'Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet," wrote neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks shortly before his death in August, "and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure."
It was a privilege shared by millions for whom Dr. Sacks served as genial tour guide into the mysteries and marvels of the human brain. He is among the many notable figures who passed away in 2015, men and women whose impact upon the region, nation, and world was substantial. Their works, feats, innovations, and influence span the full range of human endeavor, from politics and the performing arts to business, science, technology, literature, sports, education, and the media.
At a time when holiday revelry is tempered by anxiety over an uncertain future, their legacies merit a final salute.
The nation said goodbye to two champions of racial progress: Edward Brooke, a Massachusetts Republican who in 1966 became the first African-American elected to the US Senate since Reconstruction; and Julian Bond, who as a civil rights leader and Georgia state legislator fought valorously for social and political change. Also mourned were New York's Mario Cuomo, a three-term governor who personified the Democratic Party's liberal wing in the 1980s and '90s, and Tennessee politician-actor Fred Thompson, whose resume included eight-plus years in the US Senate and a recurring role on television's "Law and Order."
Other obituaries were penned for representative Jim Wright, a former House speaker; senator Richard Schweiker, who also served as the nation's health and human services secretary; representative Don Edwards, admiringly known as the "conscience of the Congress;" national security adviser Sandy Berger; gun control advocate Sarah Brady; pollster Andrew Kohut; and Delaware attorney general Beau Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden.
Overseas, words of praise were spoken in memory of West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, a popular and influential Cold War politician; Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, one of the world's wealthiest and most powerful leaders; and prime minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, who transformed his small country into a global economic powerhouse. Also remembered were Holocaust rescuer Sir Nicholas Winton of Great Britain; Japanese-American war hero Susumu Ito, a Congressional Gold Medal winner and Harvard Medical School biologist; and Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser.
Hollywood and Broadway dimmed their lights for a host of show business luminaries who died in 2015.
Boston native Leonard Nimoy, a multitalented actor-director-photographer, made "Star Trek's" super-logical Mr. Spock into a role for the (space) ages. Actor Omar Sharif brought a smoldering intensity to such film epics as "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Dr. Zhivago." Actress Maureen O'Hara lit up the big screen in "Miracle on 34th Street" and other movie classics from the post-war era.
Actor, singer, and human rights activist Theodore Bikel starred in dozens of roles, none more memorable than Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof." Anne Meara entertained for decades as a comedian, actress, and playwright of uncommon wit. Delighting audiences on screens large and small were actors Rod Taylor, Louis Jourdan, Christopher Lee, and Richard Dysart; actresses Judy Carne and Jayne Meadows; comedians Stan Freberg and Jack Carter; and "The Simpsons" co-creator Sam Simon. All were paid heartfelt tributes upon their deaths this year.
The news business is not universally held in high esteem, yet millions were saddened last February by the deaths, just days apart, of New York Times columnist David Carr and CBS News correspondent Bob Simon. Carr's erudite, often irreverent commentary made him a must-read on media issues in the digital age. Simon was a proudly old-school journalist who covered world conflicts from the Vietnam War to Iraq and beyond. Also eulogized were ESPN anchor Stuart Scott, who introduced a bucketful of colorful phrases (boo-yaw!) into the popular sports lexicon, and NFL Films founder Ed Sabol.
Book lovers penned paeans to many beloved writers who died in 2015. Nobel laureate Gunter Grass wrote plays, poems, and memoirs but was best known for his novel "The Tin Drum," a masterpiece of magical realism. In "Ragtime," "Billy Bathgate," and other novels, E.L. Doctorow mined American history for narratives of stunning beauty and moral resonance. Robert Stone combined gritty action with hallucinatory prose in "Dog Soldiers," "A Flag for Sunrise," and other page-turning works. James Tate earned a Pulitzer Prize for poems that often reflected an absurdist point of view.
Also remembered as popular wordsmiths were best-selling novelists Jackie Collins and Colleen McCullough; poet-songwriter Rod McKuen; poets Franz Wright, Philip Levine, and C.K. Williams; mystery and crime writers Ruth Rendell and Ann Rule; and historians Peter Gay and Stephen Birmingham.
Sounding their final notes in 2015 were artists representing every musical genre, from rock and pop to jazz, classical, and bluegrass. Composer-conductor Gunther Schuller's stellar career included co-founding the Modern Jazz Society and serving as Tanglewood Music Center's artistic director. Conductor Kurt Masur led the New York Philharmonic and many other world-class orchestras. Thrilling in every way were B.B. King and his guitar, Lucille, bringing the blues to a global audience.
