Gwen Ifill: PBS Newshour Co-Anchor
Many famous people died in 2016. Among them were: Edward Albee, Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Patty Duke, Glenn Frey, Gordie Howe, Harper Lee, Garry Marshall, John McLaughlin, Arnold Palmer, Shimon Peres, Prince, Nancy Reagan, Morley Safer, Antonin Scalia, Garry Shandling, Pat Summitt, Elie Wiesel, Gene Wilder.
However, other individuals who passed away in 2016, less well-known, made significant contributions during their lives. Their actions made the life of others easier or more pleasant in a variety of ways. This article will give you an opportunity to appreciate their efforts and give them a final thank you. The article is not intended to make you sad, but to remind you there are such people . If I missed someone who you think deserves mention, I’m sorry. I’m writing a blog, not an all inclusive book. Let me and other folks know who you would include in this remembrance. Bringing attention to people who make life better for others is worth the time and effort.
Bill Backer, 89. In 1971, he had a flight to London diverted because of fog. Passengers were upset. The next morning, Mr. Backer was amazed to see formerly irate passengers “cheerfully conversing” over coffee, tea, or Coke. He scribbled on a napkin: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.” From then until TV’s “Mad Men” concluded with “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony” he was famous –and successful. He and his collaborators followed with “Miller Time” and ads for Campbell’s soup, Oreos, Fisher-Price, cars, cigarettes, and Xerox. Mr. Backer, eventually, retired to Virginia and bought a horse farm. Apparently, things do go better with Coke.
Dr. Bertrand Bell, 86. He helped in “reducing the shifts worked by interns and residents being trained in American hospitals.” He asked: “How is it possible for anyone to be functional working a 95 hour week? A bus driver can’t do it. A pilot cannot do it. So why should a neophyte doctor do it?” (Dr. Bell was a pilot in the Air Force.)
Leon Billings, 78. As an administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Billings was instrumental in passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act and the 1972 Clean Water Act. His actions followed the first Earth Day in 1970 and the Cuyahoga River in Ohio being so polluted it spontaneously caught fire. Legislation he worked for emphasized the “health of persons”, not merely available technology or affordability of pollution controls. Later, he consulted clients, including corporations, regarding “how to live and profit while complying with environmental laws.”
Phyllis Creore, 100. During WWII, a “canteen” was more than a soldier’s container of water. It was also a place where soldiers going through New York City and on to war could take a short (and perhaps final) time to talk to and dance with a young woman in a safe and friendly environment. Sometimes, famous entertainers served meals in such a place, as well. In addition, NBC broadcast a 15 minute radio program on Fridays entitled: Canteen Girl. During it, a young woman –Phyllis Creore—told soldiers “an uplifting story and sang 3 or 4 musical numbers.” She also “took song requests and read letters from listeners” in military bases and hospitals. Miss Creore (the phrase Ms. did not exist) was The Canteen Girl. Her show ran from 1942 until the war’s end. In 2012, she was interviewed by 2 NYC newspapers about her experience. When told, “You’re a part of history,” she replied: “Well, it took 70 years of waiting.”
Joseph Medicine Crow, 102. He talked to survivors of the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He corrected the director of a film about the battle –and got fired. He was married for 60 years. He obtained an MA in Anthropology from USC. He wrote almost a dozen books. He was his nation’s historian. For service in WWII, he won our Bronze Star and a medal from France, as well. He achieved the 4 things a Crow nation warrior must do in a battle –in WWII. He was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. So: What have you done with your life?
Clarence Ditlow, III, 72. In 1976, Mr. Ditlow became the head of Ralph Nader’s Center for Auto Safety. For 40 years he was as Mr. Nader described him “the nightmare of the misbehaving auto industry and the dream of safety-conscious motorists.” Mr. Ditlow has worked for seatbelts, airbags, electronics to avoid crashes, automotive recalls, and “achieved lemon laws in all 50 states.” His attitude seems to be: if you don’t want laws governing automobiles, make them safe in the first place.
