A sharecropper’s son who rose through the seats of power to become one of the nation’s most influential voices. A Republican who went on to lead the U.S. Supreme Court’s liberal wing. A lauded writer who brought to light stories overshadowed by prejudice.
This year saw the deaths of people who shifted culture through prose, pragmatism and persistence. It also witnessed tragedy, in talent struck down in its prime.
In 2019, the political world lost a giant in U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. Cummings, who died in October, was chairman of one of the U.S. House committees that led an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump and was a formidable advocate for the poor in his Maryland district.
Another influential political figure, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, died in July. Stevens was appointed to the high court as a Republican but became the leader of its liberal wing and a proponent of abortion rights and consumer protections.
The death of Toni Morrison in August left a chasm in the publishing world, where she was a “literary mother” to countless writers. She became the first black woman to receive the Nobel literature prize for “Beloved” and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.
Among those in the scientific world who died in 2019 was Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first person to walk in space. Leonov died in October.
Hollywood lost ’90s heartthrob Luke Perry, who played wealthy rebel Dylan McKay on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” Perry died of stroke in March. Actor Peter Mayhew who gave life to the towering Chewbacca in the original “Star Wars” films died in April.
Here is a roll call of some influential figures who died in 2019 (cause of death cited for younger people, if available):
Eugene “Mean Gene” Okerlund, 76. His deadpan interviews of pro wrestling superstars like “Macho Man” Randy Savage, the Ultimate Warrior and Hulk Hogan made him a ringside fixture in his own right. Jan. 2.
Carol Channing, 97. The ebullient musical comedy star who delighted American audiences in almost 5,000 performances as the scheming Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway and beyond. Jan. 15.
Frank Robinson, 83. The Hall of Famer was the first black manager in Major League Baseball and the only player to win the MVP award in both leagues. Feb. 7.
John Dingell, 92. The former congressman was the longest-serving member of Congress in American history, at 59 years, and a master of legislative deal-making who was fiercely protective of Detroit’s auto industry. Feb. 7.
Karl Lagerfeld, 85. Chanel’s iconic couturier whose accomplished designs and trademark white ponytail, high starched collars and dark enigmatic glasses dominated high fashion for the past 50 years. Feb. 19.
Katherine Helmond, 89. An Emmy-nominated and Golden Globe-winning actress who played two very different matriarchs on the ABC sitcoms “Who’s the Boss?” and “Soap.” Feb. 23.
John Havlicek, 79. The Boston Celtics great whose steal of Hal Greer’s inbounds pass in the final seconds of the 1965 Eastern Conference final against the Philadelphia 76ers remains one of the most famous plays in NBA history. April 25.
Peter Mayhew, 74. The towering actor who donned a huge, furry costume to give life to the rugged-and-beloved character of Chewbacca in the original “Star Wars” trilogy and two other films. April 30.
Doris Day, 97. The sunny blond actress and singer whose frothy comedic roles opposite the likes of Rock Hudson and Cary Grant made her one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1950s and ’60s and a symbol of wholesome American womanhood. May 13.
Tim Conway, 85. The impish second banana to Carol Burnett who won four Emmy Awards on her TV variety show, starred in “McHale’s Navy” and later voiced the role of Barnacle Boy for “Spongebob Squarepants.” May 14.
I.M. Pei, 102. The versatile, globe-trotting architect who revived the Louvre with a giant glass pyramid and captured the spirit of rebellion at the multi-shaped Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. May 16.
Bill Buckner, 69. A star hitter who made one of the biggest blunders in baseball history when he let Mookie Wilson’s trickler roll through his legs in the 1986 World Series. May 27.
Gloria Vanderbilt, 95. The intrepid heiress, artist and romantic who began her extraordinary life as the “poor little rich girl” of the Great Depression, survived family tragedy and multiple marriages and reigned during the 1970s and ’80s as a designer jeans pioneer. June 17.
