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Edwin Kagin

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Categories: Law, Writers/Editors

Edwin KaginThe story of an atheist “finding God” while at the end of life is not new. Fear of death — and what may lie beyond — can prompt anyone to turn to religiosity. But not Edwin Frederick Kagin. He remained a staunch non-believer to the very end.

Born in Greenville, S.C., Kagin was the son of a Presbyterian pastor. He grew up in that faith, and spent many years reading the Bible and attending church services, but he eventually turned away from all forms of religion.

“I was born an atheist, just like you were, and every other human being who lives,” Kagin said. “The appropriate question is, ‘When did the god-talk get poured into your innocent little ear?”

Kagin served as a medic in the U.S. Air Force, then attended the College of Wooster in Ohio, Park College in Missouri and the University of Missouri–Kansas City. He earned his juris doctor from the School of Law of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, and became a self-described “lawyer poet” and secular activist.

In his professional life, Kagin championed the separation of state and church and was an outspoken advocate for atheists. Kagin won a federal court ruling in 1999 that required judges in Kentucky to let parents receive counseling from a non-sectarian agency, rather than exclusively from Catholic social services. In 2010, he convinced a federal appeals court to rule that the placement of 12-foot high crosses along Utah highways to honor fallen state troopers violated the First Amendment’s prohibition of government endorsement of religion. The Utah Highway Patrol Association had claimed the crosses were not a religious symbol.

However, his efforts in the court were not always successful. In 2008, Kagin tried and failed to block the ex-wife of his client, an atheist, from enrolling their son at a religious school. He was also unable to persuade a federal appeals court in New York to reverse a ruling allowing the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum to display a cross of two steel beams found in the wreckage of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Kagin called the inclusion of cross a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation of church and state; the judge said it was a historic relic.

Kagin will be remembered as a “legal strategist extraordinaire for the American atheist movement,” said David Silberman, president of American Atheists. “The country is a better place for him.”

Outside of the courtroom, Kagin practiced what he preached. He was the first state director for Kentucky for the American Atheists — an organization founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whose lawsuit (Murray v. Curlett) prompted the Supreme Court to end daily prayer in public schools — and later served as the group’s national legal director. He was also one of the notable signers of the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Manifesto, which defined Humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”

“Atheism means without a belief in a god. That’s it. Within that shell are many many different points of view,” Kagin wrote.

Kagin and his wife Dr. Helen Good co-founded Camp Quest, a summer camp for children from atheist, agnostic, humanist and other freethinking families, in 1996. Camp Quest was created to counter the exclusion of nontheists from the Boy Scouts, and catered to young nonbelievers, ages 8 to 17, many of whom had been bullied for their lack of faith. Along with traditional camp activities like archery, kayaking, crafts and hiking, Camp Quest teaches campers about astronomy, biology, ethics and philosophy. Each session also includes an “invisible unicorn challenge” in which campers are encouraged to prove the existence of two fictional invisible unicorns and win a cash prize. Since the challenge began 18 years ago, the prize has yet to be claimed. The exercise is meant to teach the campers to think rationally and critically.

“He was gruff, and generous, and brilliant, and cantankerous all at once. Edwin will have the only kind of immortality that we get — his legacy will long out last him. Edwin’s legacy is thousands of happy campers who have a place to learn, laugh, and belong because of Camp Quest. We will miss him so much,” said Camp Quest executive director Amanda Metskas.

As “the candidate without a prayer,” Kagin unsuccessfully campaigned for the Kentucky Supreme Court in 1998 and the Kentucky State Senate in 2000. Kagin was also a founder and board member of Recover Resources Center, which provides an alternative addiction recovery program to the religiously-oriented Alcoholics Anonymous. In 2005, he and Helen were named “Atheists of the Year” by American Atheists. He received the honor again in 2008.

Kagin was a frequent speaker and debater, and appeared on hundreds of radio and television programs. He spoke out against fundamentalist religious education, creationism and granting preferential treatment to religious groups in tax filings.

Described by friends and fans as kind, judgmental, irreverent, intelligent, funny, passionate and thought-provoking, Kagin developed a reputation for putting on (sometimes offensive) stunts to get his message across. He often donned priest or monk costumes and began lectures by referring to his audience as “sinners.” He would describe Mary Magdalene as a deranged hooker, call the Holy Eucharist “Swallow the Leader” and have female atheists perform the song “Back In Their Burkas Again” while wearing the full-body covering. Kagin even held mock communion services and gleefully laughed as he used a blow-dryer labeled “Reason and Truth” to de-baptize people.

A prolific writer, Kagin was a contributing author of the 2003 book “The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America.” Two years later, he published a collection of essays and poems titled “Baubles of Blasphemy.” When Helen, Kagin’s wife of 25 years, died in 2010, he penned a tribute in her honor on his online journal, Blasphemous Blogging.

Kagin was previously married to Sandra Graves who gave him four children, and was a step-father to one daughter. One of his progeny, Steven, became a pastor at a Disciples of Christ church in Kansas, but Kagin maintained they had an excellent relationship. “We just understand there are certain things we really can’t, at this point, talk about,” he said.

