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A Look Back

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Categories: Misc.

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 2009, these 20 obituaries were the stories that most resonated with me:
* Bea Arthur, a veteran actress and comedian who starred in the TV shows “Maude” and “The Golden Girls”
* Norman Borlaug, an agronomist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for making advances in plant breeding that helped feed millions of people in Latin America and Asia
* Walter Cronkite, a veteran journalist and former CBS anchor who covered such historic events as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, the assassination of JFK and the first man on the moon
* Dom Deluise, an actor, comedian and cookbook author who co-starred in the films “Blazing Saddles” and “Cannonball Run”
* Dominick Dunne, a bestselling author and special correspondent for Vanity Fair who covered the trials of O. J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers, Michael Skakel, William Kennedy Smith and Phil Spector
* Farrah Fawcett, an award-winning actress and pinup beauty who starred in the TV show “Charlie’s Angels”
* Don Hewitt, a veteran journalist and producer who created the “60 Minutes” news program
* John Hughes, a producer, writer and director whose 1980s films (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink”) defined a generation
* Michael Jackson, a singer and dancer — known as the ‘King of Pop’ — who sold more than half a billion albums
* Edward M. Kennedy, a liberal Democrat who served as senator of Massachusetts for 46 years
* Billy Mays, a late-night TV pitchman who promoted Orange Glo and OxiClean and starred in his own reality TV show
* Ed McMahon, a legendary TV personality best known for his work on the “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” and “Star Search”
* Ricardo Montalban, a Mexican-born actor who starred in the TV show “Fantasy Island” and in the film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”
* Les Paul, a musician and songwriter who pioneered the development of the solid-body electric guitar
* Natasha Richardson, a Tony Award-winning actress and wife to actor Liam Neeson
* Soupy Sales, a veteran comedian who perfected the pie-throwing routine
* Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of the Special Olympics and sister of President John F. Kennedy and Sens. Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy
* Patrick Swayze, an actor and classically trained dancer who was best known for his work in the films “Dirty Dancing” and “Ghost”
* George Tiller, one of only a few doctors in America who performed late-term abortions
* Andrew Wyeth, an artist whose paintings provided some of the most popular images of 20th century America
I also lost two unique people this year: my grandmother Terri Carlton and my high school sweetheart Chris Pine. May they rest in peace.

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Chanel

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Categories: Misc.

chanel.jpgChanel, a dachshund mix who held the official record as the world’s oldest dog, died on Aug. 28. Cause of death was not released. She was 21, or about 147 in dog years.
Born May 6, 1988, Chanel was only 6 weeks old when Denice Shaughnessy adopted her from a shelter in Newport News, Va. Although the puppy was meant to be a companion for her daughter LaToya, Chanel immediately took to Denice. Over the next two decades, the pair were nearly constant companions.
Life wasn’t always easy for the family. Their house once burned down, though everyone survived. Financial difficulties required Denice and LaToya to sell their only form of transportation and live on macaroni and cheese — which they shared with Chanel. Long-distance moves from Germany to upstate New York to California would have taxed any animal, but Chanel never left their side. And when Denice married Karl Shaughnessy, the entire family settled on Long Island.
In her youth, Chanel was a bit of a rascal. She’d steal sticks of butter right off the kitchen counter and hide them inside the living room sofa. She also enjoyed eating chocolate, which is usually considered toxic to dogs, and once devoured an entire bag of peanut butter cups. But she kept her girlish figure by exercising daily, often walking several miles with Denice.
In her later years, Chanel’s blond hair whitened. She developed cataracts, and wore tinted goggles (called doggles) to protect her eyes. She also chilled easily, and donned T-shirts in the summer and woolly sweaters in the winter to stay warm.
On her last birthday, officials from Guinness World Records certified Chanel as the world’s oldest dog during a private birthday bash at the New York Dog Spa and Hotel in Manhattan. To celebrate her longevity, Chanel ate a peanut butter cake specially prepared for dogs, and made an appearance on the “Today” show.

