Remembering some of those we lost in 2021, from literary legends to everyday heroes
It started with an insurrection and ended with a new coronavirus variant spreading like wildfire. In between was a year of tremendous loss.
From titans of arts, politics, sports and science to lesser-known people whose lives made an impact, too, here is a roundup of NPR coverage of some of the deaths of people who helped shape our world, in ways both great and small.
Police officers who responded to the Jan. 6 riots
On Jan. 6, hundreds of people broke through police lines and stormed the U.S. Capitol. Five officers who responded to the attacks died in the days and months that followed: Brian Sicknick, Howard Liebengood, Jeffrey Smith, Gunther Hashida and Kyle DeFreytag.
Sicknick collapsed at the Capitol on the night of Jan. 6 and was transported to a hospital where he died the next day. He was 42 and a military veteran who had served in the Capitol Police for 12 years. The medical examiner found that he died of natural causes after suffering strokes. Sicknick received the rare distinction of lying in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.
Howard Liebengood died by suicide three days after responding to the attacks. He was 51 and was a 15-year veteran of the U.S. Capitol Police. About a week after the attacks, Jeffrey Smith, a 12-year veteran of the Metropolitan Police, died by suicide at 35. Later in the year, Metropolitan Police officers Gunther Hashida, 43, and Kyle DeFreytag, 26, also died by suicide.
Brian Sicknick (July 1978-Jan. 7, 2021)
Howard Liebengood (March 1969-Jan. 9, 2021)
Jeffrey Smith (April 1985-Jan. 15, 2021)
Kyle DeFreytag (October 1994-July 10, 2021)
Gunther Hashida (August 1977-July 29, 2021)
Hank Aaron (Feb. 5, 1934-Jan. 22, 2021)
Baseball player, civil rights advocate and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Hank Aaron was 86 when he died. Known as "Hammerin' Hank" and born in segregated Alabama, Aaron started his career with the Milwaukee Braves, broke Babe Ruth's home run record in 1974 — facing threats and hate mail — and went on to hit 755 home runs during his professional career before retiring two years later. He inspired people to pursue excellence in their lives and provided grants and scholarships to young people in the 1990s through his philanthropy, Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation. The MLB introduced its award for the best offensive player — the Hank Aaron Award — in 1999, 25 years after he broke Ruth's record.
Cicely Tyson (Dec. 19, 1924-Jan. 28, 2021)
Known for her positive and strong portrayals of Black women, Cicely Tyson inspired generations of African American actors. The model and actress of film, theater and television died at 96. The Harlem-born Tyson appeared in movies such as Sounder and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, for which she won two of her three Emmy Awards. She was also named to the Television Hall of Fame in 2020. In 2013, at the age of 88, Tyson won a Tony Award for her performance in The Trip to Bountiful. Listen to an interview with Tyson on All Things Considered, which aired shortly before her death.
SOPHIE (Sept. 17, 1986-Jan. 30, 2021)
SOPHIE, a musician and producer of electronic dance music, transformed underground dance music by melding house, techno, trance and pop. She was 34 when she died after an accidental fall. Born in Scotland and based in Los Angeles, "SOPHIE, who was transgender, also sat at the crest of a new wave of LGBTQ+ electronic producers that flouted societal norms regarding gender, identity and the status quo," as NPR's Otis Hart wrote. Her career took off in 2013 with the release of her song "Bipp," followed by another single, "Lemonade," in 2014. She had released a new single, "UNISIL," shortly before she died.
Chick Corea (June 12, 1941-Feb. 9, 2021 )
Chick Corea, a monumental figure in contemporary jazz, died at 79 from a rare cancer. The pianist — whose work spanned fusion to classical — won 23 Grammy Awards, as well as two posthumously, and was nominated a total of 67 times. He released more than 100 albums throughout his career, and among his most popular compositions are "Spain" and "500 Miles High" from 1973. An announcement of his death on social media included his own words: "My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly — this has been the richness of my life." Watch his Tiny Desk Concert.
