Deaths in 2021: Headline Names Against the Backdrop of Pandemic

The great Hank Aaron was no longer among us. Joan Didion, Larry King, Cicely Tyson, Bob Dole, and Stephen Sondheim were all there. Funeral services for Prince Philip, who died just two months short of turning 100, were held with all the royal pomp and circumstance one would expect.

While many historical luminaries who had an impact on our time passed away this past year, the passing of Colin Powell was particularly telling of the precarious state of affairs in which we find ourselves today.

Not only did he perish in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that had been raging for a year, but he was also one of its many victims. His illness exemplified the unpredictable nature of the virus that is wreaking havoc around the globe. Despite being immunised and receiving top-notch care at Walter Reed, the 84-year-old veteran succumbed to multiple myeloma.

The death toll in the country that General Powell served for so many years, both on the battlefield and in the halls of administration, now exceeds 800,000. This number is closer to four million worldwide. Though he was the 2021 epidemic’s most visible casualty, other influential people fell prey to Covid-19 as well.

Texas Republican Ron Wright contracted the illness in February and became the first sitting member of Congress to pass away from it.

Also affected by Covid was the influential hip-hop and R&B music producer Chucky Thompson, as well as the author Donald Cozzens, a former priest who criticised the Catholic Church for protecting child-molesting clerics.

And no less than four American talk-radio hosts, each of whom had the ear of millions of political rightists, died of the virus after dismissing the idea of getting vaccinated against it, mirroring the message of their most prominent radio peer, Rush Limbaugh, who had compared the virus to the common cold. As with her, he passed away in February; he had lung cancer.

Of course, many famous people who were recently deceased and whose names appeared in the obituary pages died of other, more common, but no less tragic causes of death. In a year when the pandemic’s shadow was too thick to lift, they all perished in its midst and never lived to see its end.

Back on Capitol Hill, where everyone is still reeling after the shocking resignations on January 6th, tributes were given to some of the Hill’s most dependable members:

The gentle Virginia Republican John Warner, forever known as Elizabeth Taylor’s No. 6, the liberal Minnesota senator turned vice president Walter Mondale, whose White House ambitions were dashed by the Reagan Revolution, and the former boxer and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, whose mild public manner disguised a fierce legislative pugilist and tactician.

With his dying at the age of 98, Senator Dole served as a poignant reminder that he and his fellow World War II veterans are a rapidly disappearing minority.

A majority of the officers who commanded soldiers who fought at the Battle of the Bulge and Iwo Jima are no longer with us, and the youngest of those who survived both battles have entered their 90s.

Still, Dave Severance is an exception; he remained a corporate leader until this year. He was in charge of the Marines that hoisted the flag over Iwo Jima in 1945, an act that has since become legendary. He was 102.

Sustaining Conflict Through Military Might

The political arena claimed the lives of many prominent figures around the world. F.W. de Klerk, the South African president, was one of them; he was the one who dismantled the apartheid walls built by his Afrikaner predecessors; the white power structure that fell was in large part due to the preaching of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who also won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Kenneth Kaunda, a founding father of African freedom and the first president of a liberated Zambia, has away at the age of 97. He had governed his country for 27 years, and many of his supporters worshipped him as a minor deity.

A half globe away, in South Korea, the deaths of two former strongmen who commanded the country during consecutive regimes in the 1980s and 1990s occurred within a month of each other: first, in October, Roh Tae-woo, a former military who watched over with a stern eye as his country went from dictatorship to democracy; secondly, in November, Chun Doo-hwan, a bloodstained dictator who had seized power in a coup and later handpicked his buddy Mr. Roh to succeed him.

After presideing over an astonishing economic recovery in his 10-year rule (1989–1999) in Argentina, a country long gripped by dictatorship, the charismatic Carlos Sal Menem, the beneficiary of the first peaceful transfer of power there from one constitutionally elected party to another since 1916, died at the age of 90.

Stadia and Theaters

Outside of the NBA, coaching positions elsewhere in sports took an exceptionally hefty hit. Marty Schottenheimer, who won 200 regular season games with four N.F.L. franchises, and John Madden, whose winning decade with the Oakland Raiders was just a prelude to a more sensational run as the most colourful of TV colour commentators and a video-game king, are just two of the notable names the NFL has lost.

For college football, we lost Florida State’s powerhouse architect Bobby Bowden; for basketball, we lost Temple’s 17-time N.C.A.A. tournament-leading coach John Chaney.

Finally, a tip of the cap to the irrepressible Tommy Lasorda, who had, as he loved to remark with only mild hyperbole, bled Dodger blue, if baseball dugout managers can be grouped with head coaches on the sidelines.

The news of Henry Aaron’s passing, of course, made national headlines, and with it came stories of his home run heroics and the racial animus they sparked in people who couldn’t accept the concept of a Black man outslugging Babe Ruth.

Other sports legends have also passed away, such as the fearsome Sam Huff of the football Giants, the acrobatic forward Elgin Baylor of the Lakers, and the lightning-quick Rod Gilbert (“Mr. Ranger”), who wowed hockey fans at Madison Square Garden. The most famous family in motor racing history, the Unsers, lost two brothers, Bobby (87) and Al (82), seven months apart in the same year.

Percussionist and MC

Conversely, the Rolling Stones’ gloomy and distant drummer Charlie Watts passed away at the age of 80, making him the second member of that immortal band to perish (after Brian Jones a half-century ago).

When the original three Supremes from Motown decided to release an album, Mary Wilson was the second to do so (after Florence Ballard). Only one of the four Monkees is still active after Michael Nesmith’s departure (Micky Dolenz).

Now that Don Everly has passed away, seven years after young Phil, the only legacy of the Everly Brothers will be their classic albums from decades past.

Rapper Earl Simmons, better known by his stage name DMX, had just recently died, but his exploding lyrics were still fresh in everyone’s mind. DMX had turned the rough neighbourhoods of his native Yonkers into platinum albums and a sold-out concert venue. Only 50 years old, he was still quite young.