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Remembering Some Remarkable Lives Lost In 2009

Talk of the Nation reached out to friends and colleagues at NPR to ask them to remind us of some of the remarkable men and women who died in 2009. They responded with personal stories about the people who inspired them.

Arnie Sachar, 'A True Intellectual'

Remembered by Margot Adler

Arnie Sachar died this year. No, you never heard of him. He not only wasn't famous, he was one of the many people on this Earth who never get recognized for anything they do, except by a small circle of friends. We at NPR, like most of the media, tend to celebrate the successful, the famous and the celebrated.

Sachar lived alone in Queens, N.Y.; he never finished college; he didn't have a real career; in the end, he was pretty disabled and lived on a tiny bit of money left from his parents. But for 40 years, Sachar called radio stations to ask deep questions, and to make probing, existential points. He wasn't the kind of caller we know so well: the kind who tells you what they think about Iran or health care policy. No. Like 1960s anarchist Paul Goodman, the author of Growing up Absurd, Sachar assumed that most people, like him, lived lives of quiet desperation, that much of modern life, politics, technology, science and education was deeply unfeeling and alienating. He always asked things like: How do we do work that is truly meaningful? How do we allow passion, sensuality and ecstasy into our lives? How do we stop being defined by the boring jobs many of us hold?

Sachar was a true intellectual without portfolio. He made lifelong friends among the radio people he called, and many were at his funeral. He and friends published a tiny literary journal, And Then — about 800 copies per issue — yet the subjects of the poems and essays within those pages were eternal ones, the ones we will remember decades after we forget the name of our local member of Congress or current secretary of defense. Every few weeks, I would get a call from Arnie, who would tell me about an article in an obscure journal or an intellectual fight among academics that was totally fascinating, but that only 100 people cared about.

For the last 21 years of his life, he bemoaned that talk programs on radio no longer provided forums for his existential discussions. Instead, they were only the ideological barkings of the right and the left. Perhaps Internet radio will finally bring back the possibility that Arnie's main question — how do we live a joyous, unalienated life — gets a new hearing.

Ann Nixon Cooper, Centenarian

Remembered by Karen Grigsby Bates

When I went down to Atlanta last summer to visit with Ann Nixon Cooper in preparation for writing her memoir, she wanted me to be very clear about one thing: She thought it was lovely that then-President-elect Obama had taken the time to mention her in his speech on election night. And while she reveled in the media attention that followed, she bristled a little bit that all these people thought she was a complete unknown before Mr. Obama called her name.

"I did have a life before that, you know," she told me.

And she proceeded to have her friends and family pull out photo albums, vintage newspapers and reams of letters to prove it.

There she was with eminent sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, whose landmark 1957 treatise, The Black Bourgeoisie, would spark years of public and private debate on class stratification in black America. There she was in a group photo of black Atlanta socialites, her friend Coretta Scott King smiling a few people away from her. Newlyweds Nat and Maria Cole beamed in her den as they went out back to a clubhouse her husband built specifically so she could entertain in the style she thought appropriate.

She worked briefly as a policy writer for Atlanta Life, the big, black-owned hometown business. "They hired me because I had beautiful handwriting," she said proudly. "If you pull the old policy books, you can see for yourself." She quit that when she became pregnant with her first child, and stayed home to have and raise three more.

Although she didn't work for pay, Mrs. Cooper probably spent a full workweek volunteering. She started the first black Boy Scout troop in Atlanta, founded several book clubs (and still participated in one until last year), taught fitness classes to senior citizens younger than she until she was 100, and was a literacy tutor at the church her friends, the Revs. Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. pastored.

She wore heels higher than any I dared to, and firmly believed one should capitalize on one's best assets. "Mine are my legs," she grinned. "I still got good ones!" And boy, did she.

Mrs. Cooper is gone now, just shy of her 108th birthday. But she enjoyed her life while she lived it. And last summer, as she pointed to the picture that brought her so much attention last year — a picture of her casting her early vote, in person (in high heels, of course) — she leaned over and patted my hand.

"When you think about where we were when I was born and what's happening now — it's amazing. I never thought I'd live to see the day a black man might be president. And now here he is, in the White House! America is something, isn't it?"

It is indeed.

This remembrance first appeared on NPR's Two-Way news blog.

Kim Peek, 'The Real Rain Man'

Remembered by Howard Berkes

Kim Peek was buried in December during a light snowfall in Salt Lake City. If he had still been alive, he probably would have been able to detail the weather on the same day, year after year, deep into history. He would have been able to name notable events and the births of notable people on that day. And with enough time, he could have recited every word in thousands of novels and ticked off the names, addresses and phone numbers listed in every phone book he's read.

