by Brett Leveridge
As 2020 comes to a close, we pause to remember many of the inspiring individuals who left us over the past 12 months. There are those whose music brightened our lives, such as R&B artist Bill Withers, British songbird Vera Lynn and country-pop singer Mac Davis; those who used their talents and courage to open doors that were previously closed, including Katherine Johnson, John Lewis, and Phyllis George, and many, such as Alex Trebek, Chadwick Boseman and Olivia de Havilland, who entertained and inspired us.
Pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, a 2015 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was, according to NASA's chief historian, Bill Barry, "critical to the success of the early U.S. space programs."
But as told in Margot Lee Shetterly's book "Hidden Figures" and the movie adaptation of the same name, Johnson (portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the film), along with her colleagues Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, had to overcome significant career and workplace obstacles based on their race and gender. Their pioneering careers helped open the door for other African Americans and women to be accepted and to excel in the fields of science and mathematics.
The Ontario-born Trebek enjoyed a long and acclaimed career as a TV personality and game show host, garnering five daytime Emmy awards and a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
In his final months, Trebek publicly expressed gratitude to his fans for their prayers on his behalf as he dealt with pancreatic cancer, and he donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Valley Rescue Mission, a faith-based nonprofit organization that provides assistance to homeless people in California.
In 1963, at the age of 23, civil rights icon and 17-term congressman Rep. John Lewis was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, the event at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his inspiring "I Have a Dream" speech. He went on to become a true icon in fight for civil rights, inspiring countless people in the United States and around the world.
Lewis often highlighted the role of faith in the civil rights movement, saying in a 2004 interview, "I felt when we were sitting in at those lunch counter stools, or going on the freedom ride, or marching from Selma to Montgomery, there was a power and a force. God Almighty was there with us."
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was just the second woman to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but her influence and achievements began long before she was selected for the seat. From 1973 to 1978, Ginsburg argued six cases before the very court she would later join, each of them one step in her campaign to get the court to recognize that the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection applied to sex discrimination in addition to discrimination based on race. She won five of those six cases.
Ginsburg was known for embracing collegiality while on the court; she was close friends with fellow justices, among them Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Scalia, with whom she typically disagreed.
Pitcher Don Larsen enjoyed a 15-year career in the major leagues, but it was in 1956, as a starter for the New York Yankees, that his legacy was secured. On that day, he became the first person to throw a perfect game in the World Series, a feat that still hasn't been repeated. Larsen’s career was otherwise just average, but on October 8, 1956, he carved out his place in baseball history.
Rev. Joseph E. Lowery worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King and was, in his own right, a civil rights icon. Even before Rosa Parks made her courageous stand on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, Rev. Lowery had worked to integrate the buses in the nearby city of Mobile.
Rev. Lowery, who was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, delivered the benediction at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009.
Author and broadcaster Phyllis George was named Miss America in 1971, and just four years later, she became a pioneer in sports broadcasting when she was named co-host of CBS-TV's weekly pregame show, The NFL Today. Hannah Storm, an anchor for ESPN's SportsCenter called George "a true trailblazer."
George was also friends with Guideposts founder Norman Vincent Peale and his wife, Ruth; in fact, Dr. Peale officiated at George's 1979 wedding to John Y. Brown, Jr., who would soon be elected governor of Kentucky. Nine years later, Brown and George were among the celebrants at Dr. Peale's 90th birthday celebration.
On Oct. 14, 1947, test pilot, World War II hero, Air Force general and author Chuck Yeager was the first person to break the sound barrier when he reached the speed of 700 miles an hour in an experimental plane known as the Bell Aircraft X-1 over the Mojave Desert.
Yeager's story was one of those told in author Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" and the 1983 film based on that book, in which Yeager was portrayed by Sam Shepard. Yeager never got to serve as an astronaut, but he was one of the key figures in the establishing of the U.S. space program.
Olympic champion, social activist, author, actor and civil rights icon Rafer Johnson set the world record for the decathlon three separate times, and in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he won the gold medal in that event.
In Rome, he also served as the first Black captain of a U.S. Olympic team. He went on to help found—and serve as chairman of—Southern California's Special Olympics chapter.
Actress Rhonda Fleming, often called the "Queen of Technicolor" because of her striking red hair and green eyes, had her breakthrough role in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound and went on to amass nearly 70 film and TV credits.
Fleming played many femme fatale roles, but in real life, she was a woman of faith and conviction and an advocate for and supporter of the battles against cancer, homelessness and child abuse, among other causes.
Christo was an acclaimed envrionmental artist who, with his late wife and creative partner Jean-Claude, brought joy and inspiration to millions with his large-scale public art works in locations around the world.
In 2005, many of Guideposts’ NYC staffers had the pleasure of experiencing the couple’s work firsthand when "The Gates" were on display in Central Park. Christo continued to work on planned projects even after Jean-Claude died in 2009.
Basketball legend Kobe Bryant entered the NBA straight out of high school, becoming the youngest player in league history. Over the course of a twenty-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, he won five NBA titles; he also won two gold medals with the USA Olympic team.
With his wife, Vanessa, Bryant founded the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation, dedicated to improving the lives of youth and families in need, both domestically and globally. Bryant was also the official ambassador for After-School All-Stars, a national charity that provides after-school programs to 72,000 inner-city kids.
Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine passengers who died in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020.
Oscar-winning actress Dame Olivia de Havilland, who died just three weeks after her 104th birthday, remained active as an actress for more than 50 years, earning five Academy Award nominations and taking home a pair of Oscars in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category for her work in To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949).
She is perhaps best remembered, though, for her portrayal of Melanie Hamilton in Gone With The Wind (1939).
