A Tribute To The Legends We Lost In 2015
Wrestlers who embodied heroes and villains; writers who mastered comic fantasy and spare poetry; groundbreakers in journalism and politics; sports heroes; animal icons: Here are some of the notable deaths from the world of news, sports and books.
For remembrances of the musicians who died in 2015 — including B.B. King, Allen Toussaint, Scott Weiland and Jimmy Dickens — head over to NPR Music's In Memoriam 2015.
The first African-American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, died at 95. He advocated against housing discrimination and co-authored the Fair Housing Act, Scott Neuman reported.
The leader of Saudi Arabia died at 90 after a long illness.
"Abdullah, who became king in 2005, had effectively ruled Saudi Arabia since 1995, when his predecessor, King Fahd, suffered a stroke. During his reign, he drafted a plan for peace with Israel, cracked down on al-Qaida inside his country and weathered the Arab Spring that toppled long-entrenched leaders across the region," Krishnadev Calamur reported.
"Abdullah has been succeeded by Crown Prince Salman, his 79-year-old half-brother. Little is expected to change in Saudi Arabia."
New York Times media critic David Carr died suddenly at the age of 58 and was mourned by journalists across America. A few remembrances are collected here.
CBS News and 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon died at 73, in a car crash in New York City. He won 27 Emmys and four Peabody Awards and was famous for reporting from far-flung locations around the world, as Bill Chappell reported.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former U.S. poet laureate, who masterfully explored life on the factory floor and in everyday American homes, died at 87. Tom Vitale wrote a lovely remembrance. But here we'll mark Levine's death with an excerpt from his poem "Burial Rites":
... Whatever's here
is just here, and nowhere else,
so it's right to end up beside
the woman who bore me, to shovel
into the dirt whatever's left
and leave only a name for some-
one who wants it. Think of it,
my name, no longer a portion
of me, no longer inflated
or bruised, no longer stewing
in a rich compost of memory
or the simpler one of bone shards,
dirt, kitty litter, wood ashes,
the roots of the eucalyptus
I planted in '73,
a tiny me taking nothing,
giving nothing, and free at last.
The actor best-known and best-loved for playing Spock on Star Trek died at 83.
He had a complicated relationship with his defining role, as Neda Ulaby reported. He wrote a memoir called I Am Not Spock — and then a second called I Am Spock.
"Nimoy contained multitudes. He wrote a play based on the letters of Vincent van Gogh and published multiple books of poetry and photographs, including one that sensually depicted large women. And Nimoy felt a profound connection to his Jewish faith. He narrated a public radio series about Jewish music and starred in a TV movie about a real-life Auschwitz survivor who legally challenged Holocaust deniers in court," Neda wrote.
Don't miss Eric Deggans' appreciation of Spock's struggle for acceptance, Steve Haruch's personal essay on how Spock inspired as a mixed-race icon, and Alva Noe's philosophical analysis of the character.
Prolific, beloved fantasy author Terry Pratchett died at 66, after suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
"Pratchett was no stranger to death. The big guy with the scythe and the booming voice was a constant and vital presence in the Discworld books and their screen adaptations. 'HUMAN BEINGS MAKE LIFE SO INTERESTING,' Death says in Pratchett's 1996 book Hogfather, and while it's Death speaking there in his characteristic capitals, that one sentence sums up what was marvelous about Pratchett: He found human beings so interesting," Petra Mayer wrote in a remembrance.
"Few writers were as insightful and just plain good as Pratchett was at winkling out all the secret scraps of human nature and then disguising them as broad comic fantasy."
Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass, who was also an artist and sculptor, died at 87. He had been a member of the Hitler Youth movement and the Nazi Party's military police force, Tom Vitale wrote in a remembrance, and grappling with Germany's atrocities was a central theme in Grass' writing:
"It took Grass 60 years to confront his own role in the Nazi army. But at a New York Public Library event in 2007, Grass said when he became a writer, he knew right away he had to confront the sins of his country.
" 'I had to write about my time, what has happened to my generation, what has happened to my country,' he says. 'I was confronted. There was no way out.' "
Suspense writer Ruth Rendell died at 85. She wrote both under her own name and as Barbara Vine.
"What made Rendell extraordinary was her consummate simplicity," wrote book critic Maureen Corrigan. "As a writer, she was akin to the medieval artist Giotto — or at least to the apocryphal story about Giotto, who, when asked to submit a sample of his work to the pope, proceeded to dip a brush in red paint and draw a perfect circle freehand. Likewise, Rendell flawlessly executed the basic elements of the classic British detective novel."
The mathematician who revolutionized game theory, struggled with schizophrenia and inspired the film A Beautiful Mind died at 86. Sam Sanders had this remembrance:
"John Forbes Nash led a life that was equal parts groundbreaking, tragic and ultimately triumphant. ... In 1959, he began battling schizophrenia. He was hospitalized multiple times and underwent electroshock therapy. Nash battled the illness for more than two decades. ...
