, Head Coach Dean Smith helped a black grad student purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood. And in 1966 he inked Charlie Scott to a basketball scholarship, making him the first black athlete in any sport to receive a scholarship to UNC.

His first national championship came in 1982, when UNC edged Georgetown by a score of 63-62. In the title game's waning seconds, when Georgetown still had a chance to win, Georgetown guard Fred Brown threw an errant pass to UNC's James Worthy and Worthy dribbled away with the ball as time expired. In the words of opposing coach John Thompson, rather than celebrate, "Dean Smith's first reaction was to come down and console me. I hope I would have been classy enough to have done that."

Naturally, an overwhelming majority of college basketball players have no chance of ever making it to the NBA, so it goes without saying that the vast majority of players who fell under Smith's tutelage spent their post-college years in regular jobs or playing in secondary basketball leagues. It says much about his character that they were well equipped for the real world (more than 96 percent of them graduated) and that he kept in touch with them as the years went by.

Former player Derrick Phelps had this to say when Smith retired: "I didn't become a star in the NBA and he still calls me all the time. When he does, my teammates in the CBA or Europe can't believe it. They're always like, 'I wish my college coach still cared about me'" -- which makes it unsurprising that when Smith died in February, his will called for every player he ever coached at UNC to be sent a $200 check along with a note reading: "Enjoy a dinner out compliments of Coach Dean Smith."

He embodied everything that college athletics -- and in fact, Americanism itself -- is supposed to be.

Meadowlark Lemon
George Lemon III was born in Wilmington, NC, in 1932. When he was 11 years old he saw a newsreel of the Harlem Globetrotters and immediately wanted to play for them when he grew up. The first time he tried his hand at basketball, he did so by bending a coat hanger to serve as the rim, hanging an onion sack from it as the net, and shooting with a Carnation milk can instead of a ball.

While stationed in Austria during the two years he served in the Army, Lemon got a chance to play with the Globetrotters during their European tour and impressed them enough to earn a tryout after his discharge. He officially became a 'Trotter in 1954; adopted his now-famous nickname; and became renowned for sinking hook shots from half-court, completing no-look passes in the blink of an eye, and creating many of the gags the team continues to perform even today. Wilt Chamberlain declared that "Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I've ever seen."

He could have played in the NBA but chose to be a 'Trotter instead, largely because he felt his life's calling was to entertain people; but also, the mid-century was a different era in the game of hoops because the NBA was in its infancy and not much on the nation's radar. Lemon remained with the 'Trotters for an incredible 24 years, until 1978. His career spanned from the days when they were more of a competitive team -- playing serious foes not called the Washington Generals and saving their antics until the outcome was not in doubt -- until the days when they played the hired stooges called the Washington Generals and every game was antics from beginning to end.

A born-again Christian, he became an ordained minister in 1986 and spent the last three decades involved in outreach. He gave motivational speeches and attended youth basketball camps in an effort to, in the words of ABC's John Marshall, "spread a message of faith through basketball." He visited inmates in juvenile detention because, in his own words, "I feel if I can touch a kid in youth prison, he won't go to the adult prison." Meadowlark Lemon died two days after Christmas and will be sorely missed.

Daryl Dawkins and Moses Malone
2015 was a rough year for losing basketball luminaries. Daryl Dawkins and Moses Malone deserve to have their own entries on this list, but my mind can't help but think of them simultaneously, so I am mentioning them together.

In an age when almost all professional players made it to the pros by playing in the college ranks, Dawkins and Malone broke the mold by jumping straight from high school to the pros... Malone signed with the ABA's Utah Stars in 1974 and Dawkins with the NBA's Philadelphia 76'ers in 1975, after which the leagues merged in 1976 and Malone signed with the Houston Rockets... After the end of the 1981-82 season, Dawkins left the 76'ers and Malone joined them.

Daryl Dawkins will always be remembered for his emphatic slam dunks, which he executed with such ferocity that he broke backboards on multiple occasions and caused the NBA to start imposing fines and suspensions when one broke. He gave individual names to some of his dunks, including the Yo-Mama, the Spine-Chiller Supreme, and the In-Your-Face Disgrace. He called his first backboard-breaker "The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am Jam." And as if that wasn't enough, he said he spent the offseasons on a planet called Lovetron studying "interplanetary funkmanship" with a girlfriend named Juicy Lucy.

