Every death leaves an echo, a memory, a ledger of glories, regrets and sometimes, if the life is lived well enough, lessons for what is to come. The future, after all, has many architects, and they don’t always agree.
Especially when it comes to matters of faith.
Among the most prominent deaths of 2018 was evangelist Billy Graham, the pulpit-shaking preacher from North Carolina who died in February at the age of 99. Graham’s more than 400 Crusades carried his unshakable Gospel “to the ends of the earth,” reaching an estimated 2 billion people. “My home is in Heaven,” he said. “I’m just traveling through this world.”
Graham’s faith was unyielding. “The Bible is not a book of science. I accept the Creation story. I believe God did create the universe.”
But wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking, who succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease at the age of 76 in March, worshipped numbers instead. Paralyzed and speaking with a computer-assisted accent long before Siri or Alexa, Hawking insisted his calculations proved the universe might have simply appeared from nothingness, with no need for a god to balance the equation. “Science,’’ Hawking said, “has a more compelling explanation than a divine creator.”
Those confused could always turn to another architect, Detroit’s Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, who died in August from cancer at 76, to take them to a joyful church every time she took the stage. “You better think,’’ she sang, “think about what you’re trying to do to me. Yeah, think, think, think, let your mind go, let yourself be free.”
Whether in music, thoughts or prayer, many such world-builders left us in 2018, each carving new paths for their families, professions or world. And because of extended lifespans, the deaths brought back histories well beyond the recall of the youngest today.
Just this month, five days of remembrances retold the story of George H.W. Bush, 94, the World War II hero and Cold War president who saw the Berlin Wall fall, stared down a Middle East dictator and spent his final decades jumping out of airplanes just for the thrill of it. His wife of 73 years, Barbara, 92, who died in Houston eight months earlier, spent a lifetime of summers presiding over a brood of Bush politicians on the chilly coast of Maine.
The funeral of another war hero and presidential hopeful, John McCain, 81, recalled his imprisonment in North Vietnam and a legacy of political courage that often defied party lines. Others on the world stage were former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, 80, and South African activist Winnie Mandela, 81, their fights for tolerance still not done.
The entertainment world lost stars such as the now politically incorrect macho man Burt Reynolds, 82; 1950s heartthrob Tab Hunter, 86; and a batch of familiar sitcom regulars such as Charlotte Rae, 92 (Facts of Life), Ken Berry, 85 (F Troop), Jerry Van Dyke, 86 (Coach), David Ogden Stiers, 75 (M*A*S*H) and Bill Daily, 91 (I Dream of Jeannie and The Bob Newhart Show).
When Superman made his leap to the big screen 40 years ago, Margot Kidder memorably introduced a wisecracking Lois Lane. Later hobbled by mental illness, her death in May at age 69 was ruled a suicide.
Character actor Scott Wilson, 76, went from playing criminals in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night and In Cold Blood to the beloved but doomed patriarch on The Walking Dead; wrestling superstar Bruno Sammartino, 82, at one point held the heavyweight championship for 11 years; the 2’8” Verne Troyer of “Mini-Me” fame, 49, is now a recurring meme; and Frank Sinatra’s first wife Nancy Sinatra Sr., mother of his three children, died at 101 (oh, what stories she could tell).
A pair of actor-magicians, Harry Anderson, 65, and Ricky Jay, 72, are gone, along with Reg E Cathey, 59, of The Wire and House of Cards; Mark Salling, a suicide at 35, was a troubled star of Glee; musical-comedy star of the 1940s Nanette Fabray, 97; and for those old enough to remember, one of the original Mouseketeers from 1955, Doreen Tracey, 74, (or as she would proclaim, “Doreen!!”).
Behind the cameras, producer Stephen Bochco, 74, brought gritty ensemble dramas Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law to TV, and Gary Kurtz, 78, produced the first two Star Wars films, sometimes battling director George Lucas along the way. Said Lucas: “Gary’s passing will be felt throughout the Star Wars family.”
A trio of iconoclastic directors Bernardo Bertolucci, 77 (Last Tango in Paris), Nicolas Roeg, 90 (The Man Who Fell to Earth), and Milos Forman, 86 (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus), left techniques and approaches still emulated by filmmakers today.
Predictors of a scary digital future died as well: Douglas Rain, 90, who was the voice of the homicidal Hal the computer in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that"); and John Perry Barlow, 70, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead who fought for an unfettered Internet with the Electronic Frontier Federation.
The world of fantasy lost Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee, 95, whose creative achievement rivals Walt Disney in impact (just check out the images on kids’ T-shirts and backpacks these days). Working with a bullpen of artists, including the late Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, 90, who died in June, Lee co-created Spider-Man, the Hulk, Fantastic Four, Iron Man and the Avengers, and appeared in cameos in at least 37 movies featuring Marvel characters, some not yet released.
Fans of one of television’s wackiest characters, Spongebob Squarepants, were shocked to hear that creator Stephen Hillenburg died from ALS at the age of 57. Also gone: cartoonist Mort Walker, 90, who created long-running comic strips Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois (In the Didja Know Dept., Lois is Beetle’s sister).
