Tuesday, February 28, 2017

2016: In Memoriams, Part Four

This is the fourth and final post in a series about major figures who died last year. The first three can be read here, here, and here. (Yes, some worthies are not mentioned, but February of this year is almost over and there are other topics happening 'bout which to write...)

Florence Henderson
Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver created the impossibly, perfectly wholesome TV image of American family life during the black-and-white era of the Fifties and early Sixties. The Brady Bunch carried that tradition into the color era during its run from 1969 to 1974, with Florence Henderson starring as the mom, Carol Brady.

To be sure, things weren't quite the same because Mike Brady was Carol's second husband and the show never explained why she was no longer married to husband #1. June Cleaver would never have married anyone other than Ward even if Ward had met with an untimely death, and one simply cannot imagine Harriet Nelson looking at any person other than Ozzie. Nevertheless, as the world "moved on," The Brady Bunch managed to move with it without loosening its grip on what are now called family values.

Her performance as Carol Brady is the reason Florence Henderson will always be remembered, but it was only a small part of who she was. The youngest of 10 siblings, she was born in Indiana at the height of the Great Depression (1934) and began her performing career by singing in local grocery stores when she was 12. In 1954 she originated the title role in the Broadway musical Fanny, which ran for a staggering 888 performances, and in 1962 she became the first woman to guest host The Tonight Show.

After The Brady Brunch, Henderson spent 22 years as the spokeswoman for Wesson cooking oil and 23 years singing "God Bless America" at the Indianapolis 500. In 2010, at the age of 76, she was a contestant on Dancing With the Stars and lasted until the fifth episode before being eliminated. She died on Thanksgiving Day at the age of 82.

William Christopher
William Christopher was an Indiana native and Wesleyan graduate who acted professionally for 47 years. His first widespread audience recognition came by virtue of him portraying Private Lester Hummel, a recurring character on Gomer Pyle, from 1965 to 1968. He also logged appearances on The Patty Duke ShowThe Andy Griffith ShowThe Men from Shiloh, and Hogan's Heroes.

What made him famous, however, was his portrayal of Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H* for the TV series' entire 11-year run. Christopher delivered the perfect blend of clear faith and modest dignity for which the role called, depicting the chaplain of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital as a man of quiet religiosity who led more by example than by sermonizing. Small cell carcinoma claimed his life on the final day of 2016.

Antonin Scalia
He was born in New Jersey, earned a history degree from Georgetown University first-in-class, graduated from Harvard Law School magna cum laude, and eventually served three decades on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Antonin Scalia's detractors criticize him on political grounds and are probably right that he was a conservative. But they entirely miss the point, because the fact of the matter is that his political preference on a particular topic never influenced his legal decision; Scalia was a strict constructionist, which means he based his decisions on what the Constitution says even if that resulted in him deciding against a policy or action he liked.

Ironically, his support of the First Amedment, especially in the much misunderstood Citizens United case, means he did more to protect the rights of his critics than did the opposing judges whose politics agreed with his critics. Even the San Francisco Chronicle knows this, as evidenced by this editorial it published last September.

In my life there has been no judge who was a more impactful protector of individual rights that Antonin Scalia. For that, all of us, liberals as well as conservatives, should be thankful that he served on the SCOTUS.

Phyllis Schlafly
A highly successful woman who was a graduate of both Harvard and Washington universities, Schlafly was nonetheless reviled by many who consider themselves champions of women's rights.

In the 1970's, a soothing-sounding amendment to the Constitution -- the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA -- was proposed and looked like it had the momentum to pass. But having the brains to see the hook inside the bait, and the guts to ignore a full-on media campaign that was intended to bully her by sullying her reputation, Schlafly put her shoulder against the tide and redirected the flow of history.

Schlafly explained how the ERA, as written, would have subjected women to the draft and forced them into combat roles in future wars.

She explained how the ERA, as written, would have benefited men at the expense of women by stripping older middle-class widows and divorcees of protection.

Most officeholders (Democrats and Republicans alike) were too timid to risk the PR hit of opposing something with the words "equal rights" in its name, but Phyllis Schlafly was not. She prevailed by turning public opinion enough that the powers-that-be got the message, and the amendment was never ratified. Hers was a triumph of common sense over Newspeak and intellect over groupthink.

Schlafly had few allies in the halls of power but many in the annals of accuracy and court of public opinion. She died five months ago, at home, at the age of 92.

Joe Garagiola
As a major league catcher, his playing career was decent but unremarkable: nine years, four teams, .257 lifetime batting average, and a World Series ring from his rookie season of 1946.

As a sportscaster, his career was legendary: 28 years with NBC, Peabody Award winner, Ford C. Frick Award winner, recipient of the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame. Watching baseball on TV with Joe Garagiola sometimes doing play-by-play and sometimes doing color commentary was an integral part of childhood for those of us who grew up in the 1970's and 1980's, and for us me it hasn't been the same since his days at NBC ended in 1988.

To his credit, he did not go away and disappear post-NBC, for six years later he started co-hosting the Westminster Dog Show -- a gig he maintained for nine years, and which helped him build a whole new audience. And keeping with his roots, he returned to baseball broadcasting by doing TV color commentary for the Arizona Diamondbacks from 1998 to 2012.

Garagiola grew up in St. Louis across the street from another kid who liked to play baseball: Yogi Berra. Looking back on the fact that he, not Berra, was coveted by scouts when they were teenagers, Garagiola threw salt on himself by joking "I wasn't even the best catcher on my street!" He also deprecated his playing career by remarking that "being traded four times when there are only eight teams in the league tells you something." But no one can take away what he did in that '46 World Series, when he outshone Ted Williams by batting .316 to Williams's .200, and starred in Game Four by going 4-for-5 with three RBI.

Robert Vaughn
A character actor's character actor, Robert Vaughn's first notable role was as Chet Gwynn in the 1959 Paul Newman film The Young Philadelphians, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His first big role came on the small screen, where he starred as the dapper spy Napoleon Solo in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from 1964 to 1968.

Vaughn seemed ubiquitous through the 1970's and 1980's. Adept at playing characters whose values ranged from villainous to ambiguous, his roles were often supporting but always important. Vaughn appeared opposite Steve McQueen in Bullitt and as the bad guy in Superman III; starred on the British detective series The Protectors and in the final season of The A Team; twice played the antagonist in Columbo; portrayed Morgan Wendell in the finale of the classic miniseries Centennial, and guest appeared on Law and Order. He was 83 when he succumbed to a yearlong battle with leukemia on November 11th.

Fidel Castro
Unlike everybody else I have eulogized this year, Fidel Castro was a retrograde son of a bitch who deserved to die many decades before he finally did. After overthrowing Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Castro took control of the island nation and subjected it to an even more brutal brand of dictatorship -- a dictatorship that continues to this day under his brother and handpicked successor, Raul.

Under Castro, freedom was (and remains) nonexistent and those who criticized his regime were (and still are) subjected to prison, torture, and murder. He oversaw the creation of a world class medical squadron to treat himself and his fellow party heads, while deliberately withholding medical care from the population. Despite being one of the most fertile countries on Earth, Cuba's farms under Castro sat fallow and unproductive and still do, while the population went hungry and still does.

Fidel Castro nonetheless gained a following in the West, because a big batch of useful idiots in the academic, political, and entertainment worlds were seduced by his bearded, Marxist, fatigue-wearing cult of personality. Hopefully Raul will soon join him in Hell so that Cuba can finally become the happy paradise it would seem Creation intended it to be.

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