Needless to say, Moses Malone couldn't match Daryl Dawkins when it came to personality, but then again, who could? He was content to dominate the key and establish himself as one of the best centers of his era -- which is saying something when you consider that he played at the same time as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish, Artis Gilmore, (H)akeem Olajuwon, Bill Walton, and Dave Cowens. Unlike Dawkins, Malone won an NBA championship; and of course, he did so with the 76'ers in the first season he played for them, which was also the first season Dawkins did not.

They died 17 days apart, both before their time: Dawkins on August 27th of a heart attack at the age of 58, and Malone on September 13th of heart disease, at the age of 60.

Robert Conquest
Robert Conquest is nowhere near as well-known as the people mentioned above. However, he did invaluable work to protect the pro-freedom, pro-individual, anti-totalitarian society which allowed them to thrive on their own terms and merits.

This dogged historian and chronicler was born in the United Kingdom 98 years ago, back when its Prime Minister was David Lloyd George and our president was Woodrow Wilson. His 1968 book The Great Terror was the first comprehensively researched account of the Great Purge of the 1930's, during which the USSR's communist government oppressed any of its citizens that it perceived as opponents -- from peasant to generals alike -- by accusing them of subversion, ramming them through show trials in front of kangaroo courts, and imprisoning them according to whim.

Another of his books, The Harvest of Sorrow, exposed how the USSR destroyed human rights and created a man-made famine with its confiscation of farms, particularly in Ukraine.

Robert Conquest exposed the wickedness of what Ronald Reagan would later call the Evil Empire. He met with world leaders to insist that free enterprise be defended and Soviet Communism be confronted and beaten, rather than accommodated and enabled. Based on his observations of humanity through time, he expressed something that has come to be known by his own name as Conquest's Law: The more one knows about a subject, the more conservative one becomes about that subject.

When Conquest passed away last summer, living in the shadow of Stanford University in California, John O'Sullivan described him as "the single most important historian of the Soviet Union and its crimes while also being eminent in other fields, notably literature and criticism, and not least an influential adviser to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at a key turning point in the Cold War." Had he not been around, it is not at all clear whether the West's leaders would have taken the Soviet threat as seriously as it needed to be taken.

B.B. King
Riley B. King, aka B.B. King, was active as a professional musician for 67 years, right up until he died on May 14th. His innovative style of string-bending and vibrato (performed on the Gibson guitars he invariably referred to as Lucille) made him a force, and has influenced countless numbers of guitarists from multiple generations who perform in multiple genres of music. He won 15 Grammy Awards and Rolling Stone ranks him as the sixth best guitar player to have ever lived.

B.B. King absolutely earned the nickname "King of the Blues," and some time later, when a smattering of self-professed purists complained that not all of his songs expressed emotions downtrodden enough to be called blues, he countered by saying he was a well-rounded person and therefore "I don't have the blues all the time."

In 1987, 16 years after his first Grammy, King's versatility was rewarded when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 27 years after that, he was inducted into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, and in the interim he received the 2004 Polar Music Prize, which is given to artists "in recognition of exceptional achievements in the creation and advancement of music."

King's signature song is called "The Thrill is Gone" -- but we will always be able to catch a thrill as long as there are recordings of him soloing on Lucille and belting out lyrics in his perfectly gruff voice.

Yogi Berra
Born to immigrants in a heavily Italian section of St. Louis, Lorenzo Pietra Berra was arguably the best catcher in baseball history and definitely the most famous. When Berra was a young man playing in the amateur American Legion leagues, Jack Maguire observed that he resembled a Hindu yogi because he often sat with his arms and legs crossed -- thus his timeless nickname was born.

He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and fought on D-Day, both at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach, receiving several commendations for bravery. A year after the war ended, he played his first Major League game with the New York Yankees on September 22, 1946. The following season he played in 83 games and made his first appearance in the World Series, which the Yankees won by beating the Brooklyn Dodgers in seven games. Berra went on to play 18 seasons with the Yankees (including his brief stint in 1946), winning 10 World Series rings during that time; and after a year away from the game he came out of retirement to play the 1965 season with the Mets.