"By the '90s, Nash had his schizophrenia under control and several colleagues began to push for greater recognition of his work. Nash won the Nobel Prize in 1994."
Vice President Biden's older son, Beau Biden, the former attorney general of Delaware and a veteran of the war in Iraq, died at 46 of brain cancer.
At the funeral, President Obama said Beau Biden was "an original. He was a good man. A man of character. A man who loved deeply and was loved in return. ... He did in 46 years what most of us couldn't do in 146. He left nothing in the tank."
One generation knew him as Dracula; another, as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and Count Dooku in Star Wars.
Lee died at 93.
The wrestler nicknamed "The American Dream" — born Virgil Runnels — was "often a stand-in for the common man" in the WWE, Bill Chappell wrote.
He was also known for his rhyming skills, Bill says, and his signature move was the Bionic Elbow.
The 150-year-old Galapagos tortoise with the ironic name died at the San Diego Zoo, after living there for more than eight decades.
That reminded us of another Galapagos tortoise: Lonesome George, who died in 2012. Adam Cole wrote a musical remembrance for him.
You might not know his name, but you've seen his legacy: Featherstone was the man who invented the pink plastic lawn flamingo.
He and his wife also wore matching outfits for 35 years.
Featherstone was proud of his work, as he told the Leominster Champion:
"I loved what I did, it's all happy things. You have to figure, my creations were not things people needed in life, we had to make them want them. Things I did made people happy, and that's what life is all about."
The Burt behind Burt's Bees died at 80.
The company — which parted ways with Shavitz years ago but continues to use his likeness on its products — remembered him as "a wild-bearded and free-spirited Maine man."
The dark-eyed, mustachioed heartthrob died at 83, after a long career as a movie star who played an astonishing range of roles and whose popularity crossed continents, as Selena Simmons-Duffin reported:
"While to Hollywood audiences it might have seemed that Sharif appeared out of nowhere, he had actually done more than 20 black-and-white dramas in Cairo, the film capital of the Arab world. And even in his Arabic films, there's a clue he was going for international appeal: his billing. 'Omar Sharif' was not the name given to him by his well-to-do, Catholic parents.
" 'My name was Michel,' he told NPR in 2012. Michel Shalhoub, to be exact. In his memoir, he wrote about wanting an Arab-sounding name that was easy to pronounce in different languages — essential to a man who spoke not just Arabic, but also French and English."
And don't miss Eleanor Beardsley's personal remembrance — of the dinner with her girlhood crush that she never got to have.
Marlene Sanders was one of the first female reporters on television — an Emmy Award-winning trailblazer.
"Whether they know it or not, every woman in broadcast news owes a debt to Marlene Sanders," said Susan Stamberg. "With intelligence and determination, Sanders broke into what had been an all-male profession. Before the 1970s, when women entered the workplace in large numbers, Sanders began a career that involved everything from war reporting to news management."
Sanders died at 84.
As Lynn Neary noted in this remembrance, novelist E.L. Doctorow mixed fact and fiction together from his youth — including in a high school journalism class.
"As he told NPR back in 2003, he wrote a profile of a doorman at Carnegie Hall who was beloved by all the performers there. His teacher, apparently, loved the story so much, she wanted to publish the story in the school paper — so she told Doctorow to get a photo of the man.
"There was just one problem.
" 'I hadn't expected that kind of enthusiasm,' Doctorow recalled, 'and I said, well, "Not exactly, there is no Carl." I made him up.'
"Doctorow, who died of complications from lung cancer ... at the age of 84, was never meant to be the kind of guy who cared much for the old journalistic pillars of who, what, when, where, why and how. But he did love mixing some facts into his fiction. Known best for his historical novels, like Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, Doctorow often mingled fictional characters with figures from history books, in vivid and playful ways."
Cecil The Lion
The black-maned, 13-year-old lion who was popular with visitors to Zimbabwe was shot and killed by an American dentist, sparking an uproar.
On our 13.7 blog, Barbara King defended the outcry over Cecil's death against those who argued that energy spent mourning the lion would be better spent thinking about human suffering.
"Cecil was a lion beloved by tourists and tracked by scientists at Oxford University," she wrote in part. "His life as an individual animal was important, full stop."
NPR book critic Alan Cheuse, who was on the air nearly every week for decades, died at 75, after a car accident. Susan Stamberg noted in a remembrance:
"Who ever read as much as Alan did? When he wasn't reading, he was teaching ... and when he wasn't reading and teaching, he was writing. Five novels, novellas, short stories, textbooks.
"It's a miracle that he found time for the solitude and concentration that writing demands: He was at the center of literary life in Washington, D.C., and a truly loving husband, father, and grandfather. But Alan did manage to do it all. ... He was a wonderful, caring, funny friend, full of stories and totally apt literary quotations."
WWE star "Rowdy" Roddy Piper died at 61. He was cast as a trash-talking villain, and famous for a feud with Hulk Hogan, as Christopher Dean Hopkins reported:
"Despite being born in Canada, he usually appeared in a kilt, and often played the bagpipes.