Rush Limbaugh (Jan. 12, 1951-Feb. 17, 2021)
Rush Limbaugh, the pioneering conservative broadcaster with millions of listeners, died at 70 after a battle with lung cancer. On his three-hour weekday radio show, Limbaugh shared his opinions on the news and promoted conservative priorities, as well as conspiracy theories. As NPR's David Folkenflik wrote, he was "an influencer before the age of social media" and, as such, was courted by top Republicans, including both Presidents Bush. In February 2020, President Donald Trump awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union address.
Vernon Jordan (Aug. 15, 1935-March 1, 2021)
Vernon Jordan, a civil rights lawyer who devoted himself to ending discrimination against Black Americans and later made his mark on the worlds of politics and business, died at 85. After earning a law degree at Howard University, Jordan embarked on a career fighting for equal rights, playing a key role in desegregating education in the South. As a field director of the Georgia NAACP, he escorted Charlayne Hunter through a crowd of white protesters at the University of Georgia when she became one of the first Black students at the school. He also served as head of the National Urban League and the United Negro College Fund. Tapped to be chairman of President Bill Clinton's transition team from 1992-93, Jordan continued to be a friend and adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton for decades. Listen to a 2008 interview with Jordan on Tell Me More.
Allan McDonald (July 9, 1937-March 6, 2021)
In 1986, Allan McDonald — who died at 83 — was at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to, in his words, "approve or disapprove" the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. McDonald believed the launch was too risky and refused to sign the order, but he and his team of engineers were forced to approve the launch under intense pressure from their employer, NASA contractor Morton Thiokol, which itself was under pressure from the space agency. Later in his life, McDonald spoke to engineering students, engineers and managers as an advocate of ethical decision-making.
Victims of the March 16 Atlanta spa shootings
On March 16, eight people were killed in a series of shootings at Atlanta-area spas. Six of the victims were women of Asian descent who worked at the spas — Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Yong Ae Yue, 63; spa owner Xiaojie "Emily" Tan, 49; and Feng Daoyou, 44. Delaina Yaun, 33, and Paul Michels, 54, were also killed.
Feng Daoyou had lived in the U.S. for about five years, with no next of kin or close friends here. People she had never met volunteered to organize her funeral. She worked 15-hour workdays as a beautician and sent money home to support her mother in China. Her brother described her to NPR as tough, and someone who never gave up. Read more about the other victims.
Delaina Yaun (July 20, 1987-March 16, 2021)
Xiaojie Tan (March 18, 1971-March 16, 2021)
Feng Daoyou (Jan. 11, 1977-March 16, 2021)
Hyun Jung Grant (May 1969-March 16, 2021)
Soon Chung Park (Unknown-March 16, 2021)
Paul Andre Michels (April 1966-March 16, 2021)
Yong Ae Yue (July 1957-March 16, 2021)
Suncha Kim (Unknown-March 16, 2021)
Beverly Cleary (April 12, 1916-March 25, 2021)
In 1999, children's author Beverly Cleary told NPR that she wanted to write about kids in her own neighborhood — normal, everyday kids. And she did just that when she created classic characters such as Henry Huggins, Ralph S. Mouse and, of course, Ramona Quimby. Even with modern distractions of games, music and movies, children still find comfort in her books decades later. "I don't think children have changed that much," said Clearly, who died at 104. "It's the world that has changed." Listen to Cleary's 2006 interview with All Things Considered.
Hester Ford (Aug. 15, 1904 or 1905-April 17, 2021)
The oldest living person in America — Hester Ford — was at least 115, but some records indicate she was possibly 116, when she died at her home Charlotte, N.C. Ford saw 21 people become president and lived through the Great Depression, both World Wars, Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Ford never thought she would see a Black man elected as president. For her 111th birthday, Barack and Michelle Obama sent her a letter telling her she has "witnessed the best of what our nation can accomplish when we work together in pursuit of a brighter tomorrow."
Michael Collins (Oct. 31, 1930-April 28, 2021)
Michael Collins was one of the three astronauts on Apollo 11, the first lunar landing mission in 1969. He is often called the "forgotten astronaut" because he never walked on the moon, unlike Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. He died at 90 after a battle with cancer. As NPR's Russell Lewis described it, Collins "circled the moon, looking down at the barren lunar landscape and peering back at the Earth" as Aldrin and Armstrong bunny-hopped across the lunar surface. "The thing I remember most is the view of planet Earth from a great distance," Collins said. "Tiny. Very shiny. Blue and white. Bright. Beautiful. Serene and fragile." Listen to Fresh Air's 1988 interview with Collins.