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John Keel

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Categories: Writers/Editors

John Alva Keel, a prominent Fortean author who shed light on the Mothman sightings, died on July 3 of congestive heart failure. He was 79.
Born Alva John Kiehle and raised in Hornell, N.Y., he developed an early interest in magic and mysterious phenomena, and was only 12 years old when he published his first story in a magician’s magazine. In his teens, Keel changed the spelling of his surname and the order of his initials, and hitchhiked to New York City to become a professional writer. Over the next decade, he created comic book scripts, edited Poets of America magazine, worked as a freelance writer and produced several radio programs, yet a passion for stories about the unusual, strange and unexplained soon became his professional focus.
During the Korean War, Keel was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed in Frankfurt where he worked on the staff of the American Forces’ Network. After leaving the service, however, he traveled through Europe, Asia and the Middle East seeking out the truth behind outlandish tales of myth and legend. Investigating these controversial topics was not the most lucrative career move, but Keel supported his efforts by writing ad libs for Merv Griffin and contributing scripts to shows like “Get Smart” and “Lost in Space.”
Keel published numerous books on the supernatural over the course of his four-decade career, including “Our Haunted Planet,” “UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse,” “The Complete Guide to Mysterious Beings” and “Strange Creatures from Time and Space.” But his biggest claim to fame was the 1975 book, “The Mothman Prophecies,” which was turned into a major motion picture starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney in 2002. The book chronicled Keel’s 1966-1967 investigation into reported sightings of a strange creature in Point Pleasant, W.Va.
Known as the Mothman, the creature was described as being 7 feet tall with grey skin, red glowing eyes and large wings. Its origins were unknown, but theories abounded. Some believed the Mothman was a mutant spawned from local chemical and weapons dumps. Others theorized that it was either an extraterrestrial or the result of an Indian curse. Eyewitnesses claimed it screeched like a rat, ate farmers’ dogs, destroyed area fields, caused cars to stall and interfered with TVs, radios and telephones. Although the creature was known for scaring people — particularly couples sitting in parked cars — Keel wrote that the Mothman may have tried to telepathically warn people that the Silver Bridge was going to collapse into the Ohio River. It did so in 1967, killing 46 people.
Keel’s coverage of the Mothman phenomenon turned Point Pleasant into a tourist attraction, and sparked the launch of the annual Mothman Festival. A Mothman Museum, containing props from the movie, eyewitness accounts of Mothman encounters and other curiosities, also opened on Main Street. Keel last visited Point Pleasant in 2003 when a stainless steel statue of the Mothman was unveiled.
Keel’s final years were often spent in an self-imposed isolation. He did few interviews, distanced himself from family and friends and struggled with both health and financial issues.

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Ed McMahon

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Categories: Hollywood, Military, Writers/Editors

emcmahon.jpgCol. Edward Leo Peter McMahon Jr., a legendary TV personality and Marine, died on June 23. Cause of death was not released. He was 86.
The Detroit native always wanted to be a broadcaster. In his teens, he worked the microphone as both a bingo caller and a carnival barker. But McMahon’s chance to break into show business was put on hold by World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, and served as a flight instructor and test pilot. When the war ended, McMahon used the G.I. bill to study drama and speech at Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. To support himself during that time, he hawked vegetable slicers on the Atlantic City boardwalk and the Midwestern state-fair circuit.
McMahon’s first broadcasting gig was in radio, but soon he turned his attentions to the up-and-coming medium of television. He played a circus clown on the show “Big Top,” hosted more than a dozen programs in Philadelphia and tackled announcing duties for the music showcase “Bandstand.” Just as the networks came calling, however, McMahon returned to active duty to serve in Korea. There he flew 85 reconnaissance missions in the Cessna OE Bird Dog. He eventually retired from the service with the rank of colonel.
After he returned home, McMahon joined “Who Do You Trust?” a game show originally hosted by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy sidekick, Charlie McCarthy. The newer version was hosted by an up-and-coming comedian named Johnny Carson, and McMahon was hired to be the show’s announcer. When Carson was offered the opportunity to take over “The Tonight Show” in 1962, McMahon went with him.
For three decades and 6,583 shows, McMahon introduced Carson with the trademark opening: “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” He would then sit on Carson’s right and serve as his sidekick. Through skits and celebrity interviews, standup routines and musical numbers, McMahon always kept the tone of the show light with his humorous commentary and hearty guffaws. And when Carson retired from the show in 1992, McMahon did as well.
Despite a talent for playing second fiddle, McMahon enjoyed standing in the spotlight. In the 1960s and 1970s, he emceed the game shows “Concentration,” “Missing Links,” “Snap Judgment” and “Who Dunnit?”. From 1983 to 1995, he hosted the amateur talent show “Star Search,” which helped launch the careers of numerous entertainers, including Britney Spears, Drew Carey, Rosie O’Donnell, LeAnn Rimes and Sinbad. McMahon co-hosted “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes” with his old friend Dick Clark, and helped raise millions during the annual “Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon.” McMahon also lent his voice and likeness to dozens of commercial advertisements, most notably as the pitchman for the American Family Publishers’ sweepstakes.
McMahon’s adventures in Hollywood were so extensive that he penned two memoirs — “For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times” (1998) and “Here’s Johnny!: My Memories of Johnny Carson, The Tonight Show, and 46 Years of Friendship” (2006) — as well as the nonfiction book “When Television was Young” (2007). His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located at 7000 Hollywood Blvd.
Privately, McMahon had a reputation for being a hardworking, stand-up guy with a penchant for imbibing. He played Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, at the 1978 Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, designed his own vodka and published “Ed McMahon’s Barside Companion,” a book that offered a “blend of ’round the bar games and bets, spirited stunts, jokes and tricks.” He even became known as “Mr. Budweiser” when he served as a spokesman for that beer company.
Celebrity suited McMahon, but fortune often slipped through his fingers. The last few years of his life were spent mired in pain and financial difficulty. In 2002, McMahon sued his insurance company, alleging that he and his wife Pamela were sickened by toxic mold that had spread through their Beverly Hills house. The McMahons also blame the mold for the death of their dog, Muffin. They won their legal battle a year later and received a $7 million settlement, but the money didn’t last for very long.
A fall in 2007 caused McMahon to suffer a broken neck, which required two operations. The pain from this injury kept him from working for nearly two years, which meant the unpaid bills quickly piled up. He even faced a possible foreclosure on his home, but was allowed to remain in the residence thanks to the kindness of strangers and private investors who learned of his troubles. In an attempt to make light of his situation, and to make extra money, McMahon appeared in a commercial with once-bankrupt rap artist MC Hammer. The ad, which aired during the 2009 Super Bowl, promoted a cash-for-gold business.
McMahon married three times and was father to six children. When asked by Larry King how he wanted to be remembered, McMahon said, “I don’t plan to have a headstone. I hope to be floating in the sea…but if I had a headstone my epitaph would be: ‘He was a good broadcaster and a great Marine!’”


