Corrections & clarifications: A previous version of this story had the incorrect year of Ray Manzarek’s death. He died in 2013.
In this year of the coronavirus pandemic, deaths were often just a cold statistic. Grieving families barely had a moment to say goodbye, to remember or to celebrate.
But every well-lived life, whether lost to disease, old age, accident or other cause, leaves positive paths forward, or sometimes cautionary tales, for family, friends or fans. Those memories can bring tears, renew faith, and often spark a smile when the hint of a grandparent shows up in the face of a newborn.
So it is with this year’s “Passages,” USA TODAY’s annual remembrance of those who lived big enough to inspire not only loved ones but whole generations.
Some of those who died in 2020 became icons by the end, bright lights not only of past accomplishments but of new ways still to come.
The lacy “dissent collar” worn by Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose death at age 87 shifted the tilt of the court, came to symbolize the resolve of her followers. The raucous piano and whoops of Little Richard, 87, left a legacy of lascivious joy from the very beginnings of rock and roll. The shaken, not stirred, martinis of Scottish actor Sean Connery, 90, who died on Halloween, removed all doubt that he was the true James Bond.
Their voices, too, often brought inspirations and challenges.
“Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful, nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union,’’ said Rep. John Lewis, 80, an original Freedom Rider from 1961 who died in July, but not before he recommended that Joe Biden pick a woman of color as vice president.
“It is a paradox that when we reach our prime, we also see there is a place where it finishes,’’ wrote journalist Gail Sheehy, 83, author of the influential “Passages,” who died in August.
“The moment you give up is the moment you let someone else win,” said NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, 41, whose death with his daughter and others in a January helicopter crash was a shocking portent of the grim year to come.
The pandemic was barely starting when the deaths at the hands of police of ordinary Americans like George Floyd, 46, and Breonna Taylor, 26, sparked Black Lives Matter protests and helped raise social consciousness.
Some deaths shook nations in other ways. Three days of mourning were ordered in Argentina following the loss of soccer superstar Diego Maradona, 60, whose famous “Hand of God” goal – the ball came off his hand into the net but was allowed to stand – helped secure the 1986 World Cup for his country.
Other deaths recalled pioneers. A former Miss America, Phyllis George, who died at 70, was just 26 when she joined CBS’ Sunday pre-game show, “The NFL Today,” in 1975, crossing a goal post for women in sportscasting. “Someone has to be first,’’ said ESPN anchor Hannah Storm. “That was Phyllis George — a true trailblazer."
The loss of media comforts added to the pain of 2020. The always affable Regis Philbin, 88, who holds the record for most hours on television, was like a warm muffin and coffee every weekday morning. And Alex Trebek, 80, shared his battle with cancer even while proving that game shows like “Jeopardy!” could be intelligent and respectful of players and audience.
COVID-19’S TOLL REACHES WIDE
The largely uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 this year has cost hundreds of thousands of lives in the U.S., among them well-known figures from all walks of life. Just a sampling of the virus's deadly reach is breathtaking.
Among COVID-19 deaths were pioneering Black country music legend Charley Pride, 86; Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver, 75; folk singer John Prine, 73; portrayer of Darth Vader, David Prowse, 85; survivor of "Gilligan's Island," Dawn Wells, 82; Las Vegas lion handler Roy Horn, 75, of Siegfried and Roy; New York federal judge Kevin Duffy, 87; Fountains of Wayne rocker Adam Schlesinger, 52; singer Trini Lopez, 83; rapper Ty, 47; historian Henry Graff, 98; Japanese Sumo wrestler Shobushi, 28, and American wrestler Kamala, 70; disability activist and widow of John Glenn, Annie Glenn, 100; presidential candidate Herman Cain, 74; Bruce Williamson, 49, of The Temptations; Toots Hibbert, 77, of Toots and the Maytals; Tommy DeVito, 92, of The Four Seasons; Broadway’s Nick Cordero, 41, and playwright Terrence McNally, 81; actress Lynn Kellogg, 77; science-fiction writer Ben Bova, 88; and Medal of Honor winner for heroism in Vietnam, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie G. Adkins, 86.
Also lost to complications from COVID-19: Congressman-elect Luke Letlow, 41, a Louisiana Republican who died less than a week before being sworn in.
ENTERTAINERS OF YEARS PAST
As lifespans lengthen, inevitably stars of the past century fade in memory. Happily, their work survives:
Some of the last stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age passed away in 2020, among them eternal tough guy Kirk Douglas, 103, and Olivia de Havilland, 104, who brought a gentle spirit to 1939’s grim “Gone With the Wind.” And Technicolor was tailor-made for fiery redhead Rhonda Fleming, 97, co-star of films with Douglas, Charlton Heston and others.
Also lost were Diana Rigg, 82, whose career spanned the dapper British TV series “The Avengers” to a regal turn in “Game of Thrones”; and Max von Sydow, 90, whose roles ranged from Jesus to an exