Sunday, January 22, 2017

2016: In Memoriams, Part Two

This is the second in a series of posts about major figures who died last year. The first can be read here.

John Glenn
Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard were the first two people in space, and theirs were feats of admirable courage that inspired humanity and pushed it forward... but John Glenn's achievement on February 20, 1962 was even more inspiring.

Gagarin and Shepard made it above the atmosphere and then plummeted back to Earth. Glenn, on the other hand, piloted his spacecraft once he was there, becoming the first person to orbit Earth. The spacecraft was named Friendship 7, the flight was named Mercury-Atlas 6, and he orbited the planet three times in a span of just under five hours, attaining a top speed of 17,544 miles per hour and averaging more than 15,300 per hour.

It was not known whether manually piloting Friendship 7 would even work until Glenn was already in space and took the controls, but he did it anyway, because mankind is an exploring species and he was helping it forge into its next frontier. He also did it because he was a patriot, and in those days of the Cold War he knew it was crucial for the United States to get ahead of the Soviet Union in the space race, which was (and still is) inextricably tied to technological innovation.

John Glenn's patriotism and courage were proven long before there even was such a thing as NASA. A native of eastern Ohio, he dropped out of college to join the U.S. Army Air Corps and wound up flying 59 combat missions in World War II and 60 in the Korean War, earning 18 Air Medals and four Distinguished Flying Crosses. During World War II his planes were struck by anti-aircraft fire on five different occasions; and on two occasions in Korea, his plane was riddled with more than 250 bullet holes when he returned to base.

Eleven years after the Korean War ended and just two years after Mercury-Atlas 6, John Glenn retired from NASA; but 34 years later, at the age of 77, he again donned his astronaut gear and became the oldest person ever to fly in space when he served as a member of the STS-95 crew on the Space Shuttle Discovery. As I was driving east across Tampa Bay on the Howard Frankland Bridge on October 29, 1998, I saw Discovery rocketing upward with Glenn aboard, trailing a long contrail beneath, clearly visible despite the fact that Cape Canaveral is 130 miles away on the other side of the state. Multiple cars were pulled over on the shoulder with their drivers standing outside watchng the launch.

During the interval between Glenn's retirement and brief unretirement from space travel, he served four terms in the U.S. Senate. He passed away in December and is survived by his wife of 73 years, Annie, along with their two children and two grandchildren.

Arnold Palmer
Fair or not, golf was long considered a rich man's sport played only by aristocratic snobs. And then along came Arnold Palmer to put a dent in that image and inspire average Joes to head to the links.

A Pittsburgh native born during the Great Depression, "Arnie" was the perfect man at the perfect point in time to pull that off. The son of a polio-stricken groundskeeper, his upbringing was more blue collar than silver spoon. In 1954 he became a pro after winning the U.S. Amateur title with a performance that inspired golfing great Gene Littler to say "when he hits the ball, the earth shakes." Palmer's handsomeness, daring, and emotional displays -- combined with the fact that he competed against two great rivals, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player -- translated perfectly to the new medium known as television.

In 1960 he was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, and seven years later became the first person to reach the million-dollar mark in PGA earnings. He won seven major titles in his career, including four Masters, and captured the Vardon Trophy four times in a seven-year span from 1961 to 1967.

Of the major tournaments he won, the British Open might have been the one on which he had the biggest impact because most American golfers had previously skipped it. His participation coupled with him winning it in 1961 and 1962 made him popular among European fans as well as American fans. In the words of European Tour CEO Keith Pelley, this made Palmer "the catalyst to truly internationalize golf."

Plus, you gotta love the fact that Palmer first played in the British Open in 1960... and last played in it a whopping 35 years later, in 1995.

But at the end of the day, it was the commonness of his persona in the midst of his success that made Arnold Palmer such a force. Recalling his modest roots, Golf Digest eulogized him by remarking that "in a life bursting from the seams with success, Palmer never lost his common touch. He was a man of the people, willing to sign every autograph, shake every hand, and tried to look every person in his gallery in the eye."

Alan Thicke
We all have to die. Some of us do it by overdose, some by heart attack, some by disease, some while sitting at our desks and some while sleeping in our beds. There is no good way to die, but there are ways that are preferable to others, and the most preferable of all is to go out like Alan Thicke: Playing hockey against people a half-century younger than you.

A native of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, Thicke became universally known when he portrayed the psychiatrist and patriarch Jason Seaver on the ABC sitcom Growing Pains from 1985 to 1992. However, he had already made his mark as a songwriter by composing the theme songs for Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life.

Thicke never stopped working. He became a sought-after radio pitchman and was acting as a key player in the NBC drama This Is Us when death came calling on December 13th, by way of an aortic tear that was tragically misdiagnosed. He is survived by his wife Tanya and three sons, Brennan, Robin, and Carter. Robin is a singing star and high-profile record producer in his own right.

Leonard Cohen
He was a Canadian Jew who incorporated some aspects of Buddhist philosophy into his daily life; whose mother immigrated from Lithuania and father's parents from Poland; who got his first big break while living in New York, and ultimately died in California. In other words, he was such a mutt that he was precisely the kind of person for whom the United States was created.

Leonard Cohen was a poet and novelist before he tried his hand at songwriting, and although he churned out great work in all three endeavors, it was the latter which made him something of a legend.

When he met Judy Collins in 1966, he was unknown and little of his work had sold, and he was already in his thirties. That was a daunting situation when you consider that the music business idolizes youth and the phrase "don't trust anyone over thirty" had recently entered the pop culture lexicon. Making Cohen even more of a long shot was the fact that he was modest and shy and had never performed before an audience.

But when he sang his songs "Suzanne" and "Dress Rehearsal Rag" for Collins on the night they met, she was blown away and started encouraging him to make music his trade. She recorded those songs on her album In Your Life, with the former going gold, and thus Cohen became known within the industry as a songwriter.

Collins finally convinced a reluctant Cohen to perform publicly at a protest concert in April 1967. Legs shaking with nervousness, he opened with "Suzanne" and became tongue-tied halfway through and left the stage, embarrassed. But with encouragement from Collins backstage and audible cries of "We love you!" from the audience, he went back out and sang the song in its entirety and received thundering applause -- and from there, proceeded to tour for the next 49 years.

Leonard Cohen is unique in that almost nobody has heard his voice singing a song on the radio, yet almost everybody has heard his songs... And almost everybody has heard songs that might not have existed without him, for music stars across the globe have covered his tunes and been influenced by him when writing their own... Bruce Eder said of Cohen that "second only to Bob Dylan (and perhaps Paul Simon), he commands the attention of critics and younger musicians more firmly than any other musician from the 1960's who continued to work in the 21st century."

His songs were deep and contemplative and reached their pinnacle with "Hallelujah" -- an anguished soul-scorcher that has been recorded by more than 300 artists in multiple languages, and about which an entire book has been written. In my opinion, the greatest recording of it (and perhaps any song) is this one by k.d. lang.

An iconoclast to the end, Cohen became more popular the older he got and even more productive the older he got. Though he was a notorious perfectionist who took time to get things right and spent five years composing "Hallelujah," he cranked out three whole albums in his last four years, between the ages of 78 and 82.

Last summer he learned that Marianne Ihlen, his lover from the 1960's who inspired several of his songs including "Bird on a Wire," was dying from incurable leukemia in Norway. He sent her a letter in which he wrote "we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon...know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine." She slipped the surly bonds on July 29th and he followed on November 7th.

Gene Wilder
Movies made his famous, but he was not a creature of Hollywood.

Jerome Silberman was born in Milwaukee in 1933 to Jewish immigrants from Russia; graduated from the University of Iowa; and passed away last August in Connecticut. Along the way, he opted for "Gene Wilder" to be his stage name when he was 26, some three years before his first appearance on Broadway, seven before his first TV appearance, and eight before his first film role.

Comedies were Wilder's forte and he developed strong working relationships with director Mel Brooks and comedian/actor Richard Pryor. A listing of the comedies in which he appeared reads like a Hall of Fame of 1970's and 1980's classics -- Blazing Saddles, Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil, to name a few -- but he was a soft-hearted man who was just as comfortable being sentimental as he was cracking jokes.

After his wife Gilda Radner died of metastatic ovarian cancer in 1989, he dedicated himself to educating the public about the disease and seeking a cure. A full nine years after her death, Wilder co-authored a book with oncologist Steven Piver in which he shared details of her battle with the disease.

One month after 9/11, he raised money to help families affected by the attack by reading from the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Westport Country Playhouse (as you probably know, he starred as factory owner Willy Wonka in the book's 1971 film adaptation).

Kenny Baker and Michu Meszaros
You might not know their names or faces, but you probably do know their work. For untold millions of Americans, especially those who are roughly my age (46), Kenny Baker and Mihaly "Michu" Meszaros contributed mightily to our youthful entertainment.

Both dwarfs, Baker was born in England in 1934 and Meszaros in Hungary in 1939. In the 1970's, Baker was offered the role of R2D2 in Star Wars and accepted it after originally resisting. In the 1980's, Meszaros was offered and accepted the role of ALF for the NBC sitcom.

They performed their biggest roles ensconced in costumes with their faces hidden, but they performed them nonetheless, and they enriched our culture.

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