Beyond Aretha Franklin, the music world lost amiable country legend and Hee Haw host Roy Clark, 85; Vic Damone, 89, one of the original crooners of the 1940s; Jefferson Airplane founder Marty Balin, 76, who went from chanting “gotta revolution,’’ to smoother fare; Chicago blues master Otis Rush, 83; Tony Joe White, 75, who wrote “Rainy Night in Georgia”; jazz trumpeter Hugh Masakela, 78; choreographer Paul Taylor, 88, credited with modernizing dance; France’s most popular singer, Charles Aznavour, 94; and D.J. Fontana, 87, drummer for no less than Elvis Presley.
Among edgier artists were style icon Dolores O’Riordan, 46, of The Cranberries; Pete Shelley, 63, of early punk band The Buzzcocks; rapper Mac Miller, 26, a drug overdose victim and Grammy nominee who was a former boyfriend of Ariana Grande; and rapper XXXTentacion, 20, who won several music awards after he was shot dead when he was robbed in Florida.
Media, literature and journalism lost conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer, 68; world food explorer Anthony Bourdain, yet another suicide at 61; chronicler of the rich and famous Robin Leach, 76; America’s most popular playwright (The Odd Couple is just one of his comedies) and Pulitzer winner Neil Simon, 91; Pulitzer-winning writer of angst and loss Philip Roth, 85; science fiction’s Ursula K. Le Guin, 88, and rebel Harlan Ellison, 84, so angry about digital thievery that he insisted his name be trademarked.
Tom Wolfe, 88, whose “New Journalism” stretched from acid tests to Wall Street, gave NASA a human face when he profiled the original seven astronauts in The Right Stuff. It should be noted that two more humans who walked on the moon, Alan Bean, 86, and John Young, 87, died this year. Only four moonwalkers remain.
Superstars of sports included Willie McCovey, 80, who smashed 521 home runs, mostly for the New York Giants. But he also is remembered for what could have been a game-winning two-out line drive in the bottom of the ninth that was snared by second baseman Bobby Richardson, instead handing Game Seven of the 1962 World Series to the New York Yankees. A Peanuts cartoon later that year showed an agonized Charlie Brown exclaiming “Why couldn’t McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?”
Record breakers and champions included Roger Bannister, 88, who in 1954 was the first runner to break the four-minute mile (3 minutes, 59.4 seconds}; seven-time NBA champion Frank Ramsey, 86, of the Boston Celtics dynasty; 38-time LPGA golf champion Carol Mann, 77; Maria Bueno, 78, who won 19 grand slam tennis championships, including three Wimbledons and four U.S. Opens; Green Bay Packer Jim Taylor, 83, winner of the first Super Bowl; and Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup champion Stan Mikita, 78, one of the first NHL payers to wear a helmet after a puck sheared off part of his ear in 1967.
Also Hal Greer, 81, a guard for the 1967 NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers; and World Series winners Bruce Kison, 68 (twice with the Pittsburgh Pirates), Red Schoendienst, 95 (five times with the St. Louis Cardinals) and Wally Moon, 87 (three times with the Los Angeles Dodgers). New York Mets fans won’t forget Rusty Staub, 73, a six-time All-Star.
Tech billionaire Paul Allen, 65, co-founded Microsoft and also owned the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers and NFL’s Seattle Seahawks; Pulitzer winner Dave Anderson, 89, of The New York Times elevated sports writing to literature; and sportscaster Keith Jackson, 89, whose signature call of “Whoa, Nellie!” punctuated college football games for decades.
The high-profile suicides of Bourdain, which seemed at odds with his delight as he savored foods of the world for CNN, superstar handbag designer Kate Spade, 55, whose name alone could move fashion, and other celebrities, shocked observers while raising awareness about the disease. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the USA; there are almost 50,000 deaths a year.
“Remember that help is a phone call away. 1-800-273-TALK,” tweeted TV chef Gordon Ramsay after Bourdain’s death. Spade’s brother-in-law, comedian David Spade, reached out as well: “It’s a rough world out there, people. Try to hang on.”
And we cannot forget the valiant souls lost in war zones overseas. Through Dec. 10 this year, there have been at least 29 deaths of U.S. servicemembers in the wars in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
Sadly, another category of death is becoming a new abnormal: mass shootings. There were more than 300 incidents in 2018, according to the Gun Violence Archive, including massacres at schools in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, a Pittsburgh synagogue and a bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Lives ended or were changed without warning, reason or much of a political response by lawmakers.
Others, however, know when the end is near and, hopefully, like Bush, Graham, Hawking and McCain, can be satisfied that their lives made a difference. Such was the case with commentator Krauthammer, a Pulitzer winner battling cancer for years, who told his readers of his fatal diagnosis in a Washington Post column just 13 days before his death.
“I am sad to leave,’’ he wrote, “but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Aretha Franklin, Stephen Hawking, George H.W. Bush and other luminaries: A look at legends we’ve lost in 2018