Chart-topping R&B artists Percy Sledge and Ben E. King left behind legions of devoted fans, as did keyboardist Allen Toussaint, who infused every note he wrote, arranged, and played with pure New Orleans spirit. For jazz buffs, 2015 marked the loss of, among other greats, celestial saxophonist Ornette Coleman and trumpet maestro Clark Terry.
Around the sports world, fans observed a moment of silence (something he rarely did) when baseball icon Yogi Berra passed away in September. As a player and manager, the New York Yankees Hall of Famer won multiple championships and honors; as a cultural observer and quote machine, he played in a league of his own. Baseball fans everywhere felt much the same affection for Ernie Banks, the Chicago Cubs' Hall of Fame shortstop and first baseman who famously said, "Let's play two!"
Whether starring on the gridiron or in the broadcast booth, football's Frank Gifford ranked among the all-time greats. Basketball fans shared warm memories of Moses Malone, a three-time NBA MVP; Dolph Schayes, a 12-time NBA All-Star; Harlem Globetrotters' iconic clown prince Meadowlark Lemon; University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith, whose teams won two NCAA titles and an Olympic gold medal; and inspirational college hoopster Lauren Hill. Gone, too, is famed Olympics skier Stein Eriksen.
Around Boston, the passing of ace Bill Monbouquette, playoff pirouetting hero Dave Henderson, and slugger Frank Malzone of the Red Sox, Celtics star Jim Loscutoff, and Olympic hockey champ Bob Cleary brought back memories of their clutch performances on the diamond, court, and ice.
Human knowledge is advanced by those who toil on the frontiers of science, medicine, and technology. A number of these trailblazers died in 2015, among them mathematician John Nash, whose struggles and triumphs were chronicled in "A Beautiful Mind." Also, Nobel Prize recipients Charles Townes, Yoichiro Nambu, and Val Fitch (physics); Richard Heck, Yves Chauvin, and Irwin Rose (chemistry); Alfred G. Gilman (medicine); and Douglass North (economics). NASA paid homage to rocket scientists Claudia Alexander, George Mueller, and Oscar Holderer, key figures in humankind's early exploration of outer space.
Other eulogies were delivered this year for marine biologist Eugenie Clark; natural childbirth advocate Elisabeth Bing, chemist Carl Djerassi, who helped create the birth control pill; computer scientist Gene Amdahl; engineer Joseph Lechleider, developer of DSL Internet technology; and sex researcher Paul Gebhard.
For dedicated followers of art, fashion, food, and design, 2015 occasioned the raising of toasts to many notables, among them celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme, popularizer of Creole and Cajun cuisine; Michael Graves, prominent postmodern architect and product designer; abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly, who brought a sensuality to his elegantly shaped works; fashion designer Arnold Scaasi, whose clients included first ladies, movie stars, and royalty; critic and editor Ingrid Sischy; taste-making publisher John Fairchild of Women's Wear Daily; and custom car designer George Barris, who built the 1960s Batmobile, among many eye-popping creations. All now reside in the history books.
Bostonians had many locals of note to salute upon their deaths this year. The city and region will long benefit from a trio of visionary philanthropists, Norman Leventhal, Carolyn Lynch, and Thomas Shields, who generously supported numerous educational programs, arts institutions, and other nonprofits. Their legacies were widely celebrated in 2015, as were those of, among others, children's TV activist Peggy Charren, physician and TV doctor Murray Feingold, Staples Co. founder Thomas Stemberg, Boston Bruins radio broadcaster Bob Wilson, school superintendent Robert Spillane, toy shop owner Ethel Weiss, and street artist Bob Guillemin, aka Sidewalk Sam.
The world would be a quieter, less colorful place without the myriad inventions and innovations that help define what constitutes popular culture. Bowing out this year were Vincent Marotta (Mr. Coffee machine), Joel Spira (light dimmer), Donald Featherstone (pink plastic flamingo), Norman Pickering (phonographic cartridge), Daniel Thompson (bagel machine), and Vic Firth (custom drumsticks), a group that collectively left peoples' lives — and lawns — a little brighter.
Finally, candles were lit for the victims of global terrorism and for the men and women serving in uniform, and emergency responders everywhere, who made the ultimate sacrifice this year. May they rest in peace, and their loved ones find comfort, as a new year commences.
Joseph Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.