“In a movement noted for its large personalities, Edwin Kagin was one of the largest of all,” Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, stated.

Kagin died on March 28 after suffering for several years from heart disease. He was 73. His family plans to celebrate his life with a “fun-eral.”

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Michele Savoia

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Categories: Artists, Uncategorized

msavoia1Menswear designer Michele Savoia, who created stylish clothing for movie stars, has died. He was 55.

“Savoia the Tailor” was last seen around 4 a.m. on Feb. 13, leaving Paris Hilton’s party at the Manhattan nightclub Marquee. He was reported missing on Saturday morning by his driver and his body was discovered Sunday afternoon in the icy Hudson River near his house boat.

Cause of death has not been determined, pending an autopsy.

Born in Hoboken, N.J., Savoia originally wanted to become a cartoonist for Disney. He switched gears after an art teacher he adored encouraged him to use his talent for something more serious, like fashion. Savoia’s father and grandfather also inspired him to become a fashion designer.

“My father ran night clubs, and my Sicilian grandfather was a master tailor, who landed in Hoboken from Ellis Island in 1933. Basically, my father taught me how to dress, and Popop taught me how to tailor,” Savoia told Fashion Daily Weekly in 2011.

Savoia graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in the 1970s. He trained under designer Bill Kaiserman, then launched the House of Savoia in 1984. The firm was soon dressing Hollywood stars like Matt Dillon, Robert DeNiro, Chris Noth and Mickey Rourke. Savoia created costumes for Broadway shows as well, including the revival of “Evita” and Nora Ephron’s posthumous play, “Lucky Guy.”

The self-proclaimed “bad boy of fashion” also designed nightclub interiors and owned two clubs — Fat Black Pussycat and The Cheetah Club — until the mid-1990s.

Outside of work, Savoia was an old-school New Yorker with a penchant for the art deco era. He liked to smoke, ride motorcycles, buy accessories on eBay, listen to Tony Bennett, watch crime films and get tattoos.

Savoia is survived by a daughter, Gabriella Rocco Savoia.

Originally published in The Huffington Post.

Michele Savoia for StylelikeU.com from StyleLikeU on Vimeo.

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Vugar Gashimov

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Categories: Extraordinary People, Uncategorized

Vugar Gashimov Vugar Gashimov began playing chess when he was only 6 years old. He would eventually represent his country in four Chess Olympiads and become a grandmaster by the time he was 16.

Gashimov was born in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city (although the region was still part of the Soviet Union in 1986). Chess was incredibly popular at the time, due to the victory of Baku-native Garry Kasparov against Anatoly Karpov at the World Championship in 1985.

In the Gashimov family, chess was a way of life. Gashimov’s father, a retired army colonel who served at the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan, taught Vugar to play the game. His older brother Sarkhan, a solid chess player in his own right, served as his manager.

Like many young boys, Gashimov enjoyed playing sports and watching movies, but he always knew he wanted to become a competitive chess player. After he defeated all of the other children in his age group, Gashimov’s family hired international master Anar Allakhverdiev and Russian grandmaster Vitaly Tseshkovsky to coach him.

Gashimov won a silver medal in the under-10-years-old division at the World Youth Championships in 1996, and became an international master just three years later. However, after winning the 1999 Kasparov Trophy at 14, Gashimov was diagnosed with epilepsy and forced to step away from the game. He underwent three surgeries on his brain before launching an amazing comeback.

By 2002, Gashimov had earned the title of grandmaster, the highest honor for world-class chess players.

A bold competitor and online blitz specialist, Gashimov was known for changing many players’ view of the Modern Benoni opening. He won the Athens 2005 Acropolis International and the 2005 Abu Dhabi International Chess tournament; he took top honors at the Cappelle la Grande tournament and tied for first in the FIDE Grand Prix tournament in 2008. Next, Gashimov won the 2010-11 Reggio Emilia tournament, Italy’s oldest and most renowned chess competition, on a tie-break from Spanish grandmaster Francisco Vallejo Pons.

Alongside Teymur Rajabov, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Rauf Mammadov and Gadir Guseinov, Gashimov helped the Azerbaijani team become a powerhouse competitor at international championships, including the Chess Olympiads of 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008.

“Vugar was certainly the soul of Azerbaijani team. He was a very cheerful person. He lifted us even when we were losing. Besides, he shared his knowledge and really helped to develop. And he shared it with pleasure, and many times helped me personally in preparation for games; he did everything for the team,” Guseinov said.

In fact, it was Gashimov who lead the team to a gold medal victory in the 2009 European Team Chess Championship in Novi Sad. At that point in his career, he was listed at #6 in the FIDE World Rankings and declared the top chess player in his country.

Gashimov was excluded from the Chess Olympiad team in 2010 over a conflict with the national chess federation and Zurab Azmaiparashvili, the team’s former coach. Without his contribution, the Azerbaijani team finished in 12th place.

Gashimov was ranked #10 in the world in 2012 when health problems again prompted him to step away from the competitive circuit. Subsequent testing revealed a brain tumor.

Gashimov died on Jan. 10 while receiving cancer treatment in Germany. He was 27.

