Deaths in 2021: Headline Names Against the Backdrop of Pandemic

Aaron, Sondheim, Dole and Didion. But the loss of Colin Powell from the virus spoke most directly to the moment the world is in.,

Aaron, Sondheim, Dole and Didion. But the loss of Colin Powell from the virus spoke most directly to the moment the world is in.

Hank Aaron was gone. So were Stephen Sondheim, and Bob Dole, and Cicely Tyson, and Larry King, and Joan Didion. Prince Philip, two months short of 100, was buried with all the royal pomp one would expect. But in a year that saw the deaths of a host of figures who helped shape our era in decades past, none spoke more to the still-perilous present moment than that of Colin Powell.

His death came not just against the backdrop of a global pandemic in its second unrelenting year, but also as another casualty of it. And his case spoke to the vagaries of an elusive, mutating virus that has laid siege to the world. He had been vaccinated, after all, and was under the best of care at Walter Reed, and still he succumbed, his 84-year-old immune system compromised by multiple myeloma.


Credit…Kenneth Lambert/Associated Press

General Powell joined a death toll that has surpassed 800,000 in the country he long served, both in the military and in the halls of government, and four million worldwide. He was probably the most prominent victim of Covid-19 in 2021, but there were others of influence who fell to it too.

Ron Wright, a Texas conservative, in February became the first member of the House of Representatives to die of the virus. The author Donald Cozzens, a former priest who challenged the Catholic Church on its protection of child-molesting clerics, was another Covid victim, as was the music producer Chucky Thompson, a power behind hip-hop and R&B. And no fewer than four American talk-radio hosts, all having the ears of millions on the political right, died of the virus after dismissing the idea of getting vaccinated against it, echoing the message of their most prominent radio peer, Rush Limbaugh, who had compared the virus to the common cold. He died in February, too, of lung cancer.

Plenty of luminaries in the obituary pages escaped the virus, of course, dying of more conventional but no less grievous maladies. But they had at least one thing in common: In a year when no one could get out from under the pall of the pandemic, they died in the midst of it, never to see its end.

Back over on Capitol Hill, still staggered by the sacking of Jan. 6, respects were paid to some of its stalwarts: Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader and former boxer whose mild public manner disguised a fierce legislative pugilist and tactician; Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who, peering skeptically over the top of his gold-rimmed eyeglasses, interrogated corporate America; John Warner, the genteel Virginia Republican forever identified as Elizabeth Taylor’s No. 6; Walter Mondale, the liberal Minnesota senator turned vice president whose White House ambitions were buried in a Reagan landslide; Carrie Meek, the first Black person elected to Congress from Florida since Reconstruction; and, of course, Mr. Dole, the Kansas Republican who carried his wounds from World War II into a half-century of public service under the very dome that soared above him as his body lay in state just weeks ago.


Harry Reid in 2014, when he was the Senate majority leader. A former boxer, he became a fierce legislative pugilist and tactician.Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Senator Dole was the last of his war generation to win a major party’s presidential nomination, in 1996, and his passing at 98 was another reminder that his former brothers and sisters in arms are a dwindling cohort. Even the youngest of those who fought at the Battle of the Bulge or at Iwo Jima and who still survive have now entered their 90s, their former commanding officers mostly long gone. But one company leader who did hang on until this year was Dave Severance. He led the Marine unit that raised that now-hallowed American flag over Iwo Jima itself in 1945. He was 102.

Warriors for a Cause

The world at large lost a host of dignitaries whose battles were in the political arena. One was F.W. de Klerk, the South African president who tore down the barriers of apartheid erected by his Afrikaner forerunners, a white power structure that collapsed in no small part because a fellow Nobel Peace Prize honoree, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, had pounded at it from the pulpit. Farther north, one of apartheid’s nemeses, Kenneth Kaunda, a founding father of African independence and the first president of a liberated Zambia, died at 97, having so dominated his country for 27 years that some supporters had viewed him as a minor deity.


