Some 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
Rep. 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.
Helen Amelia Thomas was born with an inquisitive nature. Even as a child, she was fascinated with the world around her. And it was this insatiable curiosity about life that took her all the way to the White House.
Born in Winchester, Ky., and raised in Detroit, Thomas was the daughter of Lebanese immigrants. Her father George came to the U.S. in 1892 from Syria; at Ellis Island the immigration officer Anglicized his surname Antonious to Thomas. Although he couldn’t read or write and was blind in one eye, he married her mother Mary, fathered nine children (Helen was the seventh) and operated a small grocery store. In the midst of such a large family, the short-statured and painfully shy Helen developed a loud voice and a quick wit that would help her later in life.
Thomas was 12 years old when she decided to become a newspaper reporter, and her fate was sealed in the 10th grade after she saw her first byline in the school paper. At Wayne University (now Wayne State University), she majored in English because the college didn’t offer journalism courses, and worked on the college newspaper. With the firm belief that she had “printer’s ink” in her veins, Thomas moved to Washington D.C. after graduating in 1942.
The country was at war in Europe and the Pacific, and many industries that were dominated by men began opening their doors to female applicants. Yet it still took Thomas a full year of knocking on doors at the city’s four newspapers to land a job as a “copyboy” on the now-defunct Washington Daily News. There she ran errands, fetched wire stories and made coffee — all for $17.50/week. But Thomas didn’t care. “I guess I would have swept the floors if they told me to. As far as I was concerned, I was working in journalism,” she wrote in her book, “Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times.”
After a few months, Thomas was promoted to cub reporter and assigned to cover local news. One of her duties involved writing obituaries, which required her to call up the families of soldiers who appeared on the casualty rolls. “The horror of it all was that sometimes we called the families before the War Department (there was no Pentagon then) had even notified them. We’d hear the screams over the phone. This was a very sobering thing,” she wrote.
Within a year, the young and energetic reporter went to work for United Press (later United Press International), where she remained for nearly 60 years. Thomas covered the Justice Department, the Supreme Court, the Post Office, the Federal Communications Commission, the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. For years she toiled, writing hundreds of stories, and it was her hard-driving, competitive nature and utter devotion to the job that brought her to the White House press room.
In 1960, United Press already had two reporters covering the president of the United States: Merriman “Smitty” Smith and Al Spivak. But after Thomas began showing up to help out with various stories — and to cover First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy — they generously allowed her to join their previously all-male ranks.
Thomas believed that the White House belonged to the American people and she felt that in many ways it was hallowed ground. So she always counted herself “immensely privileged, even lucky” to go there every day and keep a watchful eye on the country’s leaders. “People hunger for information,” she wrote. “One of the great things about being in journalism is that you’re helping to educate people, that you are really giving them information that they need to preserve a democracy.”
Over the course of covering 10 administrations — from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama — Thomas took it upon herself to ask the hard questions. She soon became known as the White House watchdog, or as The New York Times described her, an equal-opportunity pit bull, one who refused to allow the people in power to work unchecked. In this way, Thomas was the epitome of everything the fourth estate stood for: to act as the people’s voice and to make sure those in power wielded it responsibly. “It’s been said that the questions I ask of presidents are the kind that are on the mind of a ‘housewife from Des Moines,’ and I hope that is true,” Thomas wrote. “To me, she personifies what the nation wants to know, and too many times these presidents have forgotten they are responsible and accountable to her and the country.”
Thomas’ reporting prowess lead to a promotion in 1974 to White House bureau chief, and once the briefings were televised, the public began to recognize her as the feisty woman up front who would demand the truth and end press briefings with the polite phrase “Thank you, Mr. President.” On a cab ride in 1988, the driver turned around and asked her, “Aren’t you the woman the presidents love to hate?”
