So many have died, these deserve to not fall between the cracks
Death seemed to come hand-in-hand with 2016 and it has reared its ugly head far too many times on too many beloved people. The lists of notable deaths are the longest I’ve ever seen them. Yet, with each list I notice several who were left out for one reason or another. I understand. When compiling such a list, including everyone is difficult. Whether through oversight or just lack of information, many people get left off lists on which they deserve to be included.
I can’t rectify the omissions of every list one might come across. However, there are ten people often excluded who really should never be forgotten. If you’re not familiar with their lives and their work, now would be a good time to acquaint yourself.
Abe Vigoda was one of those people who was almost too easy to overlook. He was an everyman; the guy next door or the work colleague you constantly meet in the elevator but never really know. Most obituaries are quick to list his role as Salvatore Tessio in The Godfather, but for me, it was in his role as Phil Fish on the television series, The Barney Miller Show where Vigoda’s chops as an actor really stood out. He played a sad-sack detective who had given up fighting the system and instead fought his hemorrhoids. He perpetually looked older than he actually was, sad eyes, a slouching body, but his wit as an actor was sharp and he had that wonderful talent of making almost anyone around him look good.
He was as comfortable on stage as he was in front of the camera. In fact, he was probably more at home there than anywhere. His career was long, his list of credits impressive, and when not playing a character he had an infectious smile. We need actors like Abe Vigoda who don’t feel a need to hog the limelight and can just enjoy acting.
Being an astronaut sounds like a wonderful occupation, doesn’t it? And being one of only twelve people to actually set foot on the moon had to be exhilarating, right? Ed Mitchell led the kind of life the rest of us dream about.
But imagine what it had to be like, sitting in the pilot’s seat for Apollo 14, with all the disasters of the previous attempt at space flight whizzing through your brain. The dangers were more real and present than ever. He knew that for all the simulations and safety checks, things could still go wrong and there was still a chance he might not come back. If ever there was an astronaut facing impossible pressure, it was Ed Mitchell.
Yet, he did it. He guided the Apollo spacecraft into a successful orbit around the moon, then placed the lander exactly where it needed to be on the surface. They just don’t make heroes like this anymore.
He believed in UFOs and remote healing. Consciousness was a dominant topic for his later conversations. That trip to the moon and back got him thinking in terms not everyone was comfortable discussing. Yet, he deserves to be remembered as the one who looked on an Apollo program in tatters and said, “Yeah, I’ll give that a shot.”
Most obituaries list Andy Grove as one of the founders and former CEO of computer chip giant Intel. That he was a technological visionary who brought us the digital life we now enjoy is impossible to argue. He should be remembered for that act alone.
However, before he was Andy Grove, technology CEO, he was András István Gróf of Hungary. A teen under the Nazi occupation, he saw how evil the world could be and at age 20 decided to escape, on his own, to the US. It was this drive, and some say his paranoia because of these events, that gave him the skills he needed to make Intel the world’s leading semiconductor company. He knew fear, he knew the risk of losing, and he kept his company from the face of bankruptcy during its infancy.
Gove’s mind operated on a level that would make most of us dizzy. He wrote the book, literally, on semiconductors, and then a best seller on his management style. He was also incredibly generous, giving CUNY a $26 million grant that totally transformed the university’s small engineering school. He was impeccable about details, yet understood that not everyone was a detailed-oriented person. He gave those around him room to be who and what they were best at being.
The digital world is much stronger, much faster, and much safer because of Andy Grove.
Whatever you know, or think you know, about Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills is the work of this man: Fred Hayman. Born Fred Jules Pollag in a small town in Switzerland, Fred’s father died when he was young and his mother remarried to Julius Haymann. The family emigrated to the US and Fred’s first serious job was as a waiter at the Waldof-Astoria hotel.
Fred didn’t start out with any concept of fashion retail. Instead, he joined the Navy with the idea of becoming a dentist. That dream was never realized, though, and he eventually ended up back at the Waldorf-Astoria. Hotel work seemed to be his fate and he eventually ventured West where he became the manager of the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
But then, the entrepreneurial bug bit. There were no other clothing shops on Rodeo Drive when he opened his store, Giorgio, there in 1961. There were no boutiques. No perfume fragrances wafting out open doors. What he had was an open bar, a reading room, and a pool table so that husbands would have something to do while their wives shopped. The gimmick worked. So did the yellow/black striped awning that came to symbolize Beverly Hills shopping. His success lured other luxury retailers to the street, making Rodeo Drive the place for the Beverly Hills elite to build their wardrobe.
Hayman eventually sold Giorgio and its signature fragrance to Avon in the 1980s, but still kept a small shop open nearby. I suppose as long as the store remains open people will still remember his name, but don’t forget that this is the man responsible for turning a nondescript shop into the seat of luxury.
