Decades after taking mankind’s first moon walk, Neil Armstrong observed, “We all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily lives.”
Armstrong’s life — as test pilot, Apollo astronaut, engineer, professor — was extraordinarily full. His death in August places him high on a list of notables who passed away in 2012. They are a collection of men, women, and children who will long be remembered for their contributions to science, medicine, politics, world affairs, business, sports, the arts, or simply for their enduring spirit.
Americans saluted another pioneering astronaut, Sally Ride , the nation’s first woman in space, who died in July. Also mourned were four widely respected members of the US Senate: South Dakota’s George McGovern , the Democratic Party’s 1972 presidential candidate; Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, a World War II hero who played a pivotal role in national affairs for half a century; and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter and New Hampshire’s Warren Rudman, two legislators known for their bipartisan approach to Capitol Hill politics.
Three men died whose fame, intentional or not, stemmed from some of recent history’s ugliest times: Nixon White House aide Charles Colson, a key figure in the Watergate scandal; Los Angeles police beating victim Rodney King, an unwitting symbol of racial intolerance; and Nicholas Katzenbach, who as attorney general provided legal support to the 1960s civil-rights movement. The country also paused just last week to salute Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, a decorated combat veteran who commanded American-led forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
In a historic year — a century after the Titanic’s sinking and Fenway Park’s opening, 200 years after the War of 1812 — scores of memorable local deaths were recorded, from the charismatic mayor who inspired a city to a controversial college president to the voice of a “Nation.”
Former Boston mayor Kevin White was a visionary chief executive who transformed the city’s waterfront and financial districts during his four terms in office; also passing was onetime gubernatorial candidate John Silber, a polarizing figure who led Boston University into the academic big leagues while serving as president and chancellor for 32 years.
Fond remembrances were spoken, too, for Bruce Bolling , the first African-American to head the Boston City Council; Massachusetts Port Authority chief Dave Davis, who expanded Logan Airport in the 1970s and ’80s; Joseph Early, long-serving US congressman from Worcester; Thomas O’Connor, historian and beloved Boston College professor; Joseph Murray, the Nobel laureate and surgeon whose work opened the frontier for organ transplants, saving hundreds of thousands of lives; and political scientist James Q. Wilson, formulator of the innovative “broken windows” theory of criminology.
Also passing on were Theatre Company of Boston founder David Wheeler, and 6-year-old pediatric cancer patient Avalanna Routh , the Merrimac girl affectionately known as “Mrs. (Justin) Bieber.”
Two distinct voices left us that were as much a part of the Boston scene as any: longtime WBZ broadcaster Dave Maynard, and Fenway Park public address announcer Carl Beane, a calming conduit for Red Sox Nation.
Among those departing the world stage in 2012 were former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, who served two eventful terms in office, 1983-84 and 1988-92; former Cambodian monarch Norodom Sihanouk, who held a variety of political titles after his country gained its independence from France in 1953; Korean evangelist and business mogul Sun Myung Moon, the self-professed messiah and founder of the Unification Church; and England’s Florence Green, the last living World War I veteran, who died in February at age 110. Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, perished in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi.
For music lovers, 2012 marked the passing of numerous artists and entrepreneurs whose legacies are secure. “American Bandstand” host Dick Clark helped popularize rock
’n’ roll and became a familiar, and now sorely missed, presence on televised New Year’s Eve celebrations. Pop superstar Whitney Houston, Boston’s own disco queen Donna Summer, and blues diva Etta James all earned accolades for their hip-shaking way with a song. Country music flourished in the nimble hands of Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson. Drummer and vocalist Levon Helm of the Band, and hip-hop star Adam Yauch, also known as Beastie Boy “MCA,” sounded their final notes as well.
Classical music buffs rose to applaud the careers of contemporary composer Elliott Carter, violinist and teacher Roman Totenberg, and vocal artist Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. “A Chorus Line” score composer Marvin Hamlisch was a favorite of pop-music fans, millions of whom also dug the great jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.
Hollywood bade goodbye to many leading lights in 2012. One of its brightest stars was actor-producer-singer Andy Griffith, whose portrayal of a small-town Southern sheriff made his eponymous TV sitcom a family-viewing favorite in the 1960s and in syndication for years beyond.