Peek's mind was so much like a computer he was called the "Kim-puter." But, like a computer, the mega-savant lacked "the ability to take those things ... and use them, to reason with them ... to know the implications, to make judgments based on them," notes Daniel Christensen, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah's Neuropsychiatric Institute.

Christensen and other scientists found that Peek's brain was missing the bundle of nerve fibers that connect the right and left hemispheres.

Peek could commit to memory almost everything he saw and heard, but he couldn't make sense of it. And he lacked the cognitive abilities and motor skills to do the simplest things, including buttoning his shirt.

Two years after his chance encounter with Peek, screenwriter Barry Morrow wrote the Hollywood blockbuster Rain Main, which featured Dustin Hoffman playing the title character, a man inspired by Peek. Both Hoffman and Morrow won Academy Awards, and Morrow eventually gave his Oscar to Peek.

Rain Man transformed Peek, from an obscure and isolated savant to a globe-trotting public speaker billed as the "Real Rain Man." He and his attentive father, Fran, a specialist in Utah's Special Education law, used Kim's sudden fame to campaign for fair and respectful treatment of the mentally disabled.

Christensen says Peek was unique among savants. Most, he says, had one particular obsessive specialty, say music or math or sports. Peek burrowed into 15.

To the end, Peek defied attempts to classify and understand him. In fact, he was so wrapped up in facts, some said he was too literal to have a sense of humor.

But reporter Lois Collins of the Salt Lake City Deseret News reported in July that Peek had begun telling jokes, displaying a level of cognitive reasoning supposedly beyond his reach.

"In Cleveland," Collins reported, "speaking at a Catholic school, [Peek] tells a priest there's a typo in the church's policies and procedures. 'They left the R out of celebrate,' he deadpans."

Christensen sums up Peek this way. "No one knows to this day why, exactly why, people can do things like Kim could do."

Kim Peek died Dec. 19, at age 58, from a massive heart attack. Christensen says there may never be another savant quite like him.

Sam Maloof, 'Dean Of American Woodworking'

Remembered by Neda Ulaby

Sam Maloof died at the age of 93, the first American craftsman to be honored with a MacArthur "genius grant." The son of Syrian immigrants, he was one of the fathers of California's modern arts movement. Although he started off making furniture because he couldn't afford to buy his own, his iconic rocking chairs now cost as much as sports cars.

I interviewed Maloof just a month before his death, in the living room of his hand-built redwood house. (It's on the National Register of Historic Places and remains open to the public). He was very old and in ill health — not the famously exuberant wood guru who terrified onlookers by carving his pieces freehand, with a band saw. Still, he radiated a sort of honor and humility.

He insisted on making me tea and peppered me with questions about my own Syrian heritage. As we sat, surrounded by his taut, sculptural and utterly wonderful furniture, he referred to himself repeatedly with an Arabic expression I'd never heard before: "He's a failure; he works with his hands." It seemed to reflect lingering embarrassment about being the black sheep of the family; the only one of his siblings who'd never graduated from college.

But by the time he died, Maloof had at least three honorary Ph.D.s and was the acknowledged dean of American woodworking. He was restless to finish all the projects he had under way, but admitted ruefully, "I'd have to live to be at least a hundred."

Sam, you came awfully close.

Jorge Reyes, Musician

Remembered by Felix Contreras

Although the phrase "Ancient Future" was dreamed up by another group of musical visionaries, it applied to the music of Mexican musician Jorge Reyes, who died on Feb. 7.

After studying music at the National School of Music, Mexico (Escuela Nacional de Musica de la UNAM), he traveled around the world (Turkey, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka) collecting folk instruments and refining a vision that seemed to be waiting for the technology to express it.

After a successful decade as a progressive art rocker — think early Pink Floyd rather than Yes — Reyes reached back into his own cultural history to re-create himself and his music. Handmade ceramic flutes, small drums made from logs and clay pots, rattles of various sizes: It all became part of Reyes' sonic identity on a string of 20 albums that meshed indigena with the keyboards and samplers of electronica.

My introduction to Reyes was by way of a good friend from Mexico (thanks Elena!) who was surprised his music wasn't more popular here in the U.S. Those who must classify and categorize music called it Ambient at first, then New Age.

But Reyes' music is much more than New Age or even Ambient.

It's a calculated and very thought-out connection between music from the past using instruments from the future: It's ethereal and dreamlike (in fact, his album El Costumbre used recordings of Huichol indigenous dream readers reciting dreams); it floats like smoke from an incense burner; it has the texture of water sliding over smooth rocks.

Jorge Reyes may not have gained the name and musical recognition he deserved outside of Mexico. But those who have heard his music experienced a vision that was cut tragically short when he suffered a heart attack at the age of 57.

I'm thankful for the many moments of peace and tranquility I have experienced through his music, whether at home in a darkened meditative room or even on a busy Metro commute.

