Every year when I write obituaries, I look at the Wikipedia list of notable people who died during the year. Since everyone dies, the list includes all sorts of people: clerics, horse breeders, spree killers, chefs, war heroes, astrologers, conductors, campaigners for suicide rights, and ever so many industrialists and financiers (whom nobody cares about anymore \other than greedy development departments and squabbling heirs). It always strikes me that the people we all know about—the loud and shiny actors, the celebrity criminals, and the faded sportsmen–are not actually very important in the grand scheme of things. Here is a very incomplete list of the people whom I thought were important who died this year.
Shirley Temple Black (April 23rd, 1928 – February 10th, 2014) was one of Hollywood’s first child stars. Later she worked as a public servant and diplomat serving as U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. Although she had an extraordinary life by every measure, I am including her here because when I was growing up I watched her Depression-era movies on a West Virginia movie channel that played weird old cinema. Even though I was a little child (the presumed audience for these films?), the bizarre schmaltzy stories of singing princesses and dancing disinherited heiresses struck me as bizarre and otherworldly—like a relic from ancient Mesopotamia.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez (March 6th, 1927 – April 17th, 2014) was a novelist who popularized magical realism—a literary style in which symbolic supernatural elements represent the deterministic nature of family, politics, and religious indoctrination in human life. His greatest work, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” follows the rise and fall of a family of Colombian landed gentry. Yet the book transcended the specifics of its subject to craft a haunting dream about the nature of existence.
Dr. Jacinto Convit (September 11th, 1913 – May 12th, 2014) was a dermatologist and vaccine researcher. Although he spent most of his life developing vaccines for leprosy and tropical diseases, his work also raised intriguing possibilities for cancer vaccines—ongoing work which may be incredibly important (or may be a complete dead end). Convit developed a therapy against the fearsome tropical disease leishmaniasis, which once yearly killed some 20,000 to 30,000 people across the world, however his greatest contributions to medicine may not yet be realized.
Maya Angelou (April 4th, 1928 – May 28th, 2014) was a poet and writer. She worked as a journalist during the decolonization era in Africa (writing from Egypt and Ghana) and was politically active in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, however she is best known for her moving autobiographical or semi-autobiographical accounts of coming of age in the African-American community during the civil rights era.
Felix Dennis (May 27th, 1947 – June 22nd, 2014) was a colorful British publishing mogul who monetized counter-culture in the sixties. He organized this early success (and infamy) into an international media and “lifestyle” empire. Although businessmen might describe him otherwise, he is principally remembered as the patron for many promising sculptors and writers…and as a friend to trees who orchestrated a mass reforestation campaign throughout Great Britain.
Noel Hinners (December 25th, 1935 – September 5th, 2014) was a geologist and the former chief scientist for NASA. Hinners was instrumental in planning the scientific exploration of the moon. After the Apollo era he oversaw other offworld projects such as the Mars Surveyor Program.
Scott Carpenter (May 1st, 1925 – October 10th, 2013) was an astronaut in the Mercury Program. He was the second American to orbit the earth in 1962. During re-entry, the instruments of his single-person space capsule malfunctioned and he had to take manual control of the primitive space ship (which splashed down hundreds of miles off target). He was the last surviving astronaut from the Mercury program except for John Glenn.
Donald Stookey (May 23rd, 1915 – November 4th, 2014) invented “Corningware,” the super-strong, heat-resistant ceramic glass used in kitchens everywhere since the 1950s. As a cook and a lasagna-lover I salute his incredible contribution to the human race! His other ceramic and glass innovations have also revolutionized glasses, defense systems, and electronics.
RIP and thanks again for the lasagna dish, the vaccinations, the offworld exploration, and (sigh) “The Good Ship Lollypop.”
Tomorrow we have a few final thoughts for the year and some ideas about where we’re headed next year!