The Summer of Death

A few of the famous — and not-so-famous — who shuffled off this mortal coil in the past few months.

As we end a summer in which there seemed to be an unusually high volume of notable deaths, I wanted to eulogize 10 folks whose lives and/or deaths had some impact on my own life. Please note, though, that you won’t find Michael Jackson on my list; I’m experiencing a little King of Pop fatigue. (From the eds: That’s just as well; we did our Michael Jackson piece a few weeks ago.)

Moving on, in chronological order:

1. Mitsuharu Misawa, 46, Japanese professional wrestler
(June 13, 2009)

I’m not an avid follower of the Japanese wrestling scene, but Misawa was one of the biggest stars in the Far East — a 30-year veteran who had innovated several wrestling maneuvers, founded his own federation, and won multiple championships. In a tag team match in Hiroshima, Misawa landed badly on a belly-to-back suplex and immediately lost consciousness. He was pronounced dead at the hospital later that evening from a cervical spinal cord injury.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’ve become desensitized to premature deaths in professional wrestling. Every year, another handful of grapplers pass away in their 30s or 40s of drug overdoses and heart attacks. It usually takes an extraordinary tragedy like Chris Benoit’s bizarre double-murder-suicide in 2007 to really grab my attention — but Misawa’s case was shocking, too. Oddly enough considering their occupation, it’s extremely rare for wrestlers to die as a direct result of in-ring injuries.

2. Billy Mays, 50, infomercial pitchman (June 28, 2009)

This was one of the more unusual deaths of the summer — somewhat fitting for such an unlikely cult hero. Mays was a giant in the field of schlocky TV shills, peddling his ridiculously-named wares with such loud enthusiasm that he refused to be ignored. (Would you honestly be able to purchase a product named “Zorbeez” with a straight face, much less endorse it?)

Like many people, I became a Billy Mays fan; there was something compelling about this bellowing man with the beard and slicked-back hair that were so dark and manicured that they looked like they’d been coated in shoe polish. Mostly, I was afraid that he’d find a way to reach through the TV and throttle me if I tried to change the channel. Let’s just say that I wasn’t shocked when his autopsy revealed cocaine use.

3. Steve McNair, 36, ex-NFL quarterback (July 4, 2009)

I was at the beach with my family when news broke that McNair had been shot and killed in his sleep by his mentally troubled mistress, who then took her own life. I’m a big football fan, and I’d spent a year and a half rooting for Steve, who quarterbacked my hometown Baltimore Ravens at the end of his career. In 2006, he led the club to a won-lost record of 13-3, their greatest regular season ever.

His death was a sobering reminder that the same athletes many of us put on pedestals also have a distressing lack of common sense, and that it never hurts to have a confidante whispering in your ear to tell you when something is a bad idea.

4. Walter Cronkite, 92, news anchor (July 17, 2009)

If you’re like me, Walter Cronkite is somebody you took for granted. He retired from the CBS Evening News desk 17 months before I was born, but he persisted in the background of the public conscious for another 28 years. He was not only a witness to some of the most incredible events of the 20th Century, but he was the man who brought these happenings to our homes. The JFK assassination, the moon landing, Vietnam — all unfolded under Uncle Walter’s watch.

5. Henry Allingham, 113, World War I veteran (July 18, 2009)

I love that the official term for persons over 100 years of age is “supercentenarian.” It makes it sound like they’ve got a special power — and when it comes right down to it, refusing to die for 113 years really is pretty exceptional. In addition, Allingham had been the oldest surviving WWI vet at the time of his passing; he served in Britain’s Royal Air Force and saw action on the Western Front.

When I read about Allingham’s death, I cracked to my sister that if someone like him couldn’t make it through this summer, no one could.

6. Frank McCourt, 78, author (July 19, 2009)

I can’t believe it took me so long to discover the memoirs of Frank McCourt. Looking for fresh reading material for my daily train rides to and from Washington, DC, I borrowed my dad’s copy of Teacher Man last April. I was instantly drawn in by the bare honesty, self-deprecation, and conversational style of McCourt’s writing. He admitted that he spent so much time talking about his own miserable Irish childhood during class because it was the only way to capture the attention of his high school students. I realized that he was precisely the sort of teacher that I most enjoyed during my own formative years.

During my vacation in early July I devoured Angela’s Ashes, McCourt’s first book, which won him the Pulitzer Prize at the tender age of 66. So when he died two weeks after my trip from meningitis and complications from melanoma, it felt as though I’d lost a new friend.

7. Les Lye, 84, “You Can’t Do That on Television” actor
(July 21, 2009)

It distressed me when I realized that some of my younger friends had never even heard of “You Can’t Do That on Television,” the slime-intensive children’s sketch comedy show that ran on Nickelodeon from 1981 through 1990 (and in reruns until 1994).

It was once said that without Les Lye, there would have been no show. He was the only male adult actor during the program’s run, and some of the grotesque characters he played (especially firing squad leader El Capitano and slovenly diner chef Barth Bagge) made a firm impression upon my fragile childhood mind.

It’s an odd quirk of life that I didn’t even know Les Lye’s real name until I read his obituary.

8. Joe DiGangi, 94, ex-bullpen catcher for the Yankees
(July 24, 2009)

This is one that I discovered while scouring Wikipedia for a comprehensive list of casualties of the Summer of ’09. I’ve included Joe on this list because I’ve always maintained that “bullpen catcher” would be one of my ideal jobs in baseball.

Essentially, the bullpen catcher travels with a major league team, wears the uniform, and sits in the bullpen for every game. When a pitcher needs to warm up prior to entering the game, the bullpen catcher gets into his crouch and sets up 60 feet away and catches the pitcher’s warm-up tosses. Of course, I get the impression that several teams use the bullpen catcher as a de facto extra coach, so some baseball expertise might be required. But it still seems like a pretty sweet gig to me.

Even among his peers, DiGangi’s job was the sweetest of the sweet: He worked for the New York Yankees during the team’s dynastic years, 1933-1941. He punched the clock every day and got to see Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and company do their thing up close. Wow.

9. John Hughes, 59, filmmaker (August 6, 2009)

For somebody who withdrew into seclusion after only a decade of full-time writing and directing, John Hughes had a significant impact on his craft. His coming-of-age films like “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” have struck a chord with multiple generations of teens, and he was responsible for two of the most enjoyable holiday movies ever: “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation ” and “Home Alone.”

He was also married to his high school sweetheart from 1970 up until his sudden death as a result of a heart attack last month. Somehow, that just seems right. (The marriage, I mean — not the heart attack.)

Unfortunately, I don’t have a tenth. However, I just noticed my list has been 100 percent male (From the eds: Not a Farrah Fawcett fan, we take it?), so allow me to break my own rules and go back a bit farther in time:

10. Bea Arthur, 86, actress (April 25, 2009)

Bea Arthur didn’t take crap from anyone, and her towering stature and deadpan delivery earned her a devoted fan base. Her body of work is as diverse as a Swiss Army knife: “Threepenny Opera,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Mame,” “Maude,” “The Golden Girls,” and guest spots on “All in the Family,” “Malcolm in the Middle,” and “Futurama.” It may sound crazy, but I have serious regrets about missing out on her one-woman show on Broadway.

As we all move on into the fall, let’s hope the next few months are a little less eventful in the death department.

Article © 2009 by Kevin Brotzman