A look back at 2011’s notable departures

Among those who died was Apple’s Steve Jobs.
Among those who died was Apple’s Steve Jobs.

In a 2005 speech at Stanford University, Apple Inc. cofounder Steve Jobs, who had recently undergone cancer treatment, referred to death as “life’s change agent.’’ Everyone’s time is limited, he said, “so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.’’

Over the ensuing six years, Jobs introduced a series of technologically sophisticated, elegantly designed products that revolutionized how information is communicated and consumed. His death in October, at age 56, prompted an outpouring of tributes. Jobs was among a long list of notables who died in 2011, men and women whose talents shaped the times in which they lived and whose impact on history and culture may well be remembered for generations.

The world community mourned many whose courage and vision inspired hope for the future. Czech leader Vaclav Havel, a renowned playwright and essayist, helped launch the Velvet Revolution that brought multiparty democracy to his homeland. Soviet dissident Yelena Bonner made human rights her life’s work. Kenya’s Wangari Maathai earned a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts on behalf of conservation and women’s rights.


Their exemplary legacies contrasted sharply with those of three others whose deaths made headlines last year: terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, architect of the 9/11 attacks; Lybia’s iron-fisted leader Moammar Khadafy, finally overthrown by his own people; and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, whose government ranked among the world’s most repressive.

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In America, where political divisions often seem intractable, eulogies were delivered for many public servants who contributed to the common good. Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver led the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty before serving as his the Democratic Party’s 1972 vice presidential candidate. Though married to a president, Betty Ford spoke candidly of her personal struggles and changed the national conversation about breast cancer and addiction. As a congresswoman and vice presidential nominee, Geraldine Ferraro opened doors for countless women who followed in her political footsteps.

Warren Christopher helped negotiate the 1981 release of Americans held hostage in Iran, one of many acts that garnered him bipartisan respect as a lawyer, diplomat, and presidential adviser. The civil rights movement lost a towering hero in Baptist minister Fred Shuttlesworth, cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Before the cause was widely embraced, Frank Kameny devoted his life to legal equality for gays and lesbians. Also in the forefront of social change was medical pathologist Jack Kevorkian, an outspoken advocate for assisted suicide.

In 2011, Hollywood bade goodbye to Elizabeth Taylor, whose larger-than-life career cast her as child star, voluptuous actress, AIDS activist, and pop culture phenomenon; to Sidney Lumet, film director of classics like “12 Angry Men’’ and “Network’’; to rugged actor James Arness, star of TV western “Gunsmoke’’; and to Peter Falk, whose portrayal of a rumpled but resourceful detective on TV’s “Columbo’’ earned him millions of fans.

Beloved, too, for his curmudgeonly persona was Andy Rooney, whose “60 Minutes’’ commentaries made him a household name. Journalists toasted a pair of celebrated newspapermen, Tom Wicker and David Broder, who combined shoe-leather reporting with erudite opinion. Essayist Christopher Hitchens challenged conventional wisdom with relish, whether his subject was politics, religion, or literary reputation.


Broadway dimmed its lights for playwright Lanford Wilson, who chronicled the socially marginalized in such acclaimed works as “The Hot L Baltimore’’ and “Fifth of July.’’ Music lovers grieved the passing of Amy Winehouse, the troubled singer-songwriter whose death at age 27 cut short a promising career. Sounding their last notes, too, were country music legend Charlie Louvin, saxophonist and E Street Band stalwart Clarence Clemons, jazz virtuosos George Shearing and Paul Motian, songwriter Jerry Leiber, rapper Heavy D, and bluesman Pinetop Perkins.

The art world paid tribute to a trio whose influence will long be felt. Cy Twombly’s calligraphic paintings defied easy categorization yet ranked among their era’s most important works. Helen Frankenthaler’s lyrical approach to color and shape opened up new vistas in abstract expressionism. Figurative painter Lucian Freud’s portraits were masterpieces of psychological insight.

In 2011, sports fans cheered a number of champions who passed into the history books. Baseball lost two all-time sluggers in Hall of Famers Duke Snider and Harmon Killebrew. Manager Dick Williams piloted the 1967 “Impossible Dream’’ Boston Red Sox, a franchise Lou Gorman later ably served as general manager. Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis played a key role in modernizing the National Football League.

Norway’s Grete Waitz won a remarkable nine New York City Marathons. Heavywight boxing champ Joe Frazier, an Olympic gold medalist, and Spain’s Seve Ballesteros, holder of five golf major titles, helped popularize their respective sports around the globe.

The local scene suffered notable losses last year as well. Under publisher William O. Taylor II, The Boston Globe earned nine Pulitzer Prizes, becoming one of the country’s premier news organizations. Philanthropist Myra Hiatt Kraft gave generously of her time to many causes she held dear. Builder Tom White, cofounder of the global medical charity Partners in Health, donated millions to help improve the lives of others.


Samuel Zoll served as mayor of Salem before presiding as the reform-minded chief justice of the Massachusetts District Courts. Physicians James Mongan, who headed Partners HealthCare, and Paul Epstein, who sounded the alarm on the medical effects of climate change, helped shape public health policy. Social justice warrior Kip Tiernan founded Rosie’s Place, the nation’s first shelter for homeless women.

Also passing were Digital Equipment Corp. founder and computer pioneer Ken Olsen; supermarket mogul Leo Kahn; talk-radio pioneer Larry Glick; and two Harvard University lions, historian Oscar Handlin, an expert on US immigration, and theologian Peter Gomes, a powerful voice against intolerance.

The world would be a duller place without its innumerable inventors and innovators. Among those who died last year were Wilson Greatbatch, father of the cardiac pacemaker; John Burke, who developed a synthetic skin that revolutionized burn surgery; Alan Haberman, who gave shoppers the bar code; digital-music pioneer Max Mathews; Hubert Schlafly, inventor of the teleprompter; trailblazing video animator Steve Rutt; and engineers Nobutoshi Kihara (Betamax videorecorder), Charles Kaman (helicopter technology), George Devol (robot arm), Norman Krim (transistor), and Jim Rodnunsky (Cablecam).

Obituaries were also written for Bob Beaumont, an early proponent of the electric car; Kurt Ziebart, inventor of a popular auto rust-proofing process; Stanley Bogdan, maker of much-coveted fly-fishing reels; and Harry Coover (Super Glue), George Ballas (Weed Eater), James Van Doren (Vans sneakers), Ed Pauls (NordicTrack machine), Ron Patterson (Renaissance Faire), and Leonard Stern (Mad Libs), all of whom made lasting contributions to modern living, too.

Finally, a grateful nation saluted the men and women who sacrificed their lives valorously while serving their fellow citizens in conflicts overseas. May their memories shine brightly in the dawn of a new year.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at