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.
Cornelia Wallace was a beauty queen, a singer, a mother and a socially-active governor’s wife, but Southerners will always remember her for a split second decision she made in 1972. For when her husband was shot at a political rally, Cornelia threw herself over his fallen form in an effort to comfort and protect him from additional bullets.
Before she became the first lady of Alabama, Cornelia Ellis was simply known as “C’nelia.” Born in Elba, Ala., she studied voice and piano at Methodist Huntingdon College and Rollins College, and placed in the semifinals of the Miss Alabama contest. As a young woman, Cornelia performed with country singer Roy Acuff, recorded two songs (“It’s No Summer Love” and “Baby With the Barefoot Feet”) for MGM and starred in a water ski show in Cypress Gardens, Fla., but a full-time career in the entertainment field remained just out of reach. While the dark-haired beauty did catch the eye of millionaire John Snively III, whom she married and bore two sons before their divorce in 1969, Cornelia’s place in history actually began at a party when she was only 8 years old.
The event was held at the governor’s mansion, where her uncle, Gov. James E. “Big Jim” Folsom, held court. There she encountered George Corley Wallace Jr., a hard-line segregationist and state legislator 19 years her senior. At the time, Wallace was married to his first wife, Lurleen, who became Alabama’s first and only female governor in 1967. But when Lurleen died of cancer a year and half into her term, Lt. Gov. Albert Brewer took over. Despite political pressure from President Richard M. Nixon to opt out of the race, Wallace challenged Brewer for the job and won it in 1971. Two weeks before the gubernatorial inauguration, he wed Cornelia, a move that did not endear the public to her.
While Cornelia was totally committed to Wallace and his career, most of the state’s residents preferred his first wife. Public opinion of Cornelia changed in 1972 when Wallace decided to run for president on the Democratic ticket. On May 15, 1972, at a campaign stop in Laurel, Md., would-be assassin Arthur Bremer shot Wallace four times, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Cornelia’s instinctive decision to protect him — and her loyalty to him during his long recovery — showed the true measure of her devotion.
After the assassination attempt, Cornelia vowed to carry on his presidential campaign until he was well enough to do so. Taped conversations between Wallace and another woman tempered this effort, as did his depressed and angry outbursts. The couple divorced in 1978, and Wallace died 20 years later. In 1997, their story served as the focus of the TV movie, “George Wallace,” starring Gary Sinise and Angelina Jolie. Although the role earned Jolie a Golden Globe for best supporting actress, Cornelia was reportedly dissatisfied with the way she was portrayed.
Cornelia entered the Democratic primary for governor in 1978, but she put on a weak campaign and finished last among 13 candidates. After the election, she retired to central Florida to spend more time with her children.
Wallace died on Jan. 8 of cancer. She was 69.
Dr. Mason Andrews’ life may best be described by the political slogan he used in the 1974 Norfolk (Va.) City Council race: “Mason Andrews delivers.”
The son of a Norfolk obstetrician, Andrews earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in 1940 and attended the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. After completing a tour of duty in the Navy, he went back to Johns Hopkins to finish his residency.
Andrews returned to Norfolk in 1950 to open his own OB/GYN office and launch the first answering service for doctors in the area. In the 1960s, he helped raise $17 million to finance a community medical school (which would eventually become Eastern Virginia Medical School). From 1974 to 1990, Andrews served as the first chair of the school’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In 1992, he was elected president of the American Gynecological and Obstetrical Society.
Andrews delivered approximately 5,000 babies during the course of his half-century in medicine. But his most famous delivery occurred on Dec. 28, 1981, when he helped bring Elizabeth Jordan Carr into the world. At 5 pounds, 12 ounces, Carr was the first U.S. baby conceived by in-vitro fertilization. Now a newspaper reporter in Augusta, Maine, Elizabeth said Andrews always kept in touch with her, sending cards on her birthday and a gift for her wedding.
In the process of establishing an in-vitro fertilization program at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Andrews persuaded Drs. Georgeanna and Howard Jones to become teachers. The couple had planned to retire from medicine, but at Andrews’ urging, decided to build the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine instead. The program is now a leader in scientific advances of infertility treatment.
Andrews’ dedication to public service extended beyond medicine and education. He spent 26 years on the Norfolk City Council, including a two-year term as mayor, and was known for his dedication to the downtown area’s renaissance. Over the course of his political tenure, Andrews helped transform the waterfront area into a bustling retail and entertainment destination. Port Folio Weekly magazine listed him at #84 in its annual collection of “100 Best People, Places and Things in the 7 Cities” for his work as a doctor, councilman and civic activist.
“He was constantly pushing us as a community to realize and reach our potential. Nothing but the best for Norfolk. He had a high standard of excellence. He was tenacious in everything that he did. I don’t know how you remember him in any other way. His legacy was to instill in all of us reaching for the stars in terms of what’s best for the community,” Cathy Coleman, president of the Downtown Norfolk Council, said.
Andrews died on Oct. 13. Cause of death was not released. He was 87.
Dr. Saul Paul Ehrlich Jr., an epidemiologist and the acting Surgeon General under Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter, died on Jan. 6 of pneumonia. He was 72.
Ehrlich always wanted to become a doctor. The son of a physician, he earned two bachelor’s degrees and his medical degree at the University of Minnesota. Ehrlich served as a medical officer in the Coast Guard, interned at the Public Health Service Hospital in Staten Island, then did his residency in epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a master’s degree in 1961.
For the next two decades, Ehrlich devoted his life to public service. He researched the relationship of cholesterol to heart disease with the National Heart Institute and represented the United States at the World Health Organization as the director of the Office of International Health.
When Dr. Jesse L. Steinfeld quit the Surgeon General’s post in 1973, President Richard M. Nixon appointed Ehrlich to fill in. For the next four years, he worked hard to make the office relevant and useful to the public. Ehrlich saved the Public Health Service’s Commissioned Corps from budget cuts and developed a hotline for Iron Curtain countries to communicate with the United States.
In 1994, Ehrlich was one of six Surgeons General who urged Congress to ban smoking in public buildings and to enact stricter controls on secondhand smoke. He also protested a proposed federal policy that would have responded to the spread of AIDS by requiring minors to obtain written parental consent before gaining access to contraceptives and information on birth control.
After leaving public office, Ehrlich served as the vice president of the American Institutes for Research and as the deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization. He taught at Georgetown University’s School of Medicine, the University of Texas School of Public Health and the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. The recipient of the Public Health Service’s Outstanding Service Medal, Ehrlich retired in 1984 after learning that he had multiple sclerosis.