Muhammad Ali — the transcendent heavyweight boxer known as “The Greatest” — championed human rights at home and abroad, a fight he undertook as courageously as any he faced in the ring. For Elie Wiesel, the struggles were intensely personal, born of bearing witness, a teen who survived the Nazi hatred and cruelty that destroyed his family and his community.
The passing of these two men touched people around the world in 2016, a year that closed with a stunning staccato of bulletins about entertainment icons, among them Carrie Fisher and her sometimes collaborator, frequent foil, and mother, Debbie Reynolds; they died within a day of each other.
The dawn of the New Year offers a chance to recollect the lives and legacies of these and scores of other individuals who left lasting imprints on the region, nation, and world.
The charisma of Ali and character of Wiesel particularly resonated with people from all walks of life. While Ali’s weapons were his fleet fists and feet and his lightning wit, Wiesel relied on the pen and lectern as his tools. Propelled by an intense intellectual curiosity and a prodigious gift for storytelling, he wrestled with how one can make sense of humanity’s vast capacity for evil.
In doing so, the Boston University professor became “a “messenger to mankind whose message is not one of hate and revenge, but of brotherhood and atonement,’’ the Nobel committee said in bestowing its peace prize to him in 1986.
Ali, who also served as a UN-appointed “messenger” of peace, “shook up the world,’’ President Obama said upon his death, “and the world is better for it.’’
The world was shaken by the deaths of several political leaders in 2016, none more polarizing than Fidel Castro, the revolutionary who seized power in Cuba in 1959 and turned it into an increasingly isolated outpost of communism. In doing so, he inspired both reverence and revulsion and turned the island into a Cold War nemesis of 10 US presidents.
In Israel, Shimon Peres was an early figure in the formation of the Jewish state, helping design its defense industry and guide its rise as a military power. Yet later, as prime minister and president, he would become a dedicated peacemaker. So, too, was Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who steered the United Nations through perilous times as its sixth secretary general.
In this nation, many Americans were often appalled by a divisive presidential election like none they had experienced in their lifetimes. Yet they were united in offering tributes to such countrymen and women as John Glenn — war hero, astronaut, senator, personification of the Right Stuff — and former first lady Nancy Reagan.
Gone, too, were Janet Reno, the country’s first female US attorney general; Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a staunch constitutional originalist; Phyllis Schlafly, one of social conservatism’s leading lights; Melvin Laird, who as defense secretary sought to extricate the country from Vietnam; and Daniel Berrigan and Tom Hayden, antiwar activists who won admirers and enemies during the social tumult of the ’60s.
Perhaps no realm was more staggered by loss than the music industry. Gone were a host of artists who erased boundaries both in their works and their lives: David Bowie, a glam, shape-shifting performer whose influence ranged broadly from music and film to art and fashion; the superstar forever known as Prince, a genre-bending artist who blended R&B, pop, and funk into his own intoxicating brew; singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, whose hauntingly poetic lyrics explored faith, love, death, and spiritual longing; and outlaw country troubadour Merle Haggard.
Also, Glenn Frey, founding member of the Eagles; bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley; producer George Martin of Beatles fame; prog rockers Keith Emerson and Greg Lake; silver-maned singer-songwriter-producer Leon Russell; classical composer-conductor Pierre Boulez; jazz-blues pianist Mose Allison; opera stars Patrice Munsel and Phyllis Curtin; Boston Symphony Orchestra cellist Jules Eskin; pop crooners Julius La Rosa, Kay Starr, and Bobby Vee; and vocalist Natalie Cole, who passed away in the waning hours of 2015, her death not reported until early in the new year.
In the last week of 2016, George Michael’s death stunned both fans of his early work with Wham! and those who saw the singer’s eventual embrace of his homosexuality as liberating.
In the world of letters, it was a year to mark the deaths of Harper Lee, beloved author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”; playwright Edward Albee, who explored human intimacy and familial dysfunction in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and other riveting dramas; novelist, poet, essayist, and rugged adventurer Jim Harrison; Peter Shaffer, creator of “Equus,” “Amadeus,” and other award-winning plays; and novelist and memoirist Pat Conroy.
In the art world, epitaphs were carved for Israeli-born architect Zaha Hadid, whose soaring creations sparkled with geometric brilliance; Color Field painter Walter Darby Bannard; urban architect Bing Thom; influential fashion designers Sonia Rykiel and James Galanos; and witty and prolific New Yorker magazine cartoonists William Hamilton, Frank Modell, and Robert Weber.
