When Robert Burns raised a cup o’ kindness to those of auld acquaintance, he suggested they not be forgot, for auld lang syne.
Ella Fitzgerald died in 1996. She was the “first lady of song,” perhaps because people could listen to her all day long. Gene Kelly brought Irish sass and working-class brass to the art of dance. George Burns, who brought an impishly beguiling straight-man role to vaudeville, radio, television and movies, died at 100.
The news business mourns John Chancellor, a sentinel of standards at NBC, and the feature pages are darker without Erma Bombeck, a beacon of warmth and common sense.
In a year in which public servants were reviled, some obituaries could stifle the cynics. Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown died at 54, killed with 34 others on a trade mission in a Croatian air disaster. Barbara Jordan, the former Texas congresswoman, died at 54, leaving booming echoes of her magisterial defense of the Constitution. A giant of public service died in March: Edmund Muskie of Maine was a governor, senator, presidential candidate, secretary of state and mentor to at least three members of President Clinton’s new Cabinet.
Timothy Leary, a symbol of his time, once said that if you remember the 1960s, he doubted it. His death tested the collective memory about controversies surrounding similar symbols frozen in time: Alger Hiss of the 1940s, G. David Schine of the 1950s, Mario Savio of the 1960s and Spiro T. Agnew of the 1970s.
World leaders gone include Andreas Papandreou of Greece, France’s Francois Mitterrand, Robert Bourassa of Quebec, and a famous American little-known at home, the jazz master of the Voice of America, Willis Conover.
Science mourned Paul Erdos, the genius of mathematics; Nobel biology laureate George Snell; astronomer-teacher Carl Sagan; and anthropologist Mary Leakey.
In business, innovators who died in 1996 are linked forever to their products: Frank Whittle and the jet engine; Arnold Neustadter and the Rolodex; Julian Hill and nylon; and Ray McIntire and styrofoam.
Arts and letters
Literature mourned The New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell and Arthur Getz, Nobel economics laureate William Vickrey and muckraker Jessica Mitford.
Film is universal, as was the mourning for Italy’s Marcello Mastroianni, who lived “La Dolce Vita;” in France, for director Marcel Carne, remembered for “Les Enfants du Paradis;” and in South Africa for Jamie Uys, who wrote, produced and directed “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”
Their glamour now exists only on celluloid, but in their day Claudette Colbert, Joanne Dru, Greer Garson, Brigitte Helm, Margaux Hemingway, Dorothy Lamour and Juliet Prowse exuded class.
Among character actors, Ben Johnson was a real cowboy, Lash LaRue was a bullwhip maestro; Martin Balsam and Jack Weston saved many a movie; and Haing S. Ngor showed us Cambodia’s killing fields.
Gerry Mulligan, who squeezed sweetness out of a saxophone, was among those who sounded their final note in 1996: composers Morton Gould and Toru Takemitsu of Japan; bandleader Mercer Ellington; bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe; and rapper Tupac Shakur, shot to death at 25.
On opening day of the season, umpire John McSherry, 51, died at home plate. Among other baseball memories: Al Zarilla, who almost made a great catch to win the 1949 pennant for the Red Sox. The play was called on the radio by Mel Allen, the honeysuckled voice of the Yankees.
The NBA’s John Killilea died, as did the NFL’s Charlie Conerly, Rodney Culver,and Ray Mansfield; and pro hockey’s Roger Crozier, Bill Goldsworthy and Al Rollins.
In 1996, Dominguin, the matador, died; and Rudolf Wanderone Jr., known in pool halls as Minnesota Fats.
Pete Rozelle was the most prominent of those who wed pro football and television; also Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder.
Radio and television
When radio was king, Don McNeill greeted millions in his “Breakfast Club” and Minnie Pearl filled the Grand Ole Opry with laughter. Philip Rapp created “The Battling Bickersons” and “Baby Snooks,” then wrote “Topper” for television.
Roger Bowen, who played Colonel Henry Blake in the movie “MASH,” died in 1996, as did McLean Stevenson, who played the role on television. Audrey Meadows, the long-suffering honeymooner; Tiny Tim of falsetto and ukulele; and a troupe of flickering images on the home screen all passed on:
Whit Bissell, Morey Amsterdam, Herb Edelman, Tommy Rettig, Guy Madison, Vince Edwards, Mark Lenard, Ted Bessell and Howard Rollins.
All rest in the sleep of peace and ne’er shall be forgot, for auld lang syne.