Regarded as the Albert Einstein of his generation, Stephen Hawking harnessed his imagination to roam the cosmos seeking answers to the universe’s deepest mysteries.
Crowned the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin possessed a voice so celestial that every note she sang — gospel, R&B, jazz, or pop — touched the heavens.
Hawking and Franklin were both born in 1942, and their deaths this past year, just weeks apart, inspired an outpouring of tributes. Although their lives differed markedly in many ways, each managed to overcome personal challenges that might have defeated lesser mortals.
As another New Year beckons, it is an appropriate time to reflect upon the lives and legacies of these and many other notable figures who departed in 2018, women and men who left lasting imprints on the region, nation, and world.
Their legacies vary widely, from those of war heroes, Nobel Prize winners, brave journalists, and sports legends to that of a murderous Boston mobster whose life ended in fittingly brutal fashion. All will be remembered, though, for helping shape the times in which they lived.
“When you are faced with the prospect of an early death,” Hawking, diagnosed at 21 with ALS, a degenerative neuromuscular disease, once reflected, “it makes you realize that life is worth living and that there are a lot of things you want to do.”
Physically disabled for most of his life, he nevertheless became a barrier-bending physicist, best-selling author (“A Brief History of Time”), globe-trotting lecturer, husband, and father, and pop-culture hero to the characters of “The Big Bang Theory” and millions more inspired by his genius.
At a time when science itself is under assault from many quarters, Hawking embodied humankind’s quest for fact-based knowledge and a fuller understanding of the world we inhabit.
Franklin, too, endured her share of private turmoil, along with periods of falling out of musical fashion. And yet, blessed with formidable pipes and an indomitable spirit, she persevered to become an 18-time Grammy winner, civil rights champion, feminist role model (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T” hit home on multiple levels), Obama inauguration performer, and seminal influence on countless younger artists.
“It was the need of a nation,” said Franklin of her most anthemic recording. “Everyone wanted respect.”
In the literary realm, two master chroniclers of postwar America died this past year, their work destined to be savored for generations to come.
Philip Roth towered over American letters for half a century, churning out darkly comic, lust-infused novels that explored Jewish-American identity in modern times. In lyrical, sometimes prophetic books such as a “American Pastoral” and “The Plot Against America,” he created a body of work that secured his place on literature’s loftiest pedestal.
A foundational New Journalist, Tom Wolfe pushed the outside of the envelope — one of many phrases he popularized or coined, along with radical chic, the right stuff, and the Me Decade — in pyrotechnic prose one critic described as “shotgun baroque.” A peerless social satirist, he later turned to novels including “The Bonfire of the Vanities” to portray America’s obsession with greed and power in the amped-up 1980s.
Appreciations were also penned for playwright Neil Simon, creator of “The Odd Couple” and other classic stage and screen comedies; novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All the President’s Men”); Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, whose masterworks include “A Bend in the River”; acclaimed New Hampshire poet and essayist Donald Hall; and conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer.
In a time when our nation’s governing bodies are strapped by barbed-wire partisanship, death offered rare moments of comity. Generations of party leaders gathered to celebrate George H.W. Bush — 41st president, World War II hero, diplomat, Republican Party stalwart. Bush’s beloved wife, Barbara, matriarch of a dynastic political family stretching from Texas to Florida, with roots in New England, had died seven months before.
They gathered, too, Republicans and Democrats, to honor Senator John McCain of Arizona, a maverick presidential nominee and Vietnam War hero. “For all of our differences,’’ Barack Obama, who defeated McCain for the presidency, said in his eulogy, “we shared a fidelity to the ideals for which generations of Americans have marched and fought and sacrificed and given their lives.’’
Heads were bowed as well for the Rev. Billy Graham, popular Christian televangelist and counselor to presidents; eight-term Republican congresswoman Margaret Heckler, a Massachusetts lawmaker who also served as Health and Human Services secretary; inspirational JFK and LBJ speechwriter Richard Goodwin; moon-walking astronauts Alan Bean and John Young; and Richard Sipe, who helped expose the scourge of clergy sex abuse.
Globally, former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan and South African anti-apartheid crusader Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were eulogized for their courageous leadership, though the latter’s reputation was tarnished by scandal in later years. Serving the cause of world health was the lifelong work of pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, who bonded with children and parents across cultures and borders. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a respected journalist working for The Washington Post, at the apparent direction of Saudi leaders became a worldwide rallying cry for defenders of press freedom and basic human rights.
