Great lives we lost in 2014

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Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman attends the 'God's Pocket' premiere at Eccles Center Theatre during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival on January 17, 2014 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)

Many singular, precious lives came to a close this year. From Robin Williams to Brittany Maynard, from Maya Angelou to Lewis Katz to Tony Gwynn, they remind us of the dumbfounding variety of human achievement. And those are only the lives the whole world knows about. Imagine the millions of lives of quiet heroism, suffering, triumph, and love out there. The mind fails.

But memory needn't. Here's the briefest overview of some of the world's greats whose lives are now glowing, legible wholes.

Leaders. When he boarded his final ride, Lewis Katz, 72, had just won, with H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, a tug-of-war for ownership of The Inquirer. Israeli general and prime minister Ariel Sharon, 85, was as accomplished in peace as in war. Embattled former D.C. mayor Marion Barry was 78. Presidential advisor and anti-gun activist James Brady was 73. And Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, 63, had been a most hapless dictator in Haiti.

Newsmakers. Among many other first-responder deaths this year, Joyce Craig, 36, of Philadelphia was fighting fire with bravery. Brittany Maynard brought suicide into the spotlight when she chose it at 29 rather than die of a brain tumor. Fashion king Oscar de la Renta joined the celestials in style at 82.

Two great Philadelphia artists stepped outside the lines. Tony Auth, 72, was a Pulitzer-winning cartoonist who graced The Inquirer with verve and genius for more than 40 years. Philly artist John Overmyer, 72, furnished art for many an op-ed page and decorated the walls of the Tin Angel. Longtime Inquirer art critic Edward Sozanski was 77.

Master puppeteer Bob Baker was 90, and longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee was 93. The deaths of Michael Brown, 18, of Ferguson, Mo.; Eric Garner, 43, of Staten Island, N.Y.; and Tamir Rice, 12, of Cleveland, convulsed the country about one of our oldest and most vexing social issues. And Glenn Edward McDuffie, 86, said he was the sailor kissing that pretty girl in the famous photo on VJ Day in Times Square.

Film and TV. Two victims of depression were among the most lamented passings of the year: beloved comic whirlwind Robin Williams, 63, and gifted actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, only 46.

Speaking of beloved, who was more so than curly-topped Shirley Temple, 85, who helped the world sing and dance its way through an economic depression? Mickey Rooney, 93, did his bit, too. And James Garner closed his notebook at 86.

One of the greatest talents in U.S. history, Mike Nichols, 83, left us marveling at the variety of his gifts. Fellow comic genius and directing prodigy Harold Ramis was 69.

Lauren Bacall, 89, was stunning and classy all the way. Hers was an incredible generation of entertainers that walked hand in hand from this stage to the next, including Ruby Dee, 91; Richard Attenborough, 90; Eli Wallach, 98; Elaine Stritch, 89; Ann B. Davis, 88; Maximilian Schell, 83; and Joan Rivers, 81. And all Elysium will be cracking up at the brilliant wit of Sid Caesar, 91.

Three of the most beloved of all U.S. voices were broadcast past the airwaves: chocolaty baritone Don Pardo, 96; crackly platter-spinner Casey Kasem, 82; and Car Talk crazy Tom Magliozzi, 77.

Sports. Upper Darby High grad Jack Ramsay, 89, coached the St. Joseph's Hawks and the Sixers before achieving NBA glory. Jim Fregosi, 71, was a fine baseball player and managed the Phillies to a World Series. Ralph Kiner, 91, hit the ball a mile on the diamond and at the mike. Louis Zamperini, 97, lived one of the widest-ranging lives, as war hero, Olympian, and subject of the new film Unbroken. Tony Gwynn, 54, was one of the most creative, aware, and resourceful of hitters. Alice Coachman, 90, was the first African American woman to win Olympic gold. Bob Suter, 57, was on the "Miracle on Ice" Olympic hockey team, and Bob Welch, 57, could pitch a little bit. Rubin Carter, 76, was a hurricane.

Music. The Afterlife Orchestra (welcome to the podium, conductors Claudio Abbado, 80, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, 80, and Lorin Maazel, 84) gets better each year, and this year it has a decidedly Americana flavor, augmented by Pete Seeger, 94, who now knows where all the young girls have gone. Phil Everly, 74, and Jesse Winchester, 69, will help him keep it rootsy. Jazz great Horace Silver was 85, and genius bassist Charlie Haden, 76, will give things depth.

What a rock band the angels are getting to have. Joe Cocker, 70, is now up where he belongs, doing the original and best air-guitar of all time. He can trade off lead vocals with Jimmy Ruffin, 78, who sang "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" in 1966, and Big Bank Hank, 57, of the Sugarhill Gang. Ian McLagan, 69, of the Faces, and Paul Revere, 76, of the Raiders can hold down keys, while Bobby Keys, 70, can blow roadhouse sax. Jack Bruce, 71, will scorch on bass, and Johnny Winter, 70, will sear on guitar, while Tommy Ramone, 65, will smash his drums.

Paco de Lucía, 66, defined flamenco/classical guitar for a generation. Gerry Goffin, pop lyricist extraordinaire, was 75, Bobby Womack, 70. Camden-born Buddy DeFranco, 91, played a be-boppin' clarinet. And Maria von Trapp, 99, now dwells with the sound of music.

Literature. Nobel novelist Gabriel García Márquez, 87, was magical and real. So was Little Big Man's Thomas Berger, 89. P.D. James, 94, was mistress of the crime thriller. And novelist Nadine Gordimer, 90, also a Nobelist, was the conscience of a South African generation.

Poets' Corner in Paradise is getting crowded. Maya Angelou, 86, now adds to the light, as do the wonderful Galway Kinnell, 87, Mark Strand, 80, Carolyn Kizer, 89, and Maxine Kumin, 88.

Stephen Berg, 79, was an honored poet and educator and cofounder of Philly's preeminent verse journal, the American Poetry Review. Amiri Baraka, 79, of Newark, was a passionate, controversial voice spanning the Beats and the civil-rights era. Peter Matthiessen, 86, was a novelist, nature writer, and, it was said, CIA agent.

Science and technology. Our minds and worlds owe a great deal to this illustrious bunch. Ralph Baer, 92, designed the precursor to Pong, the first popular video game. Martin Perl, 87, discovered the subatomic particle known as the tau lepton. X-15 pilot Bill Dana, 83, helped lay the way for the astronauts, as did NASA chief scientist Noel Hinners, 78, and rocket scientist Dieter Grau, 101. Rostislav Belyakov, 94, designed MiG fighter jets. Clyde Snow, 86, helped forensic science develop, and eminent inventor S. Donald Stookey, 99, had an array of patents, including the one for what became CorningWare.

 


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406 @jtimpane