10 Not-So-Famous People We Lost in 2011

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It has been a solemn year for famous deaths, with tributes to those who achieved several decades of greatness (Dame Elizabeth Taylor), those who died before their time (Amy Winehouse), and even some who belong in both categories (Steve Jobs). Then there were those influential, inspiring, or simply fascinating people who were not nearly as famous, but should be saluted nonetheless for their great feats — from the founder of the Internet (no, really) to the mystery woman on one of the most famous album covers of the sixties.

1. Robert Ettinger: The Immortal Man

Presumably unlike everyone else on this list, Robert Ettinger might yet return. A physics teacher and science fiction writer, he believed that death is only for the unprepared. The father of the cryonics movement, his frozen, 92-year-old body is now stored in a vat of liquid nitrogen at a building outside Detroit, waiting for medical technology to restore him to good health. In 1962, Ettinger described the practical and moral aspects of deep-freezing the dead in the founding document of cryonics, The Prospect of Immortality. Later he founded the Cryonics Institute, which offers discount rates (starting at $28,000) for those who want to be preserved – one-fifth the price of his nearest competitor. It now houses 106 people and dozens of pets. Among the other bodies are Ettinger’s mother and his two wives. “If both of my wives are revived,” he admitted last year, “that will be a high class problem.”

2. Joanne Siegel: A Superman’s Best Girlfriend

Joanne Kovacs was the model for perhaps the most influential character in the history of superhero comics. We’re not talking Superman, of course, but his girlfriend, Lois Lane. Boys could be inspired by Superman’s physique and his sense of morality, but they could never expect to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Girls, however, could be (and were) inspired by Lois’s spirit, courage, and professional ambition in a world before Women’s Liberation. Kovacs, a Cleveland teenager who took up modelling to earn extra pocket money, was used as the model for Lois by two young artists, Joe Shuster and Larry Jerry Siegel. They quickly befriended Kovacs, who would also be the model for Lois’s feisty personality. Siegel married her in 1948, while Lois in the comics still wasn’t giving Clark Kent the time of day.

This year also saw the death of Stetson Kennedy, the social crusader who worked with Superman in his greatest victory: defeating the Ku Klux Klan.

3. John Cashin, Jr: Civil Rights Candidate

The death in March of Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice-presidential nominee from a major party (she was Democrat Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984), rightly won much coverage in March. That same week, fewer people noticed the passing of John L Cashin, Jr, another groundbreaker who tried – and failed – to win major public office. In 1970, Cashin, a dentist and civil rights leader, was the first African-American to run for governor of Alabama. He lost in a landslide to George C. Wallace, renowned for his tough anti-civil rights views. Though he won only 15 percent of the vote, Cashin’s political and legal work inspired many other African-Americans to run for higher office. Moreover, his efforts to forge an independent, non-segregationist Democratic party proved fruitful. Alabama, with a smaller black population than some of its neighboring states, soon had Dixie’s highest number of local African-American officials.

4. Paul Baran: Founding Father of the Internet

If there were a Mount Rushmore of Internet pioneers, Paul Baran would have to be on it. In the 1960s, the Polish-born scientist devised a technology known as packet-switching, which packaged data into discrete bundles called “message blocks.” His idea was to build the Arpanet, a distributed communications network, safe from attack or disruption in the event of nuclear exchange. He was so far ahead of his time that AT&T turned him down, insisting that the Arpanet was unworkable. The US military thought otherwise, however, using it as the forerunner of the Internet. Baran was too modest to claim credit for the Internet, which he compared to a cathedral:

“Over the course of several hundred years, new people come along and each lays down a block on top of the old foundations… Then comes along an historian who asks, ‘Well, who built the cathedral?’ Peter added some stones here, and Paul added a few more. If you are not careful, you can con yourself into believing that you did the most important part. But the reality is that each contribution has to follow on to previous work. Everything is tied to everything else.”

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5. Suzie Rotolo: The Girl on Dylan’s Arm

Though it’s not as critically acclaimed as Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited or many other Bob Dylan albums, it’s probably his most famous album cover: Dylan walking in Greenwich Village with a girlfriend. While The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) had such reflective songs as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” the cover was a portrait of young love, with Dylan smiling downwards and his pretty girl, Suzie Rotolo, grinning brightly at the camera. Of course, it didn’t last, and she later became the muse for some of Dylan’s breakup songs — “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “One Too Many Mornings," “Ballad of Plain D” — when she decided not to be, as she wrote later, “just this string on his guitar… just this chick.”

She avoided the spotlight, married someone else, and became a book artist. Her own view of that magical time? “All this indulgence of the sixties, ay-yi-yi, get over it. There will always be creative people who feel that they’re different and create a community of some kind. Whether it’s a physical neighborhood or an Internet neighborhood, in Bushwick or in Greenwich Village, it’s not over.”