Thomas was at the hospital when John F. Kennedy Jr. was born. She danced with Lyndon B. Johnson at an inauguration party, but later earned his ire when he found out that his daughter Luci was getting engaged from one of her stories. She was the only female print journalist to travel with President Richard Nixon to China during his historic trip in 1972, and was the only reporter to land an exclusive interview with Martha Mitchell (the wife of Attorney General John Mitchell), which helped expose some aspects of the Watergate scandal. Thomas described Gerald Ford as friendly and down-to-earth and found Jimmy Carter to be very religious and amiable. Although she thought Ronald Reagan lacked credibility, she listened to him describe the terrible pain he felt after being shot and accompanied him to the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
While she described President George H.W. Bush as personable, Thomas viewed his son, George W. Bush, as the “worst president in American history.” When those comments were published in a California newspaper, the second Bush White House retaliated by not calling on her during a press conference (it was the first time in four decades that she was not granted the first question). Thomas later apologized to the president, and Bush accepted it, but her view of his decisions did not change. In her book, “Watchdogs of Democracy: The Waning Washington Press Corps And How It Failed The Public,” Thomas also took the White House and Pentagon reporters to task for blithely accepting the Bush administration’s rationale for going to war: “I honestly believe that if reporters had put the spotlight on the flaws in the Bush administration’s war policies, they could have saved the country the heartache and the losses of American and Iraqi lives.”
The feisty journalist described Bill Clinton as brilliant, secretive and quick to anger, but noted that he took the time to attend a surprise party for her birthday and even tried to interview her. As for Obama, she liked him well enough; however, she strongly disapproved of the way his administration tried to control the press.
When Thomas wasn’t reporting the news, she penned “Backstairs at the White House,” a popular syndicated column that offered an insider’s view of each administration. “I can say that after all these years of president-watching, I’m still in awe of the presidency and what it means to Americans, but not necessarily in awe of the man who was sitting there at any given time,” she wrote.
As the longest-serving White House journalist, Thomas earned numerous nicknames, including “First Lady of the Press” and the “Dean of the White House Press Corps.” Her groundbreaking career helped clear the path for countless women in journalism; she not only led by example, she shattered the glass ceiling in the press room and then encouraged others to follow in her stead.
Thomas served as president of the Women’s National Press Club from 1959 to 1960, and financial secretary of the National Press Club (once women were allowed to join). She was elected the first woman president of the White House Correspondents Association, and was inducted as the first woman member of the Gridiron Club.
Thomas was the first woman and the first wire service reporter to ever receive the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award (other recipients include Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid). She also received more than 30 honorary degrees and numerous other awards, including the William Allen White Foundation Award for Journalistic Merit and the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media. In 1998, the White House Correspondents’ Association honored her by establishing the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award.
On May 17, 2000, the day after United Press International was acquired by News World Communications Inc., an international media conglomerate controlled by Unification Church leader Reverend Sun Myung Moon, Thomas resigned in protest. She joined Hearst Newspapers as an opinion columnist two months later, but the move cost her the right to ask the first question in press briefings.
Despite such an illustrious career, Thomas retired in 2010 following the broadcast of controversial, off-hand statements she made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A rabbi who was visiting the White House pulled out a video camera and asked Thomas for comments about Israel. She replied: “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.” When asked where Israeli Jews should go, she said they could “go home” to Poland or Germany or “America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries?” Thomas later apologized for the remarks, but they cost her a great deal of respect in the industry. The Society of Professional Journalists voted to retire the Helen Thomas Award for Lifetime Achievement, and her alma mater discontinued the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award.
Outside of work, Thomas lived a fairly quiet life. She woke each day at dawn, and by 6 a.m. was reading the newspapers and wires as she drank her coffee. Her home office was filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and six of the books on those shelves bore her name.
At 51, she wed Douglas Cornell, an Associated Press reporter who she described as her “competition for 10 years and her husband for 11.” Since he was also a journalist, Cornell understood Thomas’ devotion to the job, so in that way, they were well-matched. Unfortunately, after only four years of marriage, Cornell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He died in 1982 at the age of 75. “He left a big hole in my life. He was a wonderful husband, wise and good and a great friend,” Thomas said. When asked if she liked being married, Thomas replied, “It was probably the most unexpected and wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Thomas died on July 20. Cause of death was not released. She was 92.
Cory Allan Michael Monteith, a Canadian actor best known for playing Finn Hudson on the hit Fox TV show “Glee,” was found dead on July 13 in a Vancouver hotel room.