“A horse is a horse, of course, of course.” Those are the words that instantly come to my mind anytime I think of Alan Young. I mean, it’s not just anyone who can play alongside a talking horse for six years and that’s exactly what Young did. As Wilbur, the owner of the contrary and trouble-making Mr. Ed, Young pulled off one of the most tremendous acting feats in television history. Acting alongside other humans is one thing, but anyone who has been around horses know that even the best of them can be a complete pain in the ass on a regular basis. Yet, Young did this for six years as the show became a hit.
What few of us still remember is that Alan Young was a star even before Mr. Ed. Prior to that horse riding into his life, Young had been host of his own variety show and even won a Prime Time Emmy award in 1951. He was a staple on evening television all through the 1950s and 60s and even made a few appearances in film.
Young “retired” for a while after Mr. Ed. But then Disney lured him into the voice-over business as the voice of Scrooge McDuck and other duck-related cartoon characters. His list of credits includes such improbable titles as Ren and Stempy, and Batman: the animated series. This became his second career, one in which he was active right up until his death this past May. So sure, you may not have known his name, but chances are you grew up with his voice, somewhere, in your childhood.
Women’s basketball never has gotten the recognition it deserves so if you’ve not heard the name Pat Summit before, that’s likely the reason. But hers is not only one you should know, she’s someone worthy of a tremendous amount of respect for one very simple reason: she is the winningest basketball coach in NCAA history. More wins than anyone, including all the guys whose names are recognized all over the world. We’re talking 1,098 career wins. In her 38 years as coach, she never had a losing season. Never. There was no way she would allow that to happen.
Most of her wins came as head coach of the Lady Vols at the University of Tennessee. She was relentless on the court. She pushed her girls hard, but they loved her for it. Ask any of them. I’ve not known any of her players to say anything negative about Coach Summit. She knew what it took to win and she made damn sure her teams got there. The fact that they all happened to be young women was irrelevant. They could have taken on most men’s teams in the NCAA and beaten them, too, were it not for the inherent sexism in the sport.
Women’s basketball arguably owes its life to Pat Summit. The NCAA didn’t even recognize women’s basketball as a sport when Pat started coaching in 1974. She was paid a whopping $250 a month, washed the team’s uniforms herself, and even drove the van to games. There was no budget for women’s basketball back then. Then, she coached the US Olympic Team to its first ever basketball medal in 1976, and things began to change. Her teams weren’t second-rate and she wouldn’t allow the university to get off treating them as second-rate, either.
Off the court, Coach Summit had a wonderful sense of humor and a quick wit when some jackass sports reporter tried subjugating her or her sport. Coach Summit knew how to use humor to defuse tense situations and teach a lesson at the same time. Unfortunately, that time was cut short with early-onset Alzheimers. Coach retired in 2013 and that horrible disease didn’t waste any time-consuming her. The next time you watch a women’s basketball game, though, remember Coach Pat Summit. The sport wouldn’t exist without her.
The music world has taken some huge hits this year with the deaths of some very well-known and popular artists. With all those names in a very lost list, it’s easy to see how someone like Alan Vega might be missed. You probably never attended one of his concerts. You probably never saw his videos. There’s a chance you wouldn’t even like his music if you heard it. Vega was unique, a one-of-a-kind musician with a very limited audience.
So, why should you remember him? Because both punk and electronica grew out of his work. If you’re under the age of 40 and ever go to a nightclub, what you hear is the influence of Alan Vega.
Vega was a revolutionary kind of person. Attending Brooklyn College in the 1960s, he studied both physics and fine arts. He was as much a visual artist as he was a musician. Yet, he didn’t go for any level of conformity. He was part of a group that barricaded the Museum of Modern Art. As part of a project called MUSEUM: A Project of Living Artists, Vega started working with light sculptors made from digital debris.
In 1970s, he formed the band Suicide with his best friend, Martin Reverby and guitarist Paul Liebgott and began experimenting with sound the same way he had experimented with light. They called their music Punk, or Punk Mass, and within the artistic underground of that era they became stars.
That stardom never reached major radio market airplay, though, and Vega’s fame stayed largely within the relatively small community of experimental artists and musicians he influenced. He influenced a lot of people, however, and the resonance of his experimentation exists in much of the electronic and rock music heard today. He never stopped trying something new, even as he continued creating right up until his death. If you are a fan of EDM, punk, or any other electronic-dominated music form, you have Alan Vega to thank.
I don’t know how old I was the first time I heard Pete Fountain play, but I remember the song. He took the old gospel melody of A Closer Walk and turned it from a dry, turgid piece of funeral-ready sadness into something with soul. A song that I all-too-well recognized as something that was sung over dead people suddenly had life. That was Pete’s gift. Give him even the shortest rif of notes and he could bring it all to life.