Eric Carle (June 25, 1929-May 23, 2021)
Eric Carle, who died at 91, created what is probably one of the best known and beloved insects: the Very Hungry Caterpillar. He was born to German immigrants in Syracuse, N.Y., where he recalls a childhood filled with art and nature. The family returned to Nazi Germany when he was 6, which made a deep impression on him, he told NPR in 2011. He didn't start illustrating children's books until he was 40, but created more than 70 books throughout his career. Of his most famous book, Carle said that it's a story of hope. "Children need hope," he said. "You, little insignificant caterpillar, can grow up into a beautiful butterfly and fly into the world with your talent. Will I ever be able to do that? Yes, you will. I think that is the appeal of that book." Listen to Carle's 2007 interview with All Things Considered.
Donald Rumsfeld (July 9, 1932-June 29, 2021)
Donald Rumsfeld, who died at 88, served twice as U.S. secretary of defense, and held the distinction of being both the youngest and oldest person to lead the Defense Department. Rumsfeld is remembered for being a key architect of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which spanned decades, as part of his post-Sept. 11 strategy. When photos of U.S. troops' abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison surfaced, Rumsfeld said he offered to quit twice, but President George W. Bush wanted him to stay on. Rumsfeld resigned as defense secretary in 2006. Listen to Rumsfeld's interview with Morning Edition in 2002.
Danish Siddiqui (May 19, 1983-July 16, 2021)
Danish Siddiqui, a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer, was embedded with Afghan special forces when he, along with a senior Afghan officer, died after coming under Taliban fire. Siddiqui, who was 38, had worked for Reuters since 2010. His work covering the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh won journalism's top prize in 2018. He also photographed the war in Iraq, the 2019-2020 Hong Kong pro-democracy protests and the 2015 Nepal earthquakes.
Neal Conan (Nov. 26, 1949-Aug. 10, 2021)
Neal Conan, longtime NPR journalist, died at 71 of glioblastoma. Conan was the host of NPR's daily call-in radio show, Talk of the Nation, for more than a decade, and spent a total of 36 years at the network as a line producer and executive producer of All Things Considered, news director and reporter. In the final days of the Gulf War in 1991, while reporting from southern Iraq in the U.S. battle to liberate Kuwait, he was captured by the Iraqi Republican Guard and held hostage for a week, along with a reporter from The New York Times. When Talk of the Nation was canceled, he moved to Hawaii to become a macadamia nut farmer. But he continued to be involved in radio, as a commentator on Hawaii Public Radio's Pacific News Minute. Listen to Fresh Air remember Neal Conan.
Sonny Chiba (Jan. 23, 1939-Aug. 19, 2021)
Sonny Chiba, an actor and martial arts legend, died at 82 from COVID-19 complications. Chiba, who had a long career in Japanese film and TV, gained international popularity through roles in The Street Fighter, the Kill Bill series and The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift. He also formed the Japan Action Club and trained stunt workers and aspiring martial arts actors.
Patricia Maginnis (June 9, 1928-Aug. 30, 2021)
Patricia Maginnis advocated for abortion rights years before Roe v. Wade, a position that is mainstream today but radical during her time. Maginnis, who died at 93, passed out leaflets on how to induce abortion at home and compiled a list of abortion providers outside the U.S., even providing tips on how to travel to Mexico. In her living room, artist Andrea Bowers recalled, Maginnis had "stacks and stacks, almost like towers, of the plastic shopping bags with letters in them" — from people in the 1960s desperately seeking information about abortion.
Yolanda López (Nov. 1, 1942-Sept. 3, 2021)
Yolanda López, a Mexican American artist, died at 78 of cancer just weeks before her first museum solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. The exhibit features 50 of her pieces from the late 1970s to '80s, including one of her best known pieces, the Virgen de Guadalupe triptych. The work "catapulted a young López into the vanguard of feminist art," NPR's Vanessa Romo wrote, and remains one of her best-known pieces.