The arts world bade goodbye to Marvel Comics patriarch Stan Lee, creator of a universe populated by superheroes more human than most, and to his longtime collaborator, artist Steve Ditko. Pop artist Robert Indiana, fashion designers Kate Spade and Hubert de Givenchy, and dancer-choreographer Paul Taylor were likewise hailed as giants in their respective fields.
In 2018, prominent losses in the business world included those of Microsoft cofounder and philanthropist Paul Allen, Bain & Co. founder
William Bain, beer baron William Coors, and billionaire Wayne Huizenga, who built his sprawling empire around Waste Management, multiple pro sports teams, and now-shuttered Blockbuster video stores.
Culinary fans toasted many who made dining more deliciously adventurous, in the kitchen, on the page, and on the road. Thus, everyone from haute epicures to street-corner comfort-foodies marked the passing of celebrity chef-TV host Anthony Bourdain; famed French chefs Paul Bocuse, Madeleine Kamman, and Joel Robuchon; and award-winning food critic Jonathan Gold.
Boston sports fans observed a moment of silence for Celtics immortals Frank Ramsey and Jo Jo White, Bruins great Johnny “Pie” McKenzie, and Red Sox catcher Jerry Moses. From all corners of the sports world echoed fond farewells for Roger Bannister, who broke the once-unbreakable four-minute-mile mark; hockey’s Stan Mikita, who set scoring records for the high-flying Chicago Blackhawks; broadcaster Keith Jackson, the longstanding voice of college football; Baseball Hall of Famers Willie McCovey and Red Schoendienst; and rugged NFL stars Jim Taylor and Dwight Clark.
Hollywood dimmed its lights for actor Burt Reynolds, whose popular screen roles ranged from rugged leading men to wisecracking good ol’ boys; actress-filmmaker Penny Marshall, director of box-office hits “Big” and “A League of Their Own”; onetime teenage heartthrob and gay icon Tab Hunter; writer-producer Steven Bochco, whose “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” forever changed prime-time television for the grittier; and acclaimed filmmakers Milos Forman, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Warren Miller, skiers’ all-time favorite cameraman.
Sounding their last notes in 2018 were superstars from across the musical spectrum. From the jazz world, pianist Cecil Taylor, singers Nancy Wilson and Rebecca Parris, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove; also bluesman Otis Rush, country star Roy Clark, pop crooner Vic Damone, Cranberries lead singer Dolores O’Riordan, and South African musician-activist Hugh Masekela. Their recordings and performances will be cherished for years to come.
Locally, the city and region absorbed many prominent losses, men and women whose contributions to civic, commercial, and cultural life will not soon be forgotten.
Federal Judge Joseph Tauro issued landmark rulings protecting, among other things, the rights of the developmentally disabled and mentally ill. Robert Crane was Massachusetts’ longest-serving state treasurer and first lottery czar. Leading the Boston Police Department through turbulent times were former commissioners Robert diGrazia and Francis “Mickey” Roache.
Memorials were also held for educators Jill Ker Conway and Richard Wylie, educational philanthropist Charles Collier, Boston Public Library president Bernard Margolis, comedian Barry Crimmins, poet William Corbett, restaurateur Charles Sarkis, and developer-philanthropist Gerald Schuster.
The ranks of homegrown media luminaries were thinned by the deaths of Boston Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich, erudite broadcast journalist Clark Booth, veteran TV news anchor Jack Hynes, TV newsmen Charles Austin and Tony Pepper, radio reporter Lana Jones, groundbreaking Globe journalist Loretta McLaughlin, colorful TV personality Frank Avruch, radio talk-show host Janet Jeghelian, and Gil Santos, the longtime radio voice of the New England Patriots.
No accounting of the year’s departed would be complete without including James “Whitey” Bulger, who terrorized his native South Boston neighborhood — and far beyond — for decades. Bulger’s bloodthirsty reign inspired numerous books and movies, none bringing much comfort to his victims’ families.
After 16 years in hiding, Bulger was captured in 2011 and later convicted of multiple murders. His ultimate punishment was meted out behind prison walls this past October, bringing to a close one of the most disturbing chapters in the annals of criminal behavior and corrupt law enforcement in Boston history.
In contrast to his legacy of depravity stood the heroic deeds of the men and women in uniform and first responders who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty during a year of armed conflict abroad and tragic events back home. They and the hundreds of victims of senseless gun violence, whose deaths sparked protests across the nation, deserve a hallowed place on 2018’s wall of memory.
May the lives they lived light the way ahead as the calendar turns to another New Year.
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version misidentified James “Whitey” Bulger’s neighborhood.