2016 was an unforgettable year for many reasons. In addition to an historic presidential race and a year full of significant national and international events, we also pause to remember those who left us this year – from the arenas of politics and sports to television, film and music. And we begin with politics…
Nancy Reagan spent 16 years as a first lady, eight in California and eight in the White House, while her husband served as governor and president. She was known as Nancy Davis in Hollywood. When her name mistakenly appeared on a list of communist sympathizers in Hollywood, she went to Screen Actors Guild President Ronald Reagan for help. He asked her to dinner and the rest is history. Known best for her “Just Say No” campaign against the scourge of drugs in the 1980s, Mrs. Reagan also earned worldwide admiration for her tireless care of her husband during his decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Nancy Reagan was 94 when she died in March.
One of President Reagan’s longest lasting legacies was his nomination of Justice Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court. For nearly 29 years, Scalia was the most visible conservative on the court, although he referred to himself as a textualist. Scalia was adored on the right and reviled by the left, but was well-respected in the legal community for his incisive questioning and strongly written decisions. Scalia died while on vacation in February. He was 79.
In the early years of the space race, there was no greater American hero than John Glenn. The heroic Marine Corps fighter pilot served in World War II and Korea. Soon after he became one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts. In 1962, Glenn achieved legend status when he became the first American to orbit the earth. In 1974, Glenn won the first of four terms to the U.S. Senate from Ohio. In 1984, he sought a promotion to president, but never gathered much steam towards the Democratic nomination. John Glenn died in December at the age of 95.
Glenn’s trip to space came the same year the U.S. and the Soviet Union nearly fought a nuclear war as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fidel Castro won his Cuban revolution in 1959 and quickly embraced communism and the USSR. Instead of freeing his people as promised, Castro repressed them – jailing tens of thousands, executing others and stifling freedoms while thumbing his nose at the U.S. Castro, who handed over presidential duties to his brother a decade ago, died in November. He was 90.
Phyllis Schlafly never held elective office, but few individuals have had a greater impact on American politics in the past 50 years. Schlafly burst onto the scene during the 1964 campaign with her book, “A Choice Not An Echo,” which demanded a strong conservative alternative to business as usual in the Republican Party. For her next act, Schlafly singlehandedly led the effort defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, which she said would have enshrined the worst of feminism in the Constitution. Ratification seemed like a foregone conclusion but Schlafly’s grassroots movement successfully lobbied enough states to stop the amendment in its tracks. Active until her final days, Schlafly died of cancer in September. She was 92.
One of the most famous liberal activists in the 1960s and 1970s was Tom Hayden. Known for his fierce opposition for the Vietnam War and for being a leading figure in the countercultural movement, Hayden was later married to Jane Fonda. Hayden died in October. He was 76.
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No one spent more time as Attorney General of the United States than Janet Reno. Reno served all eight years of the Clinton administration and received the most attention for authorizing the raid against the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993 and for her role in returning six-year-old Elian Gonzalez to Cuba in the year 2000 after he washed ashore in Florida the year before. Reno was 78.
Two long-serving former senators died in 2016. Dale Bumpers served four terms as a Democrat from Arkansas. Just days after retirement in 1999, he returned to the Senate floor to plead with his colleagues not to remove President Clinton from office. Dale Bumpers was 90.
Bob Bennett was a three-term Republican from Utah. He died in May at age 82.
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One of the most famous pieces of legislation signed in the early days of the Obama was the Sarbanes-Oxley bill, purported to put some restraints on Wall Street in the wake of the economic crisis. Ohio Republican Congressman Mike Oxley was one of the principal authors. Also a committee chairman earlier in his congressional tenure, Oxley was 71 when he died in January.
On the world stage, Israeli President Shimon Peres was the last active political figure in his nation whose service spanned the entire history of the modern state of Israel. Also serving twice as prime minister, Peres shared a Nobel Peace prize in 1994 for his efforts toward Middle East peace via the Oslo Accords. Shimon Peres died from a stroke in September. He was 93.
The man leading the United Nations when Peres was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize was Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Later ousted at the behest of the United States after just one term as secretary-general, Boutros-Ghali died in February. He was 93.
The world’s longest-reigning monarch died this year. King Bhumibol ascended to the throne of Thailand in 1946 and stayed there for more than 70 years. He died in October at age 88.
Two colorful former mayors who had issues with the law also died this year. Buddy Cianci spent two different stretches as mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, totaling 21 years. However, criminal charges ended both terms. A racketeering conviction led to a four year prison term following his final stint in office.
North of the border, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford became known for his battles with drugs and alcohol more than his work for the city. Ford died from cancer in March. He was 46.
Some of the most impactful writers also passed away this year. Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor who gripped the world with his account of the experience in the best-selling “Night.” Also a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel was 87 when he died in July.
Harper Lee captivated the nation with “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which then turned into a blockbuster film starring Gregory Peck. Lee then vanished from the public eye until another book was published in her name shortly before her death. Harper Lee was 89.
W.P Kinsella’s work led millions of Americans to the “Field of Dreams.” Kinsella was 81.
Three prominent Christian writers died this year as well. Dr. Charles Ryrie was for decades a biblical scholar and teacher. He died in February at age 90. Jerry Bridges was known for his challenging writings on holiness and godliness. He was 86. And Tim LaHaye became famous for his “Left Behind” series on the end times although he authored other scholarly works as well. LaHaye was 90.