Roh Tae-woo at his inauguration as president of South Korea in 1988. With a stern eye, he oversaw his country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.Credit…The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Half a world away, two former strongmen who led South Korea in back-to-back regimes in the 1980s and ’90s died within a month of each other: first, in October, Roh Tae-woo, a former general who oversaw, with a stern eye, his country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy; then, in November, Chun Doo-hwan, the bloodstained dictator who had seized power in a coup and later handpicked his friend Mr. Roh to succeed him.

In Argentina, a country long in the grip of dictatorship, the charismatic Carlos Sa?l Menem, the beneficiary of the first peaceful transfer of power there from one constitutionally elected party to another since 1916, died at 90, having presided over an astonishing economic recovery in his 10-year rule, 1989-99, only to tumble from grace, pulled down by corruption.

In the Middle East, there were Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who tried but failed to resist the rise of religious radicalism as the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran; Ahmed Zaki Yamani (though he died in London), the schmoozing, globe-trotting Saudi oil minister who became a player in the rise of Persian Gulf states to stratospheric heights of wealth; and A.Q. Khan, the so-called father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb.

Dr. Khan’s work left no doubt that his country had acquired weapons of mass destruction. But had Saddam Hussein’s Iraq? Yes, proclaimed Donald Rumsfeld (an assertion echoed by his colleague General Powell in the George W. Bush White House). Time would prove him and others in the administration wrong, but not before, as defense secretary, Mr. Rumsfeld had helped push the United States into another invasion, after Afghanistan, and into another war.

Others who died this year had fought on entirely different fronts. Simple but courageous acts of defiance by both Martha White and Lucille Times in the Deep South of the 1950s, predating and presaging Rosa Parks, led to bus boycotts that in turn gave momentum to the civil rights movement and to warriors for the cause like Bob Moses. He endured brutality and jail in trying to register voters in Mississippi, where he “was the equivalent of Martin Luther King,” the historian Taylor Branch said.

Margaret York had pushed open a door that had long been shut to women, becoming the highest-ranking woman in the Los Angeles Police Department (while inspiring a feminist version of a buddy cop show, “Cagney & Lacey”).


LaDonna Brave Bull Allard in 2017. She led resistance in North Dakota to what she called “the black snake,” an underground pipeline that threatened tribal burial grounds. Credit…Jens Schwarz/laif/Redux

LaDonna Brave Bull Allard lived up to her name by establishing a “resistance camp” in North Dakota to block what she called “the black snake,” an underground pipeline that in its thousand-mile slithering would, she claimed, veer too close to sacred Native American burial grounds, one holding the remains of her son. The camp became the catalyst for a global protest movement that embraced issues of tribal sovereignty, environmental justice and more.

And Madeline Davis became the first openly lesbian delegate to a national political convention in the United States, rising to speak before Democrats in Miami Beach in 1972 to argue, unsuccessfully, for an anti-discrimination plank in the party’s platform. “I am a woman and a lesbian, a minority of minorities,” she told what few delegates remained at the time, for it was 5 a.m. before her turn at the podium came. “Now we are coming out of our closets and onto the convention floor.”

Some took the call for equal rights to athletic arenas. The Olympic gold-medal sprinter Lee Evans raised a Black fist from the winners’ platform in Mexico City to protest racism in the strife-torn America of 1968. Lee Elder‘s mere presence at the 1975 Masters in Augusta, Ga., was symbolic enough — as the first Black golfer ever to compete in the tournament, and doing so in face of death threats.

And Joan Ullyot, a competitive runner herself, became a powerful voice for women who sought to compete in marathons, producing research that irrefutably debunked assertions that women were not built for it and then pressing the International Olympic Committee to include a women’s marathon in the Games. The first was in 1984.

