As 2016 comes to a close, we pause to remember some of the inspiring individuals who left us over the past 12 months. There are those whose work made the world a better place, such as Dr. Henry J. Heimlich, creator of the Heimlich maneuver; others who thrilled us with their athletic accomplishments (Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali, Pat Summitt), and those, such as Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, Patty Duke, Merle Haggard, Gene Wilder and others, who entertained us and made us smile.
An bona fide American hero for the ages, John Glenn, one of the “Mercury 7” group of pilots selected to become NASA’s first astronauts, became the first American to orbit the earth. He later was elected to the United States Senate for four terms and in 1998, while still a sitting senator, he became, at age 77, the oldest person to fly in space when he took part in Discovery mission STS-95.
John Glenn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Author Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most beloved novels of all time, an inspiring work that has touched hearts and opened minds around the world and across the decades. Though her follow-up novel, Go Set a Watchman, released more than a half-century later (though it was actually written first and so is, in effect, a prequel to Mockingbird), wasn’t as well-received, it has in no way dimmed the reading public’s affection for Mockingbird.
In 2007, Lee, who lived most of her life in Monroeville, Alabama, the town that served as the model for the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, where both her novels were set, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to literature.
Former heavyweight champion and Olympic gold medalist (in the lightweight division at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome), Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest fighters to ever lace up a pair of boxing gloves. His audacious self-confidence was off-putting to some in his early career, when African-Americans were expected to exhibit a more deferential public persona, but Ali proudly and unapologetically stuck to his guns and over time, he gained the respect and admiration of even those early detractors.
After his boxing days had come to an end, Ali's courageous battle with Parkinson's disease and his tireless efforts in support of a wide variety of humanitarian causes were an inspiration to millions.
Actress Florence Henderson enjoyed a career that spanned six decades, but she'll be best remembered as the cheery, supportive mom of a blended family on the popular 1970s sitcom, The Brady Bunch.
Though The Brady Bunch went off the air in 1974 (there were follow-up series and made-for-TV movies in the ensuing years), Henderson remained active until the very end. She had one film and four television appearances to her credit in 2016 and her final movie, a comedy titled Grandmothers Murder Club, is due to be released in 2017.
Henderson was also active in support of many worthy causes and charities. Especially dear to her were the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand, Indiana, where she received some of her early education. In addition to other efforts on the group's behalf, she appeared on the game shows The Weakest Link and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, winning a combined $32,000 for them.
Dr. Henry Heimlich, a first-generation American, achieved a great many breakthroughs in thoracic medicine and surgery, but none have saved more lives than the maneuver that was named after him. Heimlich was inspired to come up with the maneuver on Sunday afternoon in 1972 when he read in the New York Times Magazine that the sixth leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. was people choking on food or other objects—as many as 3,000 people died that way each year, the article stated, many of them children,
When Heimlich looked into the recommended first-aid treatments of the day—slaps on the back, a finger down the throat—he felt that not only weren't those helpful approaches, they could actually do harm.
Heimlich came up with his maneuver, which involves a second party standing behind the afflicted person and using closed fists in a sharp, upward motion between the person's diaphragm and ribcage to force air up and out through the windpipe, dislodging whatever is stuck there, but it took a while for it to be adopted. But once it was, it was almost universally accepted and in the ensuing years, literally tens of thousands of lives have been saved—as many as 100,000 in the U.S. alone—by ordinary folks with no medical training. Though back slaps are also recommended by certain organizations, Dr. Heimlich's maneuver, also referred to an "abdominal thrust," is still widely used, either alone or, if necessary, in combination with back slaps.
Though he was not the winningest golfer in the sport’s history, in the view of many, Arnold Palmer was the most important golfer in history, as his swashbuckling yet approachable style attracted millions of new fans to a sport that hadn’t always been welcoming to members of the general public.
A native of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Palmer, who won at least one PGA Tour event every year from 1955 to 1971, brought joy to millions with his hard-charging, exciting brand of play, and in 1974, he was named one of the 13 original inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Golf Week magazine wrote of Palmer, “As a measure of his popularity, Palmer, like Elvis Presley before him, was known simply as ‘The King.’ But in a life bursting from the seams with success, Palmer never lost his common touch. He was a man of the people, willing to sign every autograph, shake every hand, and tried to look every person in his gallery in the eye.”
Actor Gene Wilder enjoyed a long and successful career on stage and on screen, appearing in acclaimed productions of Shakepeare's works and even the original Broadway cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but it was comedies—especially the films of Mel Brooks—that Wilder made his biggest mark: The pair made three pictures together over a seven-year period: The Producers (1967), Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974).