Erma Henderson, 'Mother Of Detroit'

Erma Henderson
Lennox McLendon

Remembered by Dennis Herndon

I was just in Detroit, my hometown, to attend a funeral for Erma Henderson. Henderson was known as the "Mother of Detroit." She passed away at the age of 92. The entire City Council, House Reps. John Conyers and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Judge Greg Mathis, who worked as an intern for Henderson, all spoke. TV anchor Diana Lewis was the emcee for the public ceremony. The funeral was covered by all the local television stations.

The Honorable Erma Henderson was elected to the Detroit City Council in 1972 to fill a vacancy created by the death of council member Robert Tindall, and she made history by becoming the first African-American woman to be elected to that post. She then made history by becoming the first woman of any descent and the first African-American to be elected president of the Detroit City Council. During her tenure as council president, she fearlessly and tirelessly crusaded to end redlining, homelessness, police brutality, wage disparity, unfair labor practices and more.

She founded the Women's Conference of Concerns, which organized thousands of women and men throughout the region to empower, educate and enhance families and citizens. She also led successful trade missions around the world — from Detroit to Nairobi, Kenya, to Minsk in the former Soviet Union, to Mexico, Asia and Canada — promoting peace, fair trade, international human rights and justice. She also ran against her longtime friend, Mayor Coleman Young, for mayor. She ran, not because of the job that Young was doing, but to show women that they can run for mayor.

John Rivas, 'Mr. Magic,' DJ

Mr. Magic album cover

Remembered by Zoe Chace

It's hard for me to imagine the radio without hip-hop. Granted, much of the music we hear now is commercialized, Auto-Tuned nonsense that rappers who came up back in the day get mad about. But still, radio is where hip-hop lives. Underground shows still exist to showcase new artists, and hip-hop music is the bread and butter of Radio One. Hip-hop on the radio is how the word gets out about the up-and-coming; it's where a dance craze starts; it's where DJs make names for themselves; it's where rivalries get debated; it's the soundtrack to your summer.

But back in the day? There was only one place to hear it — and you made an appointment. It was like Biggie Smalls said: "Every Saturday, Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl!" In 1983, John Rivas — aka DJ Mr. Magic or Sir Juice — debuted Rap Attack, the first all hip-hop radio show anywhere. Marley Marl was a DJ, and Tyrone "Fly Ty" Williams was the show's co-producer. John Randolph, better known as Jay Smooth, host of New York's longest-running hip-hop radio show, Underground Railroad, put it this way: "There was no such thing as hip-hop radio until he invented it."

Mr. Magic was a gatekeeper. Not only did he make an artist by putting him on his show — remember, virtually the only airtime back then for rappers — he broke artists by trash-talking them on the air. Before music television, before Hot 97, Rap Attack was the way everybody heard hip-hop.

When Mr. Magic died on Oct. 2, tributes poured in from major artists who were raised on Rap Attack. But everyone who listens to music radio has benefited from the moxie of Sir Juice. It's a lesson for anyone who isn't hearing what they want on the radio — just put it on yourself, and the people will come. Now, hip-hop is everywhere. Thank you, Mr. Magic.

Arnold Stang, Actor

Remembered by Neal Conan

Arnold Stang

"Radio allows you to use your imagination," said Arnold Stang. "TV dinners describe what TV is."

Stang, the eternal sidekick and second banana, started out as a child actor on network radio in the 1930s, on shows such as The Horn and Hardart Hour and Let's Pretend, and grew into the role of the wiseacre, swapping jokes in a squeaky voice with Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, Fred Allen, Fanny Brice, Jack Benny and, most memorably, as the nerdy teenager Gerard on Henry Morgan's Great Talent Hunt.

After he accompanied Berle onto TV, viewers could put a skinny frame, big glasses and a bow tie to that trademark squawk. He appeared in a few movies — one really good one, The Man with the Golden Arm, which starred Frank Sinatra; and one very strange one, as Arnold Schwarzenegger's partner in the governator's first feature film, Hercules in New York.

In later years, you might remember that unforgettable voice declaring "Whadda Chunka Chawklit" for Chunky Candy Bars. His best-known star turn came as the voice of Top Cat in the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon based on Phil Silvers' Sgt. Bilko.

Chantay Steptoe-Buford, Researcher

Remembered by Tanya Ballard Brown

On July 29, Chantay Steptoe-Buford passed away after a nine-year fight with cancer and kidney problems. She was 48 and had worked as a researcher in the library of The Tennessean in Nashville for nearly 30 years.

Chantay always smiled. Always. And her smile made you want to smile, too. Her infectious spirit kept her house full of family, friends and good food. I was there many a Sunday and holiday with a full belly along with lots of our Tennessean colleagues.