Colin Powell (April 5, 1937-Oct. 18, 2021)
Colin Powell rose through the ranks of the U.S. military to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush and secretary of state under President George W. Bush — the first Black person to serve in those senior posts. He died at 84 from COVID-19 complications. During the first Gulf War, he became known for the "Powell doctrine," his strategy of employing overwhelming military force against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's forces. A decade later at the United Nations, he forcefully argued for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which turned out to be based on flawed intelligence. He inspired many and left a lasting and complicated legacy. Listen to Powell's 2011 interview with Morning Edition.
Julie Green (Sept. 22, 1961-Oct. 12, 2021)
Julie Green, an artist known for her project painting the last meals of death row inmates, died at 60. Over a span of decades, Green painted hundreds of plates — including a stuffed-crust meat lover's pizza, an apple pie and shrimp — in "The Last Supper" project. "For me, a final meal request humanizes death row," Green said in a 2020 statement. "Menus provide clues on region, race and economic background." Later, the Oregon State University art professor started a second project, documenting the first meals prisoners ate after exoneration.
Petra Mayer (Nov. 30, 1974-Nov. 13, 2021)
Petra Mayer, a books editor on NPR's Culture desk, shared her love for books with listeners and readers through her sci-fi, fantasy, romance, thrillers and comics reviews and her annual recommendations on NPR's Book Concierge. She died just shy of her 47th birthday. "She was the best and rarest species of nerd, whose enthusiasm was eager and sincere and open and inviting," tweeted Glen Weldon, an NPR culture critic and a host of the network's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. "She wanted you to love the stuff she loved, and supplied you hard, incontrovertible evidence to support her thesis."
Ian Fishback (Jan. 19, 1979-Nov 19. 2021)
Retired Special Forces Maj. Ian Fishback was a whistleblower on torture by the U.S. military who graduated at the top of his class at West Point. He died at 42, broke and medicated with antipsychotic drugs in an adult foster care center as family and friends sought mental health care for him. Fishback was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. In Iraq, he saw troops using "enhanced interrogation" tactics such as breaking prisoners' bones, and began protesting up the chain of command. Fishback later met with Sen. John McCain, who was tortured during the Vietnam War, and many other members of Congress, meetings that were credited with helping to pass McCain's Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reported. Fishback's sister said he stood by doing "what's right regardless of the cost" his entire life.
Stephen Sondheim (March 22, 1930-Nov. 26, 2021)
Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim died at 91. In his remarkable six-decade career, he won a Pulitzer Prize and eight Tony Awards. As a teenager, Sondheim learned about theatrical songwriting from Oscar Hammerstein. At 27, he had his first show on Broadway: West Side Story. The lyricist and composer's storied body of work includes Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Company, Pacific Overtures, Into the Woods and Assassins. Listen to Fresh Air remember Sondheim in a three-part series.
Lee Elder (July 14, 1934-Nov. 28, 2021)
Lee Elder made history and broke racial barriers in 1975 as the first Black golfer to play at the Masters tournament. During his career, he faced blatant racial discrimination, both on and off the course, including death threats against himself and his family. Elder, who died at 87, would go on to play at the Masters another five times and win four PGA Tour events and eight PGA Championship titles on the 50-and-older senior circuit.
Virgil Abloh (Sept. 30, 1980-Nov. 28, 2021)
Virgil Abloh was the artistic director for Louis Vuitton menswear and founder of the label Off-White. He died at 41 after a private battle with cardiac angiosarcoma, an aggressive cancer. He kept creating and designing even after his diagnosis and through treatments. His luxury streetwear label Off-White, created in 2012, found major success and was worn by Rihanna, A$AP Rocky, Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
Bob Dole (July 22, 1923-Dec. 5, 2021)
Bob Dole, a longtime Senate Republican leader and the party's presidential nominee in 1996, died at 98. Dole was part of the World II generation in Congress and lost the use of his right arm after serving in a combat division in Italy. He went on to law school to become a public prosecutor, state legislator, representative and U.S. senator. He served more than three decades as a lawmaker from Kansas and worked on behalf of veterans and Americans with disabilities during his tenure. He received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2018, and President Biden remembered him as "a giant of our history."