6. Kate Swift: Gender Linguist

If you like hearing about flight attendants and actors (or both genders), you can probably thank editor Kate Swift. Before her, sexism was an everyday part of the English language. When Swift and Casey Miller were asked to copy-edit a sex education manual for junior high school students in 1970, they noticed a major problem. “We suddenly realized what was keeping his message — his good message — from getting across, and it hit us like a bombshell,” Swift said in 1994. “It was the pronouns. They were overwhelmingly masculine-gendered.” Swift and Miller wrote about this in essays (such as “Desexing the English Language,” which appeared in the first issue of Ms. in 1972) and two books: Words and Women: New Language in New Times and The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. Though some of their ideas (“genkind” as a replacement for “mankind,” “tey” as a gender-neutral substitute for “he/she”) didn’t catch on, the books subtly changed the language, assuring that it now has a better gender balance.

7. Alan Haberman: Baron of the Barcodes

Though barcode technology was invented back in 1949, it did not become the standard until after Alan Haberman, chief executive of New England’s First National chain of grocery stores, headed a commission of retail executives in 1973. These execs discussed ways to make the retail experience easier, including the famously long check-out queues. After two years of meetings, the committee settled on the vertical bar format: the Universal Product Code (UPC) that appears on almost any product you buy. The first barcoded product was rung up by an optical scanner in 1974. Now, more than 10 billion bar codes are scanned worldwide each day.

8. Sybil Jason: South Africa’s own Shirley Temple

A few years ago, I wrote an article on movie star fan clubs and noted that, 70 years after her peak, Sybil Jason still had fans. I received a disappointed reply from Jason herself, not willing to be dismissed as a faded star. (We kept in touch after that, via email.) Not just a cute face, the South Africa-born Jason was a child prodigy who, at age five, could sing, dance, play piano and do uncanny celebrity impersonations. In the 1930s, she was signed by Warner Bros as their answer to 20th Century Fox’s biggest – and cutest – star, Shirley Temple. However, despite her flair for impersonations, her South African accent made her difficult to understand. She was later signed with 20th Century Fox as one of Shirley Temple’s co-stars. Jason returned to South Africa during World War II, but the two child stars remained friends for decades, well after their film careers were over. Though her films were mostly forgotten, Jason’s fan club was still active last year.

9. Del Connell: Unknown Comic Book Hero

Some comic book writers get no respect. You have probably heard of Stan Lee and Alan Moore, and if you haven’t heard of many others, at least their names are known (through the credits pages) to many comic book fans. But those who wrote comics in the so-called Golden Age and Silver Age, when comics could reliably sell a million or more copies, usually went uncredited, and didn’t even retain the copyright to their own work. Del Connell started as an artist on Disney animations in 1939, and moved to Dell Comics in 1954, where he churned out literally thousands of comics. He also created numerous characters, including Daisy Duck's nieces (April, May and June) and Supergoof, Goofy's superhero alter ego. His most famous creation, however, was the Space Family Robinson, first seen in the comics in 1962. Two years later, Irwin Allen transferred the characters to television in the popular series Lost in Space, but Connell (as usual) received no credit or royalties. When he finally received a lifetime achievement award this year at the San Diego Comic-Con, only a few people – those who knew his name – knew that the award was long overdue.

10. Vann Nath: Survivor (and Chronicler) of the Killing Fields

Vann Nath was one of only a handful of people to survive the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Seng torture camp, in which 14,000 died. A gifted artist, he recorded his year in Phnom Penh’s notorious Killing Fields in a series of dark and disturbing paintings (now hung from the walls in a genocide museum). Ironically, his artistic talent – depicting the horror of the regime – allowed him to be spared so that he could produce portraits of the notorious leader, Pol Pot. Last year, giving evidence before the UN war crimes tribunal, Nath added tearful words to his artistic depictions. “We were so hungry, we would eat insects that dropped from the ceiling,” he recalled. “We would quickly grab and eat them so we could avoid being seen by the guards. My suffering cannot be erased – the memories keep haunting me.” The torture had long-term effects on his health and frailty, possibly hastening his death at 66.

Bonus: Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen: Cult Figures

Though they have some degree of fame (at least compared to others on this list), I can’t resist adding some actors I enjoyed watching during my childhood. Fans of the classic Doctor Who series were in mourning in the early months of the 2011, which saw the passing of two English actors who — apart from those who played the Doctor himself — were perhaps the most important faces of the series.

Nicholas Courtney was the Brigadier, the Doctor’s longest-serving ally, a terribly British military officer who aided the hero against any number of alien threats. In this role (and a few others), Courtney appeared in the series over a period of 24 years.

In the 1970s, Elisabeth Sladen played Sarah Jane Smith, easily the Doctor’s most popular companion (back when the word “companion” seemed entirely innocent), a spirited journalist. She was so popular that, more than 30 years later, she was finally given her own spin-off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, which was still going strong when she died at age 65.

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December 15, 2011 - 7:59pm
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