Blasting America’s parents with the teen-shaking shout, “Go Johnny go!” Chuck Berry, dead at 90, taught the world to rock. It took the sly blueberry thrills of Fats Domino, gone at 89, to add the roll.
The absurdist red smoking jacket of Hugh Hefner, 91 ushered in a sexual revolution of pouty Playmates and upscale urges. It was Mary Tyler Moore, 80, who tore up that centerfold, proving that even sexier could be a spunky, single career woman on TV.
Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan, 82, was the last human to walk on the moon in 1972. Only six moonwalkers remain, but all left footprints, untouched in the lunar dust nearly a half-century later.
Everyone, from the most high-flying to the earthbound among us, leaves a mark, an echo, an imprint on those around them and those to come. And sometimes those influencers, whether superstar athlete, embattled world leader or a family’s favorite relative, don’t realize the impact they’re having, the inspirations, learnings or complications they leave behind.
This year’s PASSAGES is more than a list of notable remembrances. In many ways it is a final coda to a century gone by.
The archaic sounding “1900s,” from first flights, silent movies, the Depression, two world wars, civil rights, the yin yang of Vietnam and Woodstock, the fall of Communism, the rise of consumerism to MTV, CNN and the dawn of the Internet, are fast fading in collective memory. According to Pew Research, the nation’s 79.8 million Millennials (ages 18-35), now outnumber the fabled Baby Boomers (ages 52-70) by 5 million souls.
Put another way, the most common age is now 22. In the exploding social media environment of 2017, that’s hardly old enough — or viral enough — to remember the power of gossip columnist Liz Smith, 94, whose coverage of a brash Manhattan real estate mogul helped invent Donald Trump. Or activist Dick Gregory, 84, the groundbreaking comedian who helped break the color barrier on television and seemed to be on a perpetual hunger strike against injustice for the rest of his career.
Even teen heartthrobs like David Cassidy, 67, and Erin Moran, 56, seem from all-but-forgotten happier days.
To be fair, how many of the older demographic knew of online rapper Lil Peep, 21, who died of an accidental overdose of pain killers after releasing in November his first album, Come Over When You’re Sober?
Generations have their own streams of histories now. The names of 20th-century giants may survive, but as they die in their 80s and 90s, living longer than before, their true footprints flow back to the sea, eventually.
Take Jerry Lewis, 91, whose comic anarchy in the 1950s was the progenitor of Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, Kramer on Seinfeld, the Naked Gun movies, Saturday Night Live and more. His telethons raised something like $2.6 billion to fight muscular dystrophy. That’s the short version. But in many ways, Lewis helped spark the youthquake of the ’60s.
A generation of kids watched wide-eyed on black-and-white TVs in the 1950s when Lewis, dressed like a proper grownup in a sleek tuxedo, suddenly put two chopsticks in his mouth, clapped his arms like a walrus, ran across the stage and jumped into Dean Martin’s arms.
How could parents tell kids to behave after seeing something like that? Is there any wonder campuses exploded a few years later?
On the calmer side was the genial Gomer Pyle wisdom of Jim Nabors, 87, who soothed his fans with country humor, a gospel-perfect voice and visions of a homogeneous time gone by. But fans slowly learned of Nabors’ four-decade relationship with his partner, Stan Cadwallader, including a marriage in 2013. Nabors said he never thought it was important, but he was a major cultural marker in gay politics.
The normalization of America’s diversity came from the unlikeliest of places. Insult comic Don Rickles, 90, who likely would call everyone in this essay a “hockey puck,” nonetheless celebrated the nation’s changing demographics every time he mocked the ethnic stereotypes in his nightclub audience.
Country singer Mel Tillis, 85, had a severe stutter, except when he sang, inspiring millions during a time when disabilities were often hidden away.
Others had lives full of contradictions
Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, 86, was viewed as a man of faith and devotion, a priest with global reach and influence. But he was forced to resign after revelations that he failed to remove sexually abusive priests. The scandal, recounted in the film Spotlight, raised issues still confronted by Catholics today.
Norma McCorvey, 69, was an uncertain symbol as well. Known by the pseudonym “Jane Roe” in the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, the case took so long that she gave birth to the child. She later became an anti-abortion activist.