Yaffa Eliach, 79. When she was 4 years old, she survived the massacre of her Lithuanian town by Nazis. As an adult, she made it her mission to document victims’ lives, not just their deaths. She spent more than $600,000 of her money and 15 years travelling to 50 states and other countries looking for pictures, diaries, and letters. Her discoveries accounted for 92% of her village’s slaughtered Jewish population. 1,500 of her photographs were chosen for an exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D. C. entitled “Tower of Faces”, sometimes called a “Tower of Life.” By 2016, 40 million people had visited the museum.
Bob Fletcher, 101. Japanese-Americans were placed in internment camps in isolated sections of the Western United States during WWII. Their homes and businesses were lost. In California, Bob Fletcher quit his job as a state agricultural inspector and began taking care of the farms of three such families. He kept their farms working. After the war ended and the families returned, their farms and 50% of the profits they had earned were available to them. Mr. Fletcher then began a farm of his own and spent 20 years as a volunteer fireman before his retirement. When asked, he explained his kindness by saying: “Yes. It was a lot of work.” It was what friends and neighbors did for each other.
Yvette Fay Francis-McBarnette, 89. She entered college at 14 and earned a degree in physics in three and a half years. At age 19, she became the 2nd black woman at the Yale School of Medicine. By 1993, she successfully used antibiotics to treat children with sickle cell anemia –15 years before such treatment was confirmed as effective by the medical community. While no cure for the disease exists, proper treatment can reduce pain and prolong life. In 1966, she and other doctors began research into the disease. From age 52 on, she has centered her work on treatment and research for the illness. A patient said: “When she retired, I didn’t know if I would ever find any doctor like her, and to tell you the truth, I never have.”
Joe Garagiola, 90. He was a catcher in MLB for 9 years. But as he said: “I wasn’t the best catcher in baseball. Growing up, I wasn’t even the best catcher on my street.” (Yogi Berra was.) Later, he was a sports commentator and co-host for the “Today” show on television for 57 years. He was more entertaining in those roles than as a ballplayer.
Fred Hellerman, 89. He was the last surviving member of the musical group, the Weavers (with Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Ronnie Gilbert). With songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Goodnight Irene”, their popularity influenced folk singers (eg, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary). In the 1950s, the group was blacklisted as Communists and their work decreased significantly. But their positive effect on youth and social causes in the 1960s and beyond, continued.
Dr. Donald Henderson, 87. He led the World Health Organization’s successful war to eradicate smallpox, and shared the credit saying: “It was a team effort and credit should go to the nameless health workers who went out and found the cases.” Background information: Smallpox is thought to have begun over 10,000 years ago. It is blamed for at least 300 million deaths, and killing 80% of American Indians who caught it (and was a major factor in the European conquest of the New World), and was survived by Presidents Washington, Jackson, and Lincoln.
Ken Howard, 71. He was an actor in TV, film, and on Broadway (eg, “1776”) for over 40 years. He was President of the Screen Actors Guild. But, IMO, his most effective role was as the white high school basketball coach on television in “The White Shadow” (1978-81). He taught inner city athletes how to shoot free throws, deal with college recruiters, and how to adjust their future life goals based upon a realistic assessment of their athletic ability. Actual coaches could learn from his portrayal.
David Huddleston, 85. From 1960 to 2014, he performed in 145 films and television shows. His favorite role was portraying Ben Franklin on Broadway in a production of “1776.” But he is best known for his roles in “Blazing Saddles” (as Olson Johnson) and “The Big Lebowski” –as THE Lebowski for whom Jeff Bridges was mistaken.
Gwen Ifill, 61. How often does the death of a TV broadcaster make you feel a personal sense of loss? Gwen’s death had that effect on many people. She worked on major newspapers and national television networks (eg, PBS). She broke barriers in these industries for her race and sex. She was half of the first female co-anchor team of a major news broadcast. Co-workers said about her: “As a reporter, she shed light, not heat, on a subject.” “You could read a book by the light of her smile.” Her show: “Washington Week in Review” was required viewing for unbiased, quality national news. Her talent, engaging personality, and good humor will be missed by family and friends, co-workers and audiences alike.
End of Part One. Second, and final, part next time.