We also lost some of the most well-known media figures in 2016. Morley Safer was one of the “60 Minutes” correspondents who was on the job for decades. Doing both hard news and soft features, Safer was 84 when he died in May – just one day after retiring.
John McLaughlin changed political television forever by holding spirited discussions with reporters of all political persuasions – and making stars out of the journalists in the process. The founder of “The McLaughlin Group” held court for nearly 35 years and hosted the program right up to his death in August. McLaughlin was 89.
Gwen Ifill was an accomplished print reporter before heading to television at NBC News and later PBS. Ifill hosted two vice-presidential debates and served as co-host of “The Newshour” on PBS. She died from cancer in November. She was 61.
She spent more time talking about Catholic doctrine than politics, but Mother Angelica was a very recognizable face to viewers of EWTN. A critical figure in the founding of the network, Angelica was 92.
Two famous faces in sports journalism died this year as well. John Saunders was a versatile studio host and game announcer for ESPN and ABC. Saunders died suddenly in August. He was 61.
Craig Sager was known for his outlandish wardrobe and for his three decades covering the NBA on the sidelines. His valiant battle against leukemia inspired millions. Sager died in December at the age of 65.
In sports, we lost the king of golf. Arnold Palmer led his armies down the fairways as he won seven major championships, including four green jackets at the Masters. But Palmer’s greatest achievement is making golf appealing to the masses through his infectious smile, personality and blue collar roots. Palmer died of heart failure in September. He was 87.
Mr. Hockey also left us in 2016. Gordie Howe was a gentle ambassador off the ice but threw lots of elbows on it. He also scored a lot of goals and set NHL records by the bushel in a career that spanned from the 1940s to the 1980s. Best known for his years with, Howe led Hockeytown to four Stanley Cups. Gordie Howe was 88.
Muhammad Ali said he was the greatest. And a lot of people agree. Born Cassius Clay, he won gold at the 1960 Summer Olympics and won his first heavyweight title in 1964. After surrendering his belt for refusing service in the Vietnam War, Ali was later part of epic fights with Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Known as much for his non-stop self-promotion as for his fighting, Ali was eventually a three-time champ. Muhammad Ali was 74 when he died in June.
In baseball, one of the great personalities over the years was Joe Garagiola. A childhood friend of Yogi Berra, Garagiola was a tremendous catcher in his own right. He won a World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1946 and played for three other teams in his career. Later Garagiola announced baseball’s game of the week and was a regular part of NBC’s “Today” show. Joe Garagiola was 90.
Monte Irvin was a World War II veteran of the Battle of the Bulge and would soon be one of the first black players in Major League Baseball. Best known for his years with the New York Giants, Irvin was on the World Series-winning 1954 team, was a five-time all-star and was later inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. Monte Irvin was 96.
Ralph Branca probably wished he was never famous. His moment in history came in 1951, when as a reliever for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he served up the pennant-winning home run to Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants. Branca was 90.
One of the brightest young pitchers of this generation was Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins. All of Major League Baseball was stunned by his sudden death in a late-night boating accident in September. Jose Fernandez was just 24 years old.
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The rise in the prestige and popularity of women’s college basketball can largely be traced to the work of legendary Tennessee Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt. Summitt took the job in Knoxville when women’s hoops was a mere afterthought. When she retired almost 40 years later, she had amassed eight national championships, seven national coach of the year awards and nearly 1,100 wins. Dementia cut her career short and took her life in June. Summitt was 64.
One of the brightest college stars on the men’s side in the 1980s was Dwayne “Pear” Washington. He dazzled fans with his fast-break skills and scoring prowess as he put Syracuse basketball firmly on the map of perennial powers. His NBA career never matched the glory of his college years. Washington was 52 when he died in April.
Nate Thurmond wasn’t all that flashy. He was simply a beast in the low post and is known as one of the best defensive players and rebounders in NBA history. Playing most of his career with the San Francisco and then Golden State Warriors, Thurmond was 74 when he died of leukemia in July.
In football, the name Buddy Ryan is synonymous with dominant defense. Ryan was the architect of the vaunted 46 defense that propelled the Chicago Bears to one of the greatest seasons in NFL history and a blow-out win in Superbowl XX. Still the only assistant coach carried off the field after winning a title, Buddy Ryan was 85 when he died in June.
Dennis Green was a feisty and successful NFL coach. After a brief stint as head coach at Stanford, Green was hired by the Minnesota Vikings. There he promptly led the team to eight playoff appearances in nine seasons, including four division titles and two trips to the NFC championship game. Later find less success with the Arizona Cardinals, Green died in July. He was 67.
Dennis Byrd saw his playing career end in a moment of sudden tragedy and his life ended in a similar fashion. Byrd was a defensive end for the New York Jets when a collision with a teammate left him paralyzed. Later able to walk after much rehabilitation, Byrd died in a car accident in October. He was 50.
Lawrence Phillips was a great football talent who could not stay away from crime. Phillips was a key running back on national championship teams at Nebraska but never could find success in the NFL. Instead, he found his way to prison on assault and theft charges. Later accused of murdering his cellmate, Phillips allegedly hanged himself in his cell in January. He was 40.
Rashaan Salaam was a dominant back for Colorado at the same time Phillips was tearing it up for Nebraska. Salaam rushed for more than 2,000 yards for the Buffaloes in 1994 and won the Heisman Trophy. After a promising rookie season in the NFL, injuries took their toll. Salaam took his life in December. He was 42.