I lived in Nashville for less than two years, but for the short time I was there, Chantay made sure I had a "family." After I moved to Washington, D.C., Chantay sent me two notes, both of which I had forgotten about until I stumbled across them recently. One thanked me for my friendship and "familyship"; the other wished me great luck and lots of love in my new city.

This fall, Chantay's Tennessean friends conducted a toy drive in her honor and managed to collect a pickup truckload full of toys for needy children. Everyone was so anxious to give to this cause because it meant so much to her.

"Chantay did so much for so many, and many of us didn't realize just how much until she died," says Ellen Margulies, the paper's assistant features editor. "She had a way of making you feel so special, and when we saw the hundreds and hundreds of people at her funeral, it became apparent that to Chantay, everyone truly was special."

Ray Alden, Banjo Player

Remembered by Paul Brown

I call Ray Alden "The Connector." In the relatively tiny world of traditional music, a world I often inhabit when I'm not practicing journalism, he brought individual people together as no one else did. But there was so much more to Ray that it's nearly impossible to describe. He embraced with gusto the people he loved. He took photographs. He painted. He taught high-school mathematics. He recorded musicians. He built high-fidelity speakers. He swam. He rejoiced in his Italian heritage. But perhaps his greatest achievements are that he built himself, against odds and adversity, into an exceptional human being, showed other people they could do the same, and never stopped growing.

Much of what others assumed came naturally to Ray, in fact, did not. He grew up in tough circumstances and deprivation, a street-wise, reserved Bronx city kid. He became a gregarious, welcoming center of a musical community. The sound of the banjo struck him. He loved music. But playing an instrument was very hard for him. He worked and worked at it.

He was so determined that he sought out mentors, such as the great North Carolina fiddler and banjoist Fred Cockerham. To do this, the reserved young guy from the Bronx had to develop big social skills. He did it. He started to record the old-timers in their homes. One good experience grew into another. Ray produced albums. He encouraged younger people. Eventually, he founded the Field Recorders' Collective, to make as many recordings available as possible — and to share the joy he had found.

Look at Ray with Fred Cockerham. Ray is fully there. He's supporting Fred, musically and emotionally. He's respectful, aware he's with a master. He's listening hard. He's learning. And he's living to the fullest. What a great example.

Alaina Reed-Amini, Actress

Remembered by Dalia Martinez

Alaina Reed-Amini (1946-2009) died from breast cancer on Dec. 17. She played Olivia Robinson on Sesame Street in the 1980s. I watched her from Mrs. Rodriguez's second-grade class in Miami. Reed taught me about playing nice with big brother Gordon, the letter N, and singing songs that broke through a foul mood. After leaving Sesame Street, she appeared in another neighborhood on 227, playing Rose.

In the past few years, I caught her in various television and movie roles. Reed is one of the few black actresses I vividly remember from my childhood. Prior to Sesame Street, she had an impressive career on Broadway and as a cabaret singer. But to me, no other role defined her like Olivia Robinson. Reed had the patience to explain the importance of listening to Big Bird; she illustrated the possibility of getting along with siblings (a much-needed example to my big brother and me); and she sang with such a strong, mellifluous voice.

Jeff Hanson, Musician

Remembered by Stephen Thompson

We lost so many musicians in 2009, from the iconic likes of Michael Jackson to the prolifically brilliant Vic Chesnutt, whose suicide darkened Christmas Day. Far fewer people noted the passing of 31-year-old singer, guitarist and songwriter Jeff Hanson, whose music seemed almost otherworldly. With his soft, high, delicate voice, Hanson sounded a little bit like a female Elliott Smith, with all the fragility, preciousness and grace that description suggests.

Jeff Hanson

Hanson's senseless death — the result of an apparent drug overdose on June 5 — lends his music even more of a ghostly ache than it had already, which is saying a lot. He leaves behind three solo albums, each of which unfolds with more promise than the one before it. Jeff Hanson will never get to realize that potential, but his voice is forever etched into the delicate records that bear his name.

Dennis Brutus, Poet And Activist

Remembered by Sue Goodwin

South African poet and human rights activist Dennis Brutus died in his sleep on Dec. 26. He was 85 years old.

Dennis Brutus

His anti-apartheid activism led to South Africa's exclusion from the Olympic Games from l964 until apartheid ended. It also led to his arrest. He was jailed for 18 months at Robben Island in a cell next to Nelson Mandela, and banned from writing.

After he was released, Brutus went into exile and fled to the U.S., where he continued to organize, write and teach. I worked with Dennis in 1984 when he was a writer-in-residence in Washington, D.C., and did workshops with high-school students in D.C. public schools. I watched him convince young writers of the importance of their own experiences in life, and inspire them to use writing as a way to speak truth and make a difference. This is a mark Dennis left on many of those who were fortunate to know him.

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