Wilder is also fondly remembered for his portrayal of the title character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a film that has grown steadily in critical and popular stature since its release in 1971.
Wilder is admired too for the love and support he showed his wife, beloved actress Gilda Radner, during her battle with cancer. After her passing, Wilder took an interest in promoting cancer awareness and funding the search for a cure, helping to fund the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and co-founding Gilda's Club, a cancer support group that began in New York City and now has branches across the country.
Few coaches in the sport’s history can match the accomplishments of legendary women's basketball coach Pat Summitt. In her 38 seasons at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, she led the Tennessee Lady Volunteers to eight national championships and nearly 1,100 victories, more than any other Division 1 basketball coach. She was named NCAA Coach of the Year seven times.
In 2012, Summitt, who battled early-onset Alzheimer’s syndrome, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom; that same year, she received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY Awards.
In the early 1950s, George Martin began a career that spanned more than six decades and included work as a producer, arranger, composer, conductor, audio engineer and musician by working in the classical music department of the BBC before moving on to EMI's Parlophone Records, where he produced classical, original cast and comedy records. It was his legendary production work with the Beatles, though—he was widely referred to, even by Paul McCartney, as the "Fifth Beatle”—that garnered his greatest acclaim.
Though he’d done little work in pop music, Martin was introduced to the group’s manager, Brian Epstein, when the Beatles were still relatively unknown and though he wasn’t terribly impressed with the group’s sound, he did like John and Paul McCartney’s voices. Martin’s formal musical training would eventually serve the group as he added unusual elements to their recordings (the string quartet in Yesterday, for example); Martin sometimes played the keyboard parts on the records as well.
Martin also worked extensively in the instrumental scoring of films, among them A Hard Day's Night (1964, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), Yellow Submarine (1968), and Live and Let Die (1973). Martin was made a Knight Bachelor in 1996 in recognition of his services to the music industry and popular culture.
Ruggedly handsome actor Hugh O'Brian became a star on the strength of his performances in western movies and television programs, especially The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which ran for six seasons.
In 1958, O'Brian founded a non-profit young leadership development program called the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership (HOBY). The organization, which is still going strong, sponsors 10,000 high-school sophomores every year through leadership programs across the United States and in 20 other countries. O'Brian was inspired to found HOBY after spending nine days working with humanitarian Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa.
Actress Patty Duke enjoyed a long and successful career, playing a wide range of roles on stage, screen and television. Though she may be best remembered for playing a pair of identical cousins—one American and one British—on the 1960s sitcom The Patty Duke Show, her breakthrough role came when she played the young Helen Keller in the original Broadway production of The Miracle Worker. At age 15, Duke won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the film adaptation of that play.
Though she kept busy as an actress for the rest of her life, Duke, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1982, also became active in a number of mental health causes and campaigns. She even wrote a memoir about dealing with bipolar disorder called Brilliant Madness: Living with Manic Depressive Illness.
Country music legend Merle Haggard was an acclaimed singer, songwriter, guitarist and fiddler who, along with Buck Owens, helped to forge what came to be known as the Bakersfield sound. After a troubled youth that saw him incarcerated a few times, Haggard found his way to a better path via music.
Haggard’s lyrics spoke to the concerns of the common man, and beginning in the early 1960s, he forged a connection to the country music audience that lasted for the rest of his life. Haggard, who released 70 albums and charted 38 No. 1 hits, received numerous awards over the course of his career, among them a Kennedy Center Honor (2010) and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2006) and induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1977), the Country Music Hall of Fame (1994) and the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame (1997).
Former major leaguer and sportscaster Joe Garagiola achieved popularity, if not greatness, on the baseball diamond, playing catcher for nine seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Chicago Cubs, and the New York Giants. But it was as a broadcaster, first calling games and later taking on a host role on a wide variety of programs, from game shows to the Today Show and even as a guest-host on the Tonight Show (none other than John Lennon and Paul McCartney were Garagiola's guests on that program in May 1968) that Garagiola really found his stride. His gregarious, self-deprecating personality appealed to viewers across the spectrum. Garagiola, who grew up in the same St. Louis neighborhood as Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra, once cracked, "Not only was I not the best catcher in the Major Leagues, I wasn't even the best catcher on my street!"
In 1991, the Baseball Hall of Fame presented Garagiola with the Ford C. Frick Award for outstanding accomplishments in broadcasting.
At the end of December, just a day after actress Carrie Fisher, 60, died of a heart attack, Fisher's mother, actress Debbie Reynolds succombed to her grief and died of a stroke. Fisher is best known for her role as Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy and Reynolds solidified her role as America's sweetheart in the 1950s films Singin’ in the Rain, Tammy and the Bachelor, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and The Tender Trap.
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