He was 31.
Monteith’s body was discovered at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel shortly after noon. According to the Vancouver Police Department, he checked into the hotel on July 6 and was due to check out on Saturday. When he failed to do so, the staff went into the room and found him. Paramedics declared him dead on the scene.
The authorities said Monteith was alone at the time of his death, and there appeared to be no foul play. An autopsy is scheduled for Monday.
“…On behalf of the Vancouver Police, I want to pass on our condolences to the family, friends, castmates and millions of fans of Mr. Monteith,” acting police chief Doug LePard said in a statement. “As was the case in countless homes, I watched ‘Glee’ regularly with my daughters, and I know there will be shock and sadness in many households with the news of his tragic death.”
Born in Calgary, Alberta and raised in Victoria, British Columbia, Monteith was the youngest son of Joe Monteith, who served in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and Ann McGregor, an interior decorator. His parents divorced when he was very young, and Monteith struggled to deal with the change in his family life. That struggle led him to attend 16 different schools — including one for troubled teens — and abuse drugs and alcohol. To support his habit, he eventually dropped out of school and began stealing.
When Monteith was 19, his family and friends held an intervention. He checked into rehab, got clean and eventually received his high school diploma. He also launched an acting career, playing minor roles in the films “Final Destination 3″ and “Deck the Halls,” and guest-starring on several TV shows, including “Smallville,” “Supernatural” and “Stargate SG-1.”
Monteith’s big break came in 2009 when he landed the role of Finn Hudson, a football player-turned glee club singing star on the show “Glee.” The part earned him a legion of fans known as “Gleeks” and a Teen Choice Award in 2011. The show’s cast also won a Screen Actors Guild award for best ensemble in a comedy.
When Monteith wasn’t working on the show, he and the cast performed live shows in the U.S., Canada and Europe. In his spare time, he enjoyed hockey, basketball, surfing and playing the drums. He also stars in the upcoming independent film “All the Wrong Reasons.”
Lt. Islam Bibi’s decision to become a police officer would not have raised eyebrows in the west. But signing up for such a dangerous job in southern Afghanistan turned her into a symbol of female empowerment.
Under the Taliban rule, women were banned from working outside of the home. They could not receive an education after the age of 8, be treated by male doctors or ride a bicycle. Women were not allowed to drive, vote, play sports, run for public office or appear on radio or television. On the rare occasions when women were allowed to leave their homes, they were required to wear a burqa, a garment that covered them from head to toe, and be accompanied by a close male relative.
Violating any of these rules, which were enforced by the Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice, could lead to verbal abuse, beatings and execution. The religious police even punished rape victims — who were considered guilty of adultery and fornication — by publicly flogging or stoning them for their “crimes.”
Experts believe that 60 to 80 percent of Afghan marriages were arranged by force. According to a report by UN Women and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, 56 percent of all marriages in Afghanistan occurred when the bride was under the age of 16. Domestic violence is endemic, and many women choose suicide to escape.
After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, the Karzai administration relaxed policies concerning women’s rights. Afghanistan’s new constitution, which was adopted in 2004, also recognized the equality of men and women, yet much of the country’s male population clung to the Taliban’s ultra-conservative outlook.
In the past decade, Afghan women have slowly started to emerge from the prisons that were their homes. They have removed the burqa, opened small businesses and even sent their daughters to school. These actions involved a great deal of courage since the Taliban continued to wage war on them by poisoning water supplies, fire-bombing schools, killing teachers and throwing acid on female students.
Bibi was one of those brave women.
At 10, she was forced to marry a man who was 43. Bibi had the first of her five children when she was just 15. Then in 2004, she decided to join the Afghan National Police because she needed a salary and wanted to create a safer future for her three sons and two daughters.
“Firstly I needed the money, but secondly I love my country,” Bibi said in April. “I feel proud wearing the uniform and I want to try to make Afghanistan a better and stronger country.”
On July 4, the extremists succeeded in stopping Bibi. She was riding a motorbike to work alongside her son-in-law when two gunmen opened fire. Bibi was seriously injured in the attack, and later died in the emergency room. Her son-in-law was also wounded.