A challenging year for journalists in general saw eulogies delivered for some of its finest practitioners. Among them were CBS newsman and veteran “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer; PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill, a role model and mentor to countless young journalists; Ruth Gruber, pioneering writer, photojournalist, and humanitarian; Sydney Schanberg, globe-trotting reporter and author whose work inspired the film “The Killing Fields”; and colorful sports journalists Craig Sager of Turner Sports, ESPN anchor John Saunders, and Bud Collins of The Boston Globe, whose tennis knowledge and kaleidoscopic wardrobe helped popularize a sport he deeply loved.
In addition to Carrie Fisher, an actress, activist, and brutally honest writer who soared to intergalactic fame in “Star Wars,” and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who personified musical ebullience in such movies as “Singin’ in the Rain,’’ toasts were raised in show business circles for Gary Shandling, a groundbreaking writer-comedian-actor who created and starred in “The Larry Sanders Show”; Gene Wilder, a riotously funny actor who delighted film audiences in “Young Frankenstein,” “Willy Wonka,” and other comic masterpieces; Garry Marshall, whose writing, directing, and producing talents spawned many popular TV shows and hit movies; and actors George Kennedy, Abe Vigoda, and Alan Rickman, all equally deft at comedy or hard-boiled drama.
Television families often become extensions of their audiences’ home lives. So it was for two sitcom stars whose parental roles made them pop-culture fixtures, and whose loss last year was felt by millions of fans: Florence Henderson, a Broadway leading lady best known as matriarch of “The Brady Bunch,” and Alan Thicke, a singer-songwriter embraced as America’s Dad on the hit series “Growing Pains.”
Also bowing out were deadpan comedian Bob Elliott; broadcast executive Grant Tinker; stage and screen actresses Anne Jackson, Patty Duke, and Tammy Grimes; actors Hugh O’Brien, Ken Howard, and Robert Vaughn, three of TV’s most durable leading men; and actress-socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor, who paved the way for celebrities becoming famous largely, if not solely, for being famous.
In 2016, sports fans observed a moment of silence for two all-time greats: Arnold Palmer, also known as The King, who assembled his own loyal army and stormed the golf world in the 1960s and ’70s, and Gordie Howe, a superb two-way hockey player whose NHL glory days stretched over five incredibly durable decades.
Cheers echoed, too, for Pat Summitt, college basketball’s all-time winningest coach; baseball player and broadcaster Joe Garagiola; Florida Marlins flame-thrower Jose Fernandez, who perished in a boating accident; New England Patriots alums Bill Lenkaitis and Julius Adams; tennis great Gardnar Mulloy; Johan Cruyff, who brought balletic movement and a genius’s intuition to the soccer pitch; football coaches Buddy Ryan and Ted Marchibroda; and baseball immortals Monte Irvin, Ralph Branca, and Dave “Boo” Ferriss, who helped lead the Red Sox to the World Series in 1946.
Losing visionaries who specialized in science, technology, or education is a reminder of how human knowledge advances through the power of individual genius. Computer scientist Marvin Minsky expanded the boundaries of artificial intelligence, while Seymour Papert played a similar role in computer-based education. Intel chief Andrew Grove revolutionized the semiconductor industry. Jerome Bruner’s work in cognitive psychology led to such landmark studies as “Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.” MIT molecular biologist Susan Lindquist won a National Medal of Science for her many contributions to medical and scientific progress.
Local luminaries who passed from the scene in 2016 included mass transit superchief Robert Kiley; taxpayer advocate Barbara Anderson; Harvard historian and literary critic Daniel Aaron; acoustic-science pioneer Leo Beranek; MedFlight CEO Suzanne Wedel; physician Arthur Pappas, a Boston Red Sox co-owner; MIT computer engineer Jay Forrester; economist and public intellectual Lester Thurow; and Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, the charismatic Providence mayor who repeatedly resurrected his professional career despite personal failings and criminal convictions.
The world would be a duller place without the inventors and innovators who come up with products and concepts that make life easier, richer, more fashionable, and more fun. With a smile of recognition, millions bade goodbye last year to Artur Fischer (flash photography), Raymond Tomlinson (e-mail, @ sign), Margaret Heldt (beehive hairdo), and Jim Delligatti (Big Mac sandwich).
Finally, candles were lit in 2016 for the men and women in uniform and first responders who made the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow citizens. They shall not be forgotten as time and history march forward into an uncharted future.Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.