Arenas and Stages

Elsewhere in sports, the coaching ranks took an unusually heavy toll. The N.F.L. lost, among others, John Madden, whose winning decade with the Oakland Raiders was just a prelude to a more sensational run as the most colorful of TV color commentators and a video-game king, and Marty Schottenheimer, the winner of 200 regular-season games with four N.F.L. franchises. College football lost Bobby Bowden, the architect of a powerhouse at Florida State; college basketball lost John Chaney, who led Temple’s Owls to 17 N.C.A.A. tournaments.


John Madden in 2006. His Hall of Fame career coaching the Oakland Raiders was a prelude to a sensational run as a color commentator and video-game king.Credit…Matt Sullivan/Reuters

And if baseball managers in the dugout can be lumped with head coaches on the sidelines, then a final tip of the cap must be paid to the irrepressible Tommy Lasorda, who had, as he liked to say with only slight hyperbole, bled Dodger blue.

Henry Aaron’s death, of course, generated big headlines, accompanied by tales of his home run heroics and the racial animus they aroused among those who couldn’t countenance the idea of a Black man outslugging Babe Ruth. But other stars, too, fell, their exploits now sports lore: the ferocious Sam Huff of the football Giants; the acrobatic forward Elgin Baylor of the Lakers; the lightning-quick Rod Gilbert (“Mr. Ranger”), who dazzled hockey fans at Madison Square Garden. In auto racing, the brothers Bobby, 87, and Al Unser, 82 — born into the sport’s most illustrious family in the same decade — died seven months apart in the same calendar year.

Performers of a different mold had left their imprint on stages and screens portraying anyone but their actual selves, yet we mourned their passing all the same as if we knew them. Christopher Plummer was Georg von Trapp, of course, in “The Sound of Music,” but also too many other characters to count in his rich seven decades as an actor — from King Lear to Sherlock Holmes to General Chang, the one-eyed Klingon in “Star Trek VI.”


Cicely Tyson in 1973. She’s remembered as the unconquerable wife of an imprisoned Louisiana sharecropper in “Sounder” and the indomitable title character in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” Credit…Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images

Cicely Tyson was indelibly two characters: Rebecca, the unconquerable wife of an imprisoned Louisiana sharecropper in “Sounder,” and the indomitable title character in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” who survived into the civil rights era, to age 110, recalling her memories of slavery.

Olympia Dukakis will forever be Rose, Cher’s sardonically wise mother in “Moonstruck”; Helen McCrory, the blue-blooded witch Narcissa Malfoy in a clutch of Harry Potter films; Cloris Leachman, the flighty landlady of Mary Richards in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”; Hal Holbrook, a one-man-show Mark Twain; Michael K. Williams, the swaggering, openly gay hoodlum of “The Wire”; and Ed Asner, who else but Lou Grant?

You could also say that Larry King was a performer, hosting talk shows on radio and TV seemingly forever, but he never played anyone but his loquacious, inquisitive and ingratiating self. Ditto Jackie Mason and Mort Sahl: stand-ups performing as themselves — or at least very funny versions of themselves. (Their fellow jokester Norm Macdonald was an exception, as comfortable alone on a stage as he was in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch or his own sitcom.)

The proscenium stage knew no greater loss in 2021 than that of Stephen Sondheim, who, if he rarely took a curtain call bow from one, could nevertheless bask in the applause of a grateful theater world enriched by his music and lyrics.


Stephen Sondheim in 1990. His music and lyrics enriched the theater world.Credit…Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

And where performance is nothing but wordless drama (or sometimes comedy) in exhilarating motion, there were farewells to the magnetic Jacques d’Amboise, who may have done as much as anyone to popularize ballet in America, and the daring ballerina Patricia Wilde — both of them eternally linked to the great choreographer George Balanchine of New York City Ballet.

The classical music stage, and the orchestra pit, were bereft with the deaths of James Levine, the maestro of the Metropolitan Opera whose brilliant career was darkened in the end by a sex scandal, and two of opera’s most illustrious singers in the last half of the 20th century: the virtuosic Slovak soprano Edita Gruberova and the German-born mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, a radiant fixture at the Met for years.

