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Every year we close out the year with obituaries.  I feel like the main-stream media does a pretty good job of memorializing the entertainers and showbiz folks who have passed away, so, although I loved Tom Petty, John Hillerman, Roger Moore, and John Hurt (and too many others), I will leave it to someone else to eulogize them.  Additionally, I have had less time to blog this year than I would like, so please don’t be upset if I miss a great and important scientist, algebraist, or artist.  That is what the comments are for!  I also tried to include some eminent scholars and artists from East Asia (since it feels like our counterweight cultures are divided by a gulf of misunderstanding and we overlook the cultural work being done there).  I was saddened to see how many astronauts from the golden first age of space exploration passed away.  Humankind becomes ever more insular and parochial: we squander our resources on useless giveaways to monopolistic companies and crooked oligarchs (who blow their money on status objects or remove it from circulation).  These days we barely even explore the heavens (much less travel there).  I wonder if there will ever be another generation of heroes to walk the moon or orbit the Earth once these figures from fade away.  At any rate, here is a brief list of 2017 obituaries to make us think about the brevity of life and the true nature of accomplishment:

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Zhou Youguang (January 13, 1906 – January 14, 2017) was a scholar who invented Pinyin, a system for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese (a language which does not fit easily into the Roman alphabet).  So excellent was his work that  Pinyin was officially adopted by the government of the People’s Republic of China in 1958.  Pinyin has now largely supplanted the Wade-Giles system and is the method by which Chinese is known to Western scholars or input on Roman keyboards.  Zhou Youguang lived through the dramatically changing China of the Qing Dynasty, The Republic of China, The Second World War Invasion by Japan, and The People’s Republic.  He was “sent down” during the Cultural Revolution and was critical of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

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George A. Romero (February 4, 1940 – July 16, 2017) was the masterful director of terrifying zombie movies which were thinly veiled allegories for the problems of contemporary society.

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Kim Jong-nam (May 10 1971 – 13 February 2017): this unremarkable man was the eldest son of the genocidal sociopath Kim Jong-il,the late dictator of North Korea.  Kim Jong-nam was murdered in Singapore at the command of his brother (by means of poison, in a plot worthy of dark fantasy literature).  While Kim Jong-nam’s death is of no consequence in itself, it speaks to the criminal nature of the North Korean regime and foreshadows countless deaths to come at the mercurial will of their fat cruel tyrant.  There are two stories of why Kim Jong-nam was disinherited: in one story he was cut out of the family business for trying to sneak into Tokyo Disneyland (but insiders whisper he was exiled and ultimately murdered for favoring reform).

David Rockefeller (June 12, 1915 – March 20, 2017) was the last surviving grandson of John Davison Rockefeller Sr. (a 19th century tycoon who built the Standard Oil Trust and thus became by far the richest individual of America’s gilded age).  There was a point in the 1970s when David’s brother Nelson was Governor of New York and then Vice President of the United States, and yet David was reputed to be more powerful and connected.

Sir Nicholas Winton (May 19, 1909 – July 1, 2015) was a swordsman, banker and stockbroker who rescued of 669 Jewish children, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia by means of paperwork wizardry, networking, and money-raising.

Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943 – July 27, 2017) was a playwright and actor who applied the Beckett’s absurd style to themes of family, violence, and substance abuse and thus carved out a uniquely American theater style.

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Hugh Heffner (April 9, 1926 – September 27, 2017) was a controversial publisher whose magazine “Playboy” was famous for cultural articles, progressive editorials, and reproductive advice which challenged America’s puritanical mores.  The magazine was however more famous for lubricious pictures of naked women and espousing a hedonistic (sexist?) lifestyle.  This legacy, and the distasteful…extravagance…of Hugh Heffner’s private life made him a polarizing figure, but he must be mentioned (and honored) because of the debt which generation after generation of pre-internet era adolescent boys owe him.

Richard Francis Gordon Jr. (October 5, 1929 – November 6, 2017) was an American naval officer, chemist, and astronaut.  He is only one of 24 people to have flown to the moon (although he didn’t get to walk on it).  Later he helped design the space shuttle and served as Executive Vice President of the New Orleans Saints.

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Bruce McCandless II, (June 8, 1937 – December 21, 2017) was a U.S. Navy officer, pilot, and NASA astronaut who made the first untethered free flight in space.

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Wang Panyuan (c. 1908 – December 22nd, 2017) was a famous Chinese/Taiwanese painter who brought together classical Chinese painting with expressionism.