Masayuki Uemura (June 20, 1943-Dec. 6, 2021)
Masayuki Uemura, who died at 78, was the lead architect of the gaming console that dominated the home video game industry in the 1980s and '90s: the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. With classic games like Super Mario and Donkey Kong, the NES ended up selling more than 60 million units globally.
Lina Wertmüller (Aug. 14, 1928-Dec. 9, 2021)
Lina Wertmüller, an Italian filmmaker, was the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar in directing, for her 1976 film Seven Beauties. She was known for her fun, extravagant films, though they weren't without criticism. Several of them feature violence between men and women, such as Swept Away from 1974. Wertmüller, who died at 93, left her mark on world cinema through her focus on fascism, sex, anarchy and love.
Vicente 'Chente' Fernández (Feb. 17, 1940-Dec. 12, 2021)
Vicente Fernández was considered the last living legend of Mexican ranchera, a style of music rooted in the traditions of rural Mexican life. He released dozens of albums and won three Grammys, performing in large arenas as well as bullrings and cockfight pits. Accompanied by a full mariachi ensemble, Fernández, who died at 81, sang about honor and courtship, cockfights and rodeos, love and heartbreak. He was an icon for Mexican immigrants to the U.S. and around the world, his music transporting them to "the ranches and towns they'd reluctantly left behind in search of opportunity abroad," as NPR's Adrian Florido wrote.
bell hooks (Sept. 25, 1952-Dec. 15, 2021)
In 1981, bell hooks published what would become a foundational feminist text, Ain't I A Woman? In it, she laid out how racism, sexism and classism oppressed Black women. The author, critic and activist — who died in her Kentucky home at 69 — included a sense of hope in all of her works. "Because obviously, if we only fixate on any form of oppression or any pain, then we really lose sight of the totality of who we are," hooks told NPR. "We're always more than our pain." Listen to hooks' 2000 interview with All Things Considered. And read more about her legacy and how colleagues remember her.
Joan Didion (Dec. 5, 1934-Dec. 23, 2021)
The essayist and journalist Joan Didion, who died at 87 from Parkinson's disease, wrote about grief, pain, American truths and politics for more than six decades. She was "a chronicler of cultural truths and fictions," NPR's Susan Stamberg wrote. Didion documented her husband's death in her book The Year Of Magical Thinking and her daughter's death in Blue Nights. "I, myself, have always found that if I examine something, it's less scary," Didion said. "And that's kind of the way I feel about confronting pain." Read and listen to more of NPR's coverage of Didion's wide-ranging work.
Desmond Tutu (Oct. 7, 1931-Dec. 26, 2021)
Desmond Tutu, who died at 90, was "a towering figure who helped bring an end to apartheid in South Africa," as NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton wrote. In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for that work. Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa, asked Tutu to chair the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look into the crimes of apartheid. Tutu wept with the survivors, but told Morning Edition in a 2010 interview that the experience never shook his faith in God. The archbishop emeritus of Cape Town was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997 and was successfully treated, but was in and out of the hospital for infection related to the cancer in later years.
E.O. Wilson (June 10, 1929-Dec. 26, 2021)
Known as "the ant man" for his studies on ant behavior, E.O. Wilson was a biologist, environmental activist, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Harvard professor. He also pioneered the field of sociobiology, which grew out of his interest in the intersection between human behavior and genetics. As an environmentalist, Wilson — who was 92 when he died — advocated setting aside half of the Earth as wilderness, among other measures. He wrote more than 30 books, won two Pulitzer Prizes and scientific prizes such as the U.S. National Medal of Science and the Crafoord Prize.
The staggering number of lives lost to COVID-19
At the end of 2020, the U.S. was grieving the loss of nearly 400,000 people to COVID-19. In 2021, that number continued to skyrocket, fueled by the delta variant earlier in the year and then further ignited by the omicron variant. The number of deaths more than doubled in 2021, to 800,000 and rising, at the end of December. Learn about more than 200 of the people who died through the remembrances of their loved ones collected by NPR and member stations.
Tien Le is an intern on NPR's News Desk. Candice Vo Kortkamp, Barclay Walsh and Will Chase provided research assistance.