A Drummer and a Rapper

In a vastly different musical sphere, Charlie Watts, the solemnly aloof drummer of the Rolling Stones, became the second member of that age-defying band to die, at 80 (after Brian Jones a half-century ago). Mary Wilson was the second to do so among Motown’s original three Supremes (after Florence Ballard). Michael Nesmith left just one of the four Monkees still standing (Micky Dolenz). And with the death of Don Everly seven years after that of the younger Phil, the Everly Brothers will survive now only in their hit recordings of yesteryear.


The drummer Charlie Watts in 1965. He was the second member of the age-defying Rolling Stones to die.Credit…George Wilkes/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More fresh in memory were the explosive lyrics of the rapper Earl Simmons, a.k.a. DMX, who had channeled the mean streets of his boyhood Yonkers into No. 1 albums and onto the stage before pumped-up thousands. He was just 50.

Chick Corea, a jazz pianist at heart, found a new audience by infusing his music with rock. And the flutist, composer and bandleader Johnny Pacheco, one of a raft of Latin musicians to die this year, spread salsa far and wide as its unofficial ambassador.

If Mr. Pacheco was intent on expanding a genre, Larry McMurtry, in the world of letters, was out to subvert one — the western — by scrapping the cowboy and outlaw mythologies of dime-store novels in favor of unvarnished stories like “Lonesome Dove” and “The Last Picture Show.”

Anne Rice, meanwhile, was revivifying a moribund branch of the book world — the Gothic horror tale — with stories of vampires. Beverly Cleary was a virtual children’s-book cottage industry as she found unlikely drama and mystery in middle-class America. And no one could dissect any and all aspects of American life with a more exacting eye than Joan Didion, though the unsparing journalism of Janet Malcolm could give her a run for her money (even while questioning the very ethics of journalism itself).


Janet Malcolm in 1981. Her unsparing journalism examined American life even while questioning the very ethics of journalism itself. Credit…Nancy Crampton via Malcolm family

The world said goodbye to them all, but in 2021 any death reported in the obituary columns was always set against that bigger story that never seemed to leave the front page. It was a disorienting phenomenon for the second year: noting the passing of this famous person or that one, from cancer or heart attack or the infirmities of old age, in the midst of a plague — a scourge that continued to take one life after another from all corners of the world while leaving everyone else, or almost everyone else, masked up and wondering if they’d ever get theirs back.

Inevitably, despite the skeptics and the deniers, we turned to the scientists, knowing that they’re the ones who must finally give us the weapons to get us out of this. Many trailblazers from that community died in 2021, among them Nobel Prize winners who helped unlock the secrets of the universe (Toshihide Maskawa‘s eureka moment, in understanding why the Big Bang didn’t destroy said universe, came in the bathtub) and explorers, like E.O. Wilson, who uncovered clues to human nature in the biosphere.


E.O. Wilson found clues to human nature in his explorations of the biosphere.Credit…Hugh Patrick Brown/Getty Images

But there were also those whose time in the labs had more practical goals. One was Helen Murray Free, who helped develop a simple paper strip that when dipped in urine made it easier to detect diabetes — a revolution in diagnostic testing. Millions have benefited.

And there was Andrew Brooks, a Rutgers researcher who, in the early dark days of the pandemic in 2020, came up with the first saliva test for the coronavirus, a breakthrough that was rolled out after getting emergency approval from the federal government. This was before there were vaccines and before testing protocols were revised once the airborne nature of the virus was fully understood. But as the governor of New Jersey said at the time, Dr. Brooks’s contribution to the cause “undoubtedly saved lives.”

We’ve continued to turn to the Dr. Frees and the Dr. Brookses, and they’ve responded with alacrity with vaccines and treatments. But as the pandemic races on, the entreaty to them remains the same, still urgent but hopeful: Please, do more.

William McDonald is the obituaries editor of The Times.

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