Sigh, as 2012 winds down, it is time for the annual obituary list. As in 2010 and 2011, this list is not at all comprehensive: I have left off many famous entertainment personalities (who are amply celebrated elsewhere) and concentrated on scientists, artists, writers, puppeteers, and people whom I knew personally. Even so, I have missed or omitted all sorts of names (sorry, Gore Vidal and Robert Bork). The list is elegiac and personal: an obituary not just for people but for eras of time and aspects of life which are ineluctably passed:
H. Norman Schwarzkopf, (August 22, 1934 – December 27, 2012) was a United States Army officer. Schwarzkopf was most famous for his role as commander of coalition forces in the Gulf War, but he had a long infantryman’s pedigree including two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he was awarded three silver stars (along with numerous other awards for valor). “Stormin’” Norman was famous not just for his logistical and tactical savvy but for his ability to deftly manipulate the press corps. I remember seeing him marching at the head of a mechanized infantry column during a victory parade in 1991 in Washington (an event which now seems almost as remote to present times as a Roman triumph).
Norman Joseph Woodland (September 6, 1921 – December 9, 2012) was the co-creator of the barcode. After fighting for his patent and his idea in the rough-and-tumble world of American business he ultimately became an important cog in IBM’s vast corporate machine. The first consumer product with a UPC was scanned in 1974!
Neil Alden Armstrong (August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012) After flying combat missions for the US Navy in the Korean war Neil Armstrong spent years as a test pilot. He left the military to pursue a career as an aerospace engineer, but as the space race quickened, he applied to NASA Astronaut Corps and was accepted as one of two civilian astronauts (the other was killed in a training accident). In 1965, Armstrong was the pilot of Gemini 8–and thus piloted one of the two first spacecraft to dock with each other in outer space. He returned to space in July of 1969 as mission commander of Apollo 11. He was the first human to walk on the moon—the first person of any of us to step on a different celestial body. After the moon landing, Armstrong taught engineering, farmed, raised his family and ignored his international fame, however as the current crop of useless politicians continue to slash away at research programs and at the space program itself, he joined together with his fellow astronauts to issue a public statement that “For The United States, the leading space faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third rate stature.”
Jerry L. Nelson (July 10, 1934 – August 23, 2012) was a puppeteer, best known for his work on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. Although not a towering hero who will be remembered for as long as humanity endures (like, oh, say, the first man on the moon) he was the puppeteer who gave voice and life to Mr. Snuffleupagus and Count Von Count (among many others).
Isaac “Doc” Ferrebee (May 27, 1928 – August 15, 2012) was a family member. He was a Staff Sergeant in the Army, a veteran of the Korean War, and worked at (the same!) metal plant for 40 years. When I knew him, Doc was a tireless gardener and a great beekeeper. I will always think of him at the edge of his sweet corn and potatoes carefully looking after his beautiful hives of honey bees.
Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012) was a pioneering science-fiction/fantasy writer who wrote strange moral allegories and fantasies concerning the possible future of humankind. After a childhood epiphany in 1932, Bradbury wrote every single day for 69 years: his epiphany occured when a carnival performer named Mr. Electrico touched his nose with an electrified sword (which caused young Bradbury’s hair to stand on end) and yelled “Live forever!”
Sally Kristen Ride (May 26, 1951 – July 23, 2012) was the first American woman in space. Trained as a physicist she joined NASA in 1978 and traveled to low Earth orbit in 1983 upon the space shuttle Challenger. In addition to being the youngest American astronaut to travel into space (she was 32 at the time of her flight) she also co-authored five children’s science books with her life partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy.
Maurice Bernard Sendak (June 10, 1928 – May 8, 2012) was probably the foremost children’s book illustrator of the 20th century. His work is famous for combining the dark wild passions of opera with the whimsical inventiveness of central European folklore. Somehow Sendak took these elements and created his own unmistakable visual style of great beauty and depth.
Emmet Larkin (1927- March 19, 2012) was a tenured professor of history at the University of Chicago (in fact he was my favorite professor). He studied and wrote about Irish history—most particularly the transformative role of the Roman Catholic Church in19th and early 20th century Ireland. His most widely read book was “The Historical Dimensions of Irish Catholicism”. In undergraduate school, I took his Irish history class and his class on Victorian England, both of which were great favorites thanks to vivid lectures and lively discussion. To quote one of Larkin’s colleagues, Walter Kaegi “He was a good teacher of both graduates and undergraduates…He was lively, animated and very good with Ph.D. candidates. He had definite academic standards and maintained them.” I will miss Larkin greatly because I enjoyed talking with him in class or at his office hours. Additionally he appreciated my writings and ideas and served as a last link to the glorious world of the ivory tower.
Janice “Jan” Berenstain (née Grant; July 26, 1923 – February 24, 2012) worked with her late husband Stan Berenstain to create the “Berenstain bears” a fictional family of (strangely simian) middle-class bears. The bear family worked together to face the trials and tribulations of family life in a series of fairly blunt moral lessons (spread through a diverse entertainment portfolio of books, animations, andgames). Since the Berenstain bears were hitting the apogee of their fame just as I was entering elementary school, I recall lots of Berenstain stories from those years. Although many of those stories no doubt featured healthy lessons about patience and not throwing tantrums, what I remember most was their visit to a haunted house filled with bats and animated suits of armor. That was amazing!
Florence Green (February 19, 1901 – February 4, 2012) was the last person to serve in World War I (as a waitress on an air base in England). With her death, that terrible conflict takes another step deeper into the history books and away from the living experience of humankind.
Gosh, there were some famous astronauts there. It almost seems like our heroic future in space is rapidly becoming a mythicized past.