Lee Iacocca, 94. The auto executive and master pitchman who put the Mustang in Ford’s lineup in the 1960s and became a corporate folk hero when he resurrected Chrysler 20 years later. July 2.
Ross Perot, 89. The colorful, self-made Texas billionaire who rose from a childhood of Depression-era poverty and twice mounted outsider campaigns for president. July 9. Leukemia.
Art Neville, 81. A member of one of New Orleans’ storied musical families, the Neville Brothers, and a founding member of the groundbreaking funk band The Meters. July 22.
Peter Fonda, 79. The actor was the son of a Hollywood legend who became a movie star in his own right after both writing and starring in the counterculture classic “Easy Rider.” Aug. 16.
David H. Koch, 79. A billionaire industrialist who, with his older brother Charles, was both celebrated and demonized for transforming American politics by pouring their riches into conservative causes. Aug. 23.
Robert Mugabe, 95. The former Zimbabwean leader was an ex-guerrilla chief who took power when the African country shook off white minority rule and presided for decades while economic turmoil and human rights violations eroded its early promise. Sept. 6.
Robert Frank, 94. A giant of 20th-century photography whose seminal book “The Americans” captured singular, candid moments of the 1950s and helped free picture-taking from the boundaries of clean lighting and linear composition. Sept. 9.
Boone Pickens, 91. A brash and quotable oil tycoon who grew even wealthier through corporate takeover attempts. Sept. 11.
Eddie Money, 70. The rock star known for such hits as “Two Tickets to Paradise” and “Take Me Home Tonight.” Sept. 13. Esophageal cancer.
Cokie Roberts, 75. The daughter of politicians and a pioneering journalist who chronicled Washington from Jimmy Carter to Donald Trump for NPR and ABC News. Sept. 17. Complications from breast cancer.
Barron Hilton, 91. A hotel magnate who expanded his father’s chain and became a founding owner in the American Football League. Sept. 19.
Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, 85. The 1955 Heisman Trophy winner at Ohio State and running back for the Detroit Lions. Sept. 20.
Jacques Chirac, 86. A two-term French president who was the first leader to acknowledge France’s role in the Holocaust and who defiantly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Sept. 26.
Robert Forster, 78. The handsome and omnipresent character actor who got a career resurgence and Oscar nomination for playing bail bondsman Max Cherry in “Jackie Brown.” Oct. 11. Brain cancer.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, believed to be 48. He sought to establish an Islamic “caliphate” across Syria and Iraq, but he might be remembered more as the ruthless leader of the Islamic State group who brought terror to the heart of Europe. Oct. 26. Detonated a suicide vest during a raid by U.S. forces.
Paul Volcker, 92. The former Federal Reserve chairman who in the early 1980s raised interest rates to historic highs and triggered a recession as the price of quashing double-digit inflation. Dec. 8.
NOTABLE NORTH CAROLINIANS
Kay Hagan, 66, A former bank executive who rose from a budget writer in the North Carolina Legislature to a seat in the U.S. Senate. May 26, 1953 – October 28, 2019. Encephalitis from a tick-borne illness.
Walter B. Jones Jr., 76, A member of the U.S. House representing Eastern N.C. and former member of N.C. House. February 10, 1943 – February 10, 2019. Lou Gehrig’s disease.
George Laurer, 94, IBM engineer credited for inventing the UPC barcode. September 23, 1925 – December 5, 2019.
Beverly Lake, Jr. 85, A Former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court. January 30, 1934 – September 12, 2019.
Janice Hardison Faulkner, 87, The first female N.C. Secretary of State. Died October 9, 2019.
Willis Frank Dowd III, 92, Philanthropist and former president of Charlotte Pipe and Foundry. February 21, 1927 – November 1, 2019.
Clifton “Pop” Herring, 66, Michael Jordan’s high school coach. Died December 11, 2019.
Jan-Michael Vincent, 73, Actor known for “Airwolf” lived in Asheville. July 15, 1945 – February 10, 2019. Cardiac arrest.