 

 

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The year 2016 was infamous for death and grievous setback. While beloved celebrities died in droves, major western institutions were rocked to their core by poor choices (indeed the American democracy itself may be dead after voters decided to elect a nefarious con artist as president). The Great Barrier Reef, cheetahs, giraffes, beautiful compassionate elephants, and even teleosts all seem to be rapidly heading out the door as well.  It makes you wonder about 2017.

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However we are already getting away from the sad topic of 2016 obituaries. I loved David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Carrie Fisher as much as anyone, but I feel like their lives were celebrated by, you know, popular websites.  Ferrebeekeeper has always tried to emphasize scientists, artists, and people from my own life in the year-end obituaries, so I am leaving out David Bowie even though he arguably fits into “art” and “space” categories (and maybe “Deities of the Underworld”as well).  You can read amazing obituaries about Prince, Princess Leia, and the Thin White Duke anywhere.

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Harper Lee, (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) was famous for writing a single book,To Kill a Mockingbird, a child’s eye view of America on the precipice of sweeping social changes.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali (November 14, 1922 – February 16, 2016) was an Egyptian diplomat who helped orchestrate Egypt’s peace deal with Israel and later served as a largely ineffectual U.N. secretary-general.

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Umberto Eco  (January 5, 1932 – February 19, 2016) was an Italian novelist and semiotician who wrote popular works of fiction about medieval scholastic philosophy (!).

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Bob Ebeling, 89, was a booster rocket engineer who spent thirty years filled with remorse that he was unable to stop the ill-fated 1985 launch of the space shuttle Challenger (which was destroyed by faulty O-rings in the booster rockets).  His story is a cautionary tale for executives and politicians to listen to the people who build things.

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Jeremy Blake Ferrebee (August 6, 1985- March 18, 2016) was my cousin. Jeremy loved fishing and he was famously generous and kind, however he struggled mightily with personal demons in the form of substance abuse issues. I am worried that I will offend my family by mentioning his problems here, but I cared for Jeremy and I was sad about his death.  Our nation doesn’t just have a problem with substance abuse (a problem which is inextricably bound up with being a human) we have a problem even talking about this problem in a way which isn’t self-defeating.  I certainly don’t know what the answer to this is, but we had better keep working on it.

Merle Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016) was a country music star (ok, so we are slipping a pop star into this list) who came from a background of poverty and prison.  His songs address the hard-scrabble nature of rural life in the south and west with a mixture of sadness, machismo, and national pride.

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Marisol Escobar (May 22, 1930 – April 30, 2016) was a conceptual portrait sculptor of great originality (see Ferrebeekeeper tribute from spring).

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Elie Wiesel, (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016) was a Romanian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust.  His stark & simple prose detailed the atrocities he experienced in a Nazi death camp. Despite the darkness of his personal history, Wiesel was a great humanist and humanitarian.

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Edward Albee, (March 12, 1928 – September 16, 2016) was a playwright whose twisting inward-looking writings detailed the anomie of post-war American.  His plays ask probing questions about the possibility of finding true common ground in social relationships.

Bhumibol Adulyadej (December 5, 1927 – October 13, 2016) was the king of Thailand for a long time (see Ferrebeekeeper obituary).

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Mark McFarland (July 13, 1961 — November 29, 2016).  Mark and I were business partners. Together we created a line of animal building toys called”Zoomorphs.” After numerous corporate tribulations, we had a serious falling out.  Although he was tormented by dark implacable personal demons (see above), his toys delighted hundreds of thousands of children.

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John Herschel Glenn Jr. (July 18, 1921 – December 8, 2016) was an American pilot, engineer, and astronaut.  A war hero, who flew in over 122 combat missions during World War II and Korea, he was the first American to travel into Earth orbit in 1962. He later became a  United States Senator and then became the world’s oldest astronaut when he returned to space in 1998.

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Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928 – December 25, 2016) was an American astronomer who demonstrated the existence of dark matter through visionary work on galactic rotation.

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Richard Adams (May 9, 1920 – December 24, 2016) was a novelist who infused anthropomorphic fiction with zoology and naturalism (and with sociology and religion).  I have trouble with some of these concepts.  After all humans are animals too. maybe we need to revisit some of his works in future posts.

and there were so so many others–and I left a lot of people out. Sigh…good bye, 2016. We’re missing some people, but that is always the way of things. We will keep working to make it all better.

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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 Schwartzkopf (Bob Daugherty/AP)

H. Norman Schwartzkopf (Bob Daugherty/AP)

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).

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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!

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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.”

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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).

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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.

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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!”

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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.

Illustration for "Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present" (Maurice Sendak, ca. 1977)

Illustration for “Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present” (Maurice Sendak, ca. 1977)

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.

The West Coast of Ireland

The West Coast of Ireland

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.

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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!

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Good-Bye to All That

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.

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