Also mourned were Ben Gazzara, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Klugman and Charles Durning, versatile actors who appeared in dozens of memorable movie, TV, and stage roles, as did Oscar-winning actress Celeste Holm. Comedienne Phyllis Diller was no conventional beauty, perhaps, yet her brassy, self-deprecating brand of humor paved the way for countless other funny ladies who came along.
In literary circles, tributes to Nora Ephron, the Queen of Quips, portrayed her as a witty essayist and award-winning screenwriter with a gift for poking fun at herself. Elsewhere in the world of letters, glowing panegyrics were penned for Gore Vidal, whose essays, novels, plays, and screenplays sometimes shocked but seldom failed to entertain; and for science-fiction and horror master Ray Bradbury, who wrote “Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles,” and other classic stories and novels.
Also mourned were author-illustrator Maurice Sendak, best known for his imaginative children’s tale “Where the Wild Things Are,’’ author and political activist Carlos Fuentes, whose books include “The Old Gringo,” and a pair of public intellectuals, poet-essayist Adrienne Rich and cultural historian Jacques Barzun, who helped shape the literary times in which they lived.
In a rapidly changing media universe, old-school journalistic talents are still valued by discerning news consumers. For them, 2012 brought many significant deaths, among them the passing of Mike Wallace, a founding member of CBS’s “60 Minutes” crew, who personified tough-minded broadcast journalism. Also, Arthur Sulzberger, whose tenure as publisher and chief executive of The New York Times spanned 34 years of unprecedented expansion and innovation for his family-owned newspaper. (The New York Times Co. owns The Boston Globe.)
Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, a former Boston Globe reporter, died in Syria doing what he did best: covering a dangerous, complicated story with uncommon courage and reportorial insight, traits shared by two other fearless journalists whose obituaries were published — war correspondent Marie Colvin and photojournalist Horst Faas.
Sports fans, too, absorbed their share of losses off the field. During his 73 years in baseball as player, coach, manager, broadcaster, and franchise icon, Boston Red Sox lifer Johnny Pesky embodied professionalism at its highest level. Baseball Hall of Fame catcher Gary “the Kid” Carter died far too young, at 57. All-Pro football player Junior Seau, a standout linebacker for the San Diego Chargers and later the New England Patriots, took his own life at 43, sparking a discussion about the long-term consequences of sports-related head injuries.
For the late Alex Karras, a rugged competitor on the gridiron, life after pro football included acting in such comedies as “Blazing Saddles.” More complicated were the legacies left by Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, whose icon status was stained by a child-abuse scandal that happened on his watch; and by Marvin Miller, the hard-bargaining baseball labor leader who reaped riches for his players yet downplayed the sport’s growing steroid problem.
Also toasted last year for their impact on the worlds of style, fashion, publishing, and popular art were muscle-car designer Carroll Shelby, celebrity hair stylist Vidal Sassoon, prolific portraitist LeRoy Neiman, and Cosmopolitan magazine editor Helen Gurley Brown, whose 1962 best-selling book “Sex and the Single Girl” caused a sensation by championing the sexual liberation of young unmarried women in the postwar era.
The world would certainly be a duller place without its myriad inventors and innovators. Entering history’s ledger last year were many who changed how modern society lives, works, and plays: Eugene Polley (wireless TV remote control); Joseph Woodland (bar code); Victor Poor (Intel computer chip); Robert Ledley (CT scanner); William House (cochlear implant); William Moggridge (laptop computer); Bryce Bayer (digital-camera filter); John Silva (helicopter TV camera); Willis Whitfield (clean room); and John Hoffman (Energy Star program). Also, Jim Drake (windsurfing); Tom Sims (snowboard); Howard Scott (LP vinyl record); Byron Donzis (football flak jacket); Bob Smith (ski goggle); Jim Marshall (music amplifier); Steve Kordek (pinball machine); Norman Sas (electric football game); Samuel Glazer (Mr. Coffee machine); and Chaleo Yoovidhya (Red Bull energy drink).
Our fallen heroes, men and women in uniform, will never be forgotten for making the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. And finally, the December shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., focused a painful spotlight on all of the nation’s victims of gun violence.
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.