When all was said and done, Yogi Berra was a three-time league MVP and 18-time All Star. The first catcher ever to leave one finger outside of his glove while playing, he ranks as one of only four catchers ever to finish a season with a 1.000 fielding percentage. He caught more shutouts than anyone else (173) and retired with the American League record for putouts (8,723). And in addition to all those World Series rings he earned as a player, Berra won three more as a coach -- for the Mets in 1969 and Yankees in 1977 and 1978.

Today he is best remembered for his verbal quips -- such as "a nickel ain't worth a dime anymore" and "baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical" -- but his prowess on the diamond should never be forgotten.

Wes Craven
Were it not for Wes Craven, horror films as we know them would not exist. Born into a strict Baptist family in Ohio near the end of the Great Depression, he earned undergraduate degrees in English and psychology followed by a master's in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins. That sounds like the perfect background to enable someone to conjure horror stories -- and it is -- but Wes Craven's foray into silver screen macabre did not come until years later.

Between his college years and Hollywood years, Craven was a public school teacher in New York and got his first job in the film industry when he worked as a sound editor for a production company owned by Harry Chapin, the self-proclaimed "third-rate rock star" who is best known for the song "Cat's in the Cradle." Between his time with Chapin and his emergence as a big-name Hollywood figure, Craven opted to chase easy bucks by directing pornography, most notably the X-rated classic Deep Throat.

His turn toward horror began with his first feature (read: non-porno) film The Last House on the Left in 1972, and continued during that decade with such films as The Hills Have Eyes and the made-for-TV Stranger in Our House. Then, in 1984, he hit the really big time with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which he both wrote and directed -- and which should be remembered not only for introducing the character of Freddy Krueger, but for being the very first movie in which Johnny Depp appeared. As the subsequent years unfolded, Craven continued to drive the horror genre by churning out such works as The Serpent and the Rainbow, The People Under the Stairs, and Scream.

Leonard Nimoy
It's tempting to say that were it not for Spock, there would be no Leonard Nimoy. But perhaps we should look at it through the opposite lens and say that were it not for Leonard Nimoy, there would be no Spock. No other actor could have pulled the role off in the way that Nimoy did. Without that probing voice, steady demeanor, and crazily upturned eyebrow, Star Trek would not have had the character we recognize today.

But Leonard Nimoy was not limited to the role of Spock. He narrated the 1970's documentary series In Search Of..., and as good as that series was, it's hard to imagine it getting off the ground without his voice leading the way. Nimoy was also an excellent photographer, having had his work exhibited at the R. Michelson Galleries and Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. This decade, he returned to the small screen by playing the pivotal, mysterious character of Dr. William Bell in the TV series Fringe.

Nimoy lived long and prospered, and slipped Earth's surly bonds in February at the age of 83.

Ken Stabler
It takes a lot for an Auburn grad to honor a Bama football star, but here I go.

Ken "The Snake" Stabler was born in Foley, AL on Christmas Day, in the same year that World War II ended. After quarterbacking Foley High School to a combined record of 29-1 throughout his high school career, he earned a scholarship to the University of Alabama and became its starting QB in his junior year. Stabler guided the Crimson Tide to an undefeated season in 1966, and while the 1967 season had three losses, it ended with him sprinting 53 yards to defeat Auburn (damn you, you sonofabitch!) in a play that became known as "The Run in the Mud."

After college he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and went on to become one of the most decorated football players of the 1970's, quarterbacking them to victory in Super Bowl XI and appearing in four Pro Bowls. He twice led the league in touchdown passes, was the league MVP in 1974, and was named to the all-decade team.

Stabler's hard partying ways were legendary enough to personify the rebelliousness of the 1970's Raiders. Describing training camp in his autobiography, he wrote that its "monotony oppressive that without the diversions of whiskey and women, those of us who were wired for activity and no more than six hours sleep a night might have gone berserk."

I know I'm leaving plenty of deserving people off of this list -- from Stuart Scott succumbing to cancer four days into the year, to Wayne Rogers being claimed by pneumonia on its final day, and in between, Ornette Coleman packing up his sax and taking it to Heaven -- but time and space are limited, and I am off to enjoy the day with my family.

Happy New Year's, everyone.

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