Author and broadcasting legend Hugh Downs enjoyed an accomplished career that spanned 65 years. Downs, who served in the Army during World War II, began in radio while still a college student in 1939.
He made his first TV newscast in 1945, and he went on to enjoy a remarkable career: announcer for Jack Paar on The Tonight Show, host for 10+ years of the TV game show Concentration, a nine-year run as the co-host of The Today Show and co-anchor of 20/20 for 21 years, among many other achievements. Downs was also a published music composer and the author of more than a dozen books.
Chadwick Boseman starred as T'Challa, the title character in the immensely popular film, Black Panther and portrayed such icons as Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown in acclaimed biopics.
Boseman, who was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer in 2016, showed great strength, courage and commitment in continuing to work during his illness, appearing in Marshall, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and several other films in between surgeries and chemotherapy treatments. Though he was only 43 when he passed, he created a lasting legacy.
Actress, dancer, choreographer and author Marge Champion is perhaps best remembered for the years she spent performing in tandem with her then-husband Gower, but her career spanned many decades.
Champion was the live-action reference model for the title character in the beloved Walt Disney Studios' picture Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (she also modeled for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio and Hyacinth Hippo in the “Dance of the Hours” segment of Fantasia).
At 34, author and legendary NFL running back Gale Sayers, known as "the Kansas Comet," was the youngest player ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, despite playing just seven seasons, all of them with the Chicago Bears.
But for all his gridiron accomplishments, Sayers is perhaps best remembered for his inspiring friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo, a relationship that was depicted in the beloved TV movie Brian's Song, which starred Billy Dee Williams and James Caan.
British singer Dame Vera Lynn lived to be 103 and was active until the end. The woman known as "The Forces' Sweetheart" was an inspiration to millions during World War II, performing for Allied troops and singing songs that gave hope to those on the home front.
Lynn was known for her charity work, including veterans charities and the Dame Vera Lynn Children's Charity, which provides support and education for families affected by cerebral palsy.
Actor, producer, director and author Kirk Douglas was an icon of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Nominated three times for the Best Actor Oscar, Douglas was presented an honorary Academy Award in 1996 "for 50 years as a creative and moral force in the motion picture community."
In 1964, Douglas and his wife, Anne, founded the Douglas Foundation, a philanthropic institution that is, according to the foundation's website, "committed to helping those who might not otherwise be able to help themselves"; the couple also participated in other charitable and philanthropic efforts in the United States and around the world. In January, 1981, Douglas, a Goodwill Ambassador for the U.S. State Department since 1963, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter.
Model, actress, television personality, bestselling cookbook author and lifestyle guru B. Smith, often called "the Black Martha Stewart," was an inspiration to millions as she, with the aid of her husband and business partner, Dan Gasby, coped with Alzheimer's disease.
In addition to operating three very successful restaurants, Smith was one of the first African-American women to appear on the cover of Mademoiselle magazine and her television talk show, B. Smith with Style, aired on stations across the U.S. and in 22 countries.
Singer-songwriter Mac Davis, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, wrote In the Ghetto and A Little Less Conversation, both hits in the late 1960s for Elvis Presley.
In the 1970s, Davis also had several hit records of his own, among them I Believe In Music, Baby, Don't Get Hooked On Me, and Stop and Smell the Roses. He also hosted a variety show from 1974-76, and he appeared last year in Dolly Parton's eight-part series, Heartstrings.
Regis Philbin graduated from the University of Notre Dame and served two years in the Navy before beginning his broadcasting career. He went on to spend an amazing 16,746.5 hours on the air, a Guinness World Record.
The Emmy-winning Philbin served as a newscaster, an announcer, a talk show sidekick and finally as the host of his own string of shows, most notably Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee (and later with Kelly Ripa) and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Bestselling author Mary Higgins Clark penned 38 suspense novels, four collections of short stories, a memoir and a historical novel; she also co-authored five novels with her daughter and five more with author Alafair Burke.
So respected was Clark by her peers that the Mystery Writers of America have, since 2001, given an annual award in her honor.
Three-time Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Bill Withers was a native of Slab Fork, West Virginia. He served in the Navy as an aircraft mechanic.
Withers was a self-taught guitarist who released his first album at the relatively advanced age (by pop music standards) of 33. His soulful songs in the 1970s—classics such as Lean on Me, Lovely Day, Ain't No Sunshine, Just the Two of Us and many others were among the best R&B songs of the 1970s. In 1915, Withers was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Diana Serra Cary, whom The Hollywood Reporter described as the last living star of the silent era, lived to the age of 101. Cary, billed as Baby Peggy, was immensely popular during the 1920s, receiving more than 1.2 million fan letters in a single year.
When her show biz career wound down, Serra forged a second career as a journalist and nonfiction author, and she kept working till nearly the end, self-publishing her first novel at age 99.
Pride, the son of sharecroppers, was country music's first African-American superstar. Named the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year in 1971,
Pride had dreams of being a professional baseball player, but when that didn’t pan out, he turned to music and went on to record more than 50 Top 10 hits over a 20-year span beginning in 1967. In November 2020, he received the CMA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
As we remember artists, authors, athletes and other prominent people who touched our lives, we also pause to honor those who lived quieter but no less valuable lives and were lost to us in the pandemic.
More than 330,000 Americans and nearly two million people worldwide have fallen victim to the coronavirus. They were fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and colleagues. Each was special in his or her own way. Each had hopes and dreams, each experienced joy and sadness. None could have predicted the global catastrophe that would claim their lives.
We honor their memories and pray God's comfort on the loved ones they left behind.
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