“[Gashimov] was a nice person, an excellent friend, and a good fellow in the team. You could always rely on him. He was always ready to help, and he helped,” Azerbaijani grandmaster Gadir Huseynov said. “He was a kindhearted, cheerful and positive person. It is a great loss for us. I cannot still believe it. It is very painful to perceive that one of my dearest friends has died.”

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In Memoriam: A Look Back At The People We Lost in 2013

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Categories: Actors, Extraordinary People, Government, Hollywood, Media, Politicians, Politics, Writers/Editors

hourglass.jpgSome people view obituaries as morbid stories, but in truth only one line of an obit deals with death. The rest of the story focuses on the amazing lives people lead. In 2013, these 13 obituaries were the stories that most resonated with me:

* Helen Thomas, reporter, columnist and dean of the White House Press Corps

* Abigail Van Buren, advice columnist

* Roger Ebert, movie critic

* Elmore Leonard, author

* Nelson Mandela, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the first black president of South Africa

* Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of Britain

* Ed Koch, former New York City mayor

* Gary David Goldberg, TV producer

* Ray Harryhausen, special effects pioneer

* Tom Clancy, author

* Peter O’Toole, actor

* James Gandolfini, actor

* Jean Stapleton, actress

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Demetrius Newton

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Categories: Government, Law, Politicians

Demetrius NewtonRep. Demetrius C. Newton dedicated his life to improving the human condition, first as a civil rights attorney and later as a politician and public servant. But his efforts were frequently hindered by the nearly implacable obstacle known as racism.

Newton was born in Fairfield, Ala., in 1928. At the time, blacks in America — particularly those living in the South — were forced to live segregated lives. Black children couldn’t attend schools with white children. They were unable to access goods and services, banned from playing professional sports or working in certain professions, denied the right to marry outside their own race, kept from serving on juries and barred from voting unless they passed “literacy tests” or paid poll taxes.

Amidst this environment, Newton knew he would have to leave Alabama to obtain a decent education. He traveled to Ohio to study economics and political science at Wilberforce University, the oldest private African-American university in the United States. When Newton decided to become a lawyer, the state of Alabama paid for him to attend law school out of state so it wouldn’t have to integrate the University of Alabama School of Law or create a separate one for black students.

After earning his Juris Doctor from Boston University in 1952, Newton returned to Birmingham with one goal in mind: to help protect the rights of the downtrodden. He became a civil rights attorney, and started a law firm with U.W. Clemon, who later became Alabama’s first black federal judge, and Oscar Adams, the first black Alabama Supreme Court justice and the first African-American elected to statewide office.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Newton represented icons of the civil rights movement — including Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — but he also aided the foot soldiers of the cause, the people arrested during demonstrations in Birmingham. He filed a number of lawsuits that sought the inclusion of African-Americans on juries and supported the rights of protesters to march in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches. He also represented his friend Carl Baldwin, who was arrested by Birmingham police for trying to sit in the whites-only waiting room at the train station. That lawsuit challenged segregation in interstate and intrastate travel. These efforts were later documented in the film “Preserving Justice.”

Newton knew the law could only go so far, so he decided to delve into politics as well. He became the city attorney for Birmingham, then worked as a judge for the city of Brownville for six years. In 1986, Newton was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives, serving the 53rd district (western Birmingham in Jefferson County). He would represent the district as a Democrat in the state house for the next 27 years.

Newton was the first black person to serve as Speaker Pro Tem, the No. 2 position in the House behind the speaker, and held that position from 1998 until 2010. He was also chair of the Legislative Council for both the House and the Senate.

A champion of constitutional reform, Newton firmly believed that Alabama’s constitution, which an all-white, all-male assembly proposed in 1901, was both outdated and racist. He spent much of his lengthly political career pushing for lawmakers and voters to create a new one.

“Our constitution is sick and it is on life support and the time is near and we ought to give it a dignified death,” Newton said in 2006. Alas, his efforts were repeatedly defeated.

Although he often disagreed with Republicans on key issues, Newton was highly regarded by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

“Debates in the House often have to compete with noise generated by side conversations and members going about their business, but when Demetrius took to the podium, the Chamber would hush,” House Majority Leader Micky Hammon (R) stated. “That’s evidence of the respect he commanded.”

Another sign of respect was the fact that Newton was allowed to retain his seat in the front row of the Chamber, even when Republicans took over the majority. The seat was normally reserved for members of the Leadership, yet the newly elected Caucus unanimously agreed that Newton should remain.

“He was a fine gentleman, and we had a strong mutual respect for each other. He will be greatly missed, not only by his own constituents — but also by the entire state of Alabama,” Gov. Robert Bentley (R) said.

Newton was a member of the Alabama, National and American Bar Associations, the American Judicature Society, the NAACP, 101 Black Men and the Vulcan Gold Club. He was the former national president of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity and the Wilberforce University Alumni Association, and past president and chief executive officer of the Birmingham Urban League. Outside of the office, Newton enjoyed traveling, golf, attending the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Birmingham and spending time with his two children from a past marriage.

Newton died on Sept. 11. Cause of death was not released. He was 85.

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