Pierre Dewey Fountain, Jr., was born in New Orleans. The rhythm of the city was bred into his veins and infused every note he played. He was sick a lot as a child, probably suffering from undiagnosed asthma. When a doctor advised his father that a music instrument, “something he can blow into,” might help, his father took him to a music store and he chose the clarinet. At first, his lungs were so weak he couldn’t even make a sound. He kept trying, though, and once he started he never stopped. By the time he was a teenager, he was playing regular gigs on Bourbon Street. He never left.
Influenced by the music of Benny Goodman, Fountain created a sound that was unique to New Orleans. A mix of blues and jazz, he created a tone that more woody than most, thanks largely to a crystal mouthpiece he started using in 1958. His sound was fluid and full, never shrill, easy on the ears. He could take the most boring of songs and make them exciting. That didn’t always set well with people who were accustomed to more sedate music. Legend is he pissed off Lawrence Welk with a jazz version of the Christmas classic, “Silver Bells.”
I was thrilled to see Pete live on two separate occasions, the latter being up close in a nightclub where he was unrestrained and played as though every note were made of gold. His style of Dixieland Jazz still lives in artists like Jon Batiste. You can find his recordings in music stores still. There are worse ways to spend your money, to be sure. Take a listen.
Just a Closer Walk With Thee, a song by Pete Fountain on Spotify
Janet Reno is not one of those people who I would have expected to include on a list like this. However, when I mentioned her death a couple of months ago and received, “Who?” as a reply I realized then that her legacy was in danger of going unnoticed. Pay attention, children, some of you may very well owe your life to Janet Reno.
Most notably, Janet Reno was the first female Attorney General of the United States. Nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993, she served in that position until 2001, the longest anyone had served in that position since 1829. That alone would be enough to earn her a spot in the history books. What she did for women in both the legal and political arenas was immeasurable. Now, add to that the fact that she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1995, understand all the physical challenges that disease created for her, and her accomplishments are even more impressive.
You should know her for more than that, though. Before becoming Attorney General of the United States, Miss Reno was Attorney General of the state of Florida where she broke new ground in the prosecution of child abuse. Most notably, she oversaw the passage of a law that would allow abused children to testify via closed-circuit television so that they would not have to confront the fear of those who had abused them.
Miss Reno’s tenure as Attorney General was not an easy one. It was her Department of Justice responsible for the Branch Davidian standoff outside Waco, Texas, that resulted in the deaths of 76 people. She also oversaw the arrest and convictions of notable criminals such as the Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols for the Oklahoma City bombing, and the persons responsible for the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center.
There is a lot to learn from the life of a woman who was totally and completely committed to the law and justice. Take some time and get to know this incredible woman.
How in the world is Leon Russell on this list? I mean, doesn’t everyone know about Leon Russell? I certainly would have thought so, but after his death last month I mentioned him to five different people, all under the age of 30, and none of them knew who he was. One person thought he was a member of the OJays. Sigh. This is why we create lists like this, children.
Leon Russell was born in Lawton, Oklahoma, a military town surrounded by nothing in the world but dust. I’ve never been there but what I didn’t end up sick. He began playing piano at the age of four, the same age I was when I started playing, and his parents moved to Tulsa. He went to the same high school there as Anita Bryant and formed his first band with Bread’s frontman David Gates. If you ask me who David Gates is I may have to slap you.
From Tulsa he went to Los Angeles where he became a studio musician. His style was popular and he played keyboard on a number of records for groups such as The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. He was also an active composer and arranger. He wrote Delta Lady for Joe Cocker and over 100 different artists have covered his A Song For You. He produced albums for Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Ike & Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones among others. Perhaps more than anything else, he was a mentor and friend to a young British singer going by the name Elton John.
Through the 70s and early 80s he performed country music under the name Hank Wilson, but he never stopped writing and producing rock through that time, either. If you’ve listened to the 1970s recordings of the Rolling Stones, B.B. King, Helen Reddy, The Gap Band, Bob Dylan, or Willie Nelson, you’ve heard Russell’s influence both in production and often on keyboard.
I could literally go on for pages and pages with this man’s accomplishments. He never stopped. in 2010 he recorded a duet album with Elton John. At the time of his death last month, he was planning on starting yet another tour in January.
You know Leon Russell. You just didn’t know that you know Leon Russell. Now you do. I hope you will remember. Maybe this will help:
A Song for You, a song by Leon Russell on Spotify
Of course, this list, like every other list you’re seeing this time of year, is incomplete. There were many, many more people whose deaths this year deserve observance. This list just touches the surface. One of the most complete lists of notable deaths this year is a “live” list compiled by the Associated Press. Take a look. Go through the names and get to know the people mentioned. They are each notable for a reason. Take a moment and appreciate the way in which they changed their world, then let’s look at 2017 as a chance to change ours.