The crucial role of media in everything from sports to politics and entertainment was led by heroes and visionaries.
San Francisco 49ers and later New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle, 90, was the first pro football player ever to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated; Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian, 94, brought the Fighting Irish back to college football prominence in 1966 and 1973; and sports executive Don Ohlmeyer, 72, helped add prime time to the NFL with ABC’s Monday Night Football in 1970.
If centuries have a voice, surely the calls of longtime baseball, football and Olympics broadcaster Dick Enberg, 82, were as distinctive as anyone’s. Oh my!
The ultimate street reporter, Jimmy Breslin, 88, corresponded with New York’s Son of Sam serial killer on the front pages of the Daily News in 1977, a print version of what today would be a storm of tweets; political adviser Roger Ailes, 77, invented the conservative Fox News Channel as what he said was a counter to liberal media. Political coverage has never been the same.
Between those outsized personalities were calmer stalwarts of journalism: John Quinn, 91, was a founding editor of USA TODAY who proved that colorful graphs and info-boxes could co-exist with quality reporting; Money and Fortune editor Marshall Loeb, 88, known as the father of modern business journalism, said reporters must be “cleaner than clean.” Wiser words than ever these days.
Opening doors to new forms were Lillian Ross, 99, a pioneer of “new journalism,” which brought a novelistic approach to profiles and news coverage; writer Kate Millett, 82, who pushed hard for sexual equality; and Spencer Johnson, 78, who added to the business lexicon with his book, Who Moved My Cheese. Robert Pirsig, 88, rode to fame with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which was a philosophical touchstone for the ’60s generation.
Popular culture was shaped by artists like Basil Gogos, 88, whose paintings on the cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland helped spark the “monster boom” of the 1960s; illustrator Bernie Wrightson, 68, and writer Len Wein, 69, breathed life into the Swamp Thing; and a small zombie film, Night of the Living Dead, directed by George Romero, 77, inspired The Walking Dead today.
In Japan, Haruo Nakajima, 88, played Godzilla in 12 films, uncredited until recent years when he became a favorite at conventions. When asked whether the Godzilla films were a parable for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, Nakajima would demur, saying it was “hot” inside the monster suit.
We also lost a James Bond, Roger Moore, 89; a Batman (some would say the true Batman), Adam West, 88; an Oscar winner Martin Landau, 89, and a hilarious show business pioneer, Rose Marie, 94.
The music world was shaken by the deaths of rock superstar Tom Petty, 66; and stars such as Glen Campbell, 81, who recorded to the end despite his battle with Alzheimer’s; two of the original Allman Brothers, Gregg Allman, 69, and Butch Trucks, 69; Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, 67, soprano Barbara Cook, 89; and song stylist Al Jarreau, 76.
Champions of jazz included writer Nat Hentoff, 91, who combined fierce political commentary with profiles of music greats, and songstress Della Reese, 86, one of cinema’s first black actresses who became best known for her role in television’s Touched by an Angel. Groups such as Manhattan Transfer and Pink Martini owe much to scat singer Jon Hendricks, 96, whose bebop arrangements with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross vocalized the jazz of Count Basie.
But the music world and all of America was shaken most by the mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, where a gunman killed 58 people at a Jason Aldean concert. A month later another gunman killed 25 at a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. And a few weeks later a suspected Islamic terrorist ran down eight people on a bicycle path in Manhattan.
These are lives lost that are worth remembering as well.
Along with the four U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan in 2017, there were 122 police officers killed in the line of duty, more than 900 people shot and killed by police across the USA this year (mental illness a factor in a quarter of the incidents); and more than 33,000 gun deaths in the U.S (two-thirds of them suicides).
USA TODAY’s PASSAGES of course cannot capture the depth or the pain of it all.
But no matter what form your remembrance takes of those we lost this year — whether quiet reflection, holding a candle at a memorial service, saluting a soldier at an airport or placing a gold star on a window, contributing to a victim fund, fighting for gun safety and enforcement of existing laws, or pushing for background checks and tougher gun restrictions, thanking a first responder or kneeling at church or on a football field — families and friends need to know that their loved ones will never be forgotten. This holiday season or ever.
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