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Dr. George Tiller

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Categories: Medicine

gtiller.jpgGeorge Richard Tiller, one of only a few doctors in America who performed late-term abortions, was shot to death on May 31. He was 67.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, Tiller earned a degree in zoology from the University of Kansas and a medical degree from the University of Kansas School of Medicine. He pursued an internship with the United States Navy, serving two years as a flight surgeon at Camp Pendleton in California, then prepared to specialize in dermatology. Those plans changed in 1970 when a plane crash took the lives of his father, mother, sister and brother-in-law.
The sudden loss of his family left Tiller with two new responsibilities: his father’s medical practice in Wichita, and the care of his 1-year-old nephew. As he prepared to close the family planning clinic, Tiller learned of the region’s need for such services. He also discovered that his father had been providing abortions, then an illegal procedure, to women in need. When the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade case legalized the practice of terminating pregnancies in 1973, Tiller decided to perform them as well.
Over the next three decades, Tiller offered reproductive health care and counseling to thousands of women. His practice, Women’s Health Care Services, became known as one of only three clinics nationwide which would provide abortion after the 21st week of pregnancy. He helped pioneer the use of sonogram imaging during procedures, served as a diplomat of the American Board of Family Practice Physicians and founded ProKanDo, a pro-women, pro-choice political action committee that helps elect abortion rights candidates and supports abortion-friendly legislation.
Tiller’s work earned him numerous awards and honors — including The Christopher Tietze Humanitarian Award and the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights’ Faith and Freedom Award — but also the wrath of the anti-abortion lobby. Protesters regularly demonstrated in front of his office, home and church. In 1986, a pipe bomb blew a hole in the clinic’s outside wall and severely damaged its interior.
Tiller was personally targeted as well. He faced, and defeated, a series of legal challenges intended to shut down his practice. His name and photograph were included on “Wanted” posters and assassination lists, and his home address was published on the Web. In 1993, abortion opponent Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon shot him in both arms with a semiautomatic pistol; she’s still serving time for attempted murder.
Federal marshals protected the doctor between 1994 and 1998, and again in 2001 when Operation Rescue urged thousands of activists to blockade his practice. Tiller installed bulletproof glass on the clinic and hired a private security team to protect the patients and staff; however, these efforts failed to stop the demonstrations, threats and property destruction. Just last month, vandals cut wires to the clinic’s security cameras and outside lights, and cut a hole in the roof. Rain poured through the opening and caused thousands of dollars in damages.
On Sunday morning, Tiller was handing out bulletins in the foyer of the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita when a gunman entered and fired one shot at him. The assailant then threatened two bystanders before fleeing the premises. Several witnesses to the attack were able to describe the suspect to authorities and provide a description of his car and license plate number.
Three hours later, police arrested Scott Roeder, 51, and charged him with first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault. Although officials said they believed it was “the act of an isolated individual,” they also plan to look into “his history, his family, his associates.” Roeder was previously convicted of explosives charges after the police discovered a blasting cap, a fuse cord, a pound of gunpowder, ammunition and two 9-volt batteries in the trunk of his car. The conviction was later overturned on appeal on the grounds that the search was illegal.
Despite the arrival of paramedics minutes after the attack occurred, Tiller died at the scene. He was the fourth abortion doctor killed in the United States. Tiller is survived by his wife, Jeanne, who was inside the church sanctuary at the time of the shooting, 4 children and 10 grandchildren. “George dedicated his life to providing women with high-quality health care despite frequent threats and violence,” his family said in a statement. “We ask that he be remembered as a good husband, father and grandfather and a dedicated servant on behalf of the rights of women everywhere.”
[Update - Jan. 29, 2010: A jury in Wichita, Kan., deliberated for just over a half hour before finding Scott Roeder guilty of murdering Dr. George Tiller. Roeder was also convicted of two counts of aggravated assault for threatening others in the church. He faces life in prison for the slaying.]

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