"He went on to star in the John Carpenter horror film They Live, the AP notes, in which he delivered the classic line, 'I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass — and I'm all out of bubblegum.' "
As a medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey stood up to a massive drug company to block the approval of the drug thalidomide, saving children from devastating birth defects.
She died at 101.
Civil rights activist and anti-war campaigner Julian Bond died at 75. He played a major role in the 1963 March on Washington, among other historic civil rights protests, as Scott Neuman wrote.
Debbie Elliot reported that Bond wasn't just a historic figure: He was very much a part of the present — continuing to speak out against inequality, including bias based on sexual orientation.
The beloved neurologist and author died at 82. His talent for writing opened many doors for him, as Jon Hamilton recounted:
"Both of his parents were doctors, and Sacks himself went to medical school at Oxford. But when results of the final anatomy exam were posted, Sacks saw he had scored near the bottom.
"So he went to a local pub. After four or five hard ciders, Sacks headed back to school and asked to take an optional essay exam to compete for the university prize in anatomy. By that time, the exam had already started.
" 'So Oliver literally staggered into this room with about 15 or 20 students busily writing into their blue books and asked the professor if he could take the essay exam,' [Sacks' colleague Orrin] Devinsky says. 'And the professor looked at him kind of like: Are you sure you are in the right place?'
"He was. Even though Sacks arrived late and left early, his essay on brain structure and function won the university prize."
Don't miss Fresh Air's remembrance, or the tribute from Radiolab.
The master of horror — with a deft comedic touch — died at 76. NPR's Neda Ulaby reported on all the nightmares he provoked:
"He was called the Sultan of Shock and the Guru of Gore: Wes Craven, who died Sunday, directed dozens of now-classic horror movies, including A Nightmare on Elm Street and all of the Scream films. ...
"It was an improbable career for a guy born in Ohio to a family of fundamentalist Baptists, the kind that rejected popular culture — no comic books, no dancing and certainly no movies. Craven grew up to study philosophy, teach literature and eventually become enthralled by art house movies like those of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman."
Yogi Berra was famous for his aphorisms: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." "It ain't over 'til it's over." But beyond his folk wisdom, he was a spectacular baseball player, as Jim O'Grady recalled:
"Yogi Berra was a catcher. Baseball people call a catcher's equipment — shinguards, chest protector and mask — the tools of ignorance. The implication is only dumb guys play the position, guys who get dumber with every foul ball that ricochets off their head. But former Yankees executive Marty Appel says when it comes to Yogi Berra, that just ain't right. ... 'In terms of baseball, he was a genius,' [Appel said].
"A catcher calls the pitches. A catcher controls the game. ... Many observers of the game say Yogi is the best catcher in baseball history."
The best-selling author died at 77 of breast cancer.
"Her books are orgies of sex and wealth and violence, but they're also funny and transgressive and told a lot of girls that it's OK to like sex," Annalisa Quinn told Linda Wertheimer. "Her motto was girls can do anything. And that didn't just apply to sexual empowerment, but it also applied to being a mob boss or knowing how to shoot a gun."
"In a lot of ways, Jackie Collins lived her life like a Jackie Collins heroine," Annalisa said.
The red-haired, green-eyed Queen of Technicolor — star of The Quiet Man and How Green Was My Valley — died at the age of 95, as Jackie Lyden reported:
"Born Maureen FitzSimons in Dublin on Aug. 17, 1920, she loved singing Irish songs and even helped write the lyrics to 'The Isle of Innisfree,' the theme song from The Quiet Man, the film she was best-known for.
"She had a way with Irish sayings, as well as a way with John Wayne, her most celebrated co-star."
He might not have been a household name for most of America, but for radio fans in Washington, D.C., he was a star — the host, for decades, of a Sunday-night show featuring dramas from the golden age of radio.
He signed off for the last time in October and died just hours after his last broadcast aired.
The chain-smoking former chancellor of West Germany led his nation into economic prosperity — and along the way, helped shape modern Europe, as Bill Chappell explained:
"In response to the oil crisis of the early 1970s, Schmidt worked with French leaders to set into motion the monetary system that today unites the economies of the European Union."
As Neda Ulaby noted in her remembrance of the American artist, who died at the age of 92:
"He boiled shadows and shapes down into abstractions — monochromes, just one strong, pure, bright color. Kelly said that came from his boyhood in New Jersey surrounded by nature.
" 'I've always been a colorist,' he said. 'I think I started when I was very young, being a bird-watcher fascinated by the bird colors.'
"The way Kelly used colors made them feel almost alive. Just to face a giant red rectangle by Ellsworth Kelly is to come to red in a fresh and profound way."
RIP Ellsworth Kelly. You inspired us. #NPRlife pic.twitter.com/ZBBQP8QJAf— Ted Robbins (@ted_therobbins) December 28, 2015
This is only a sample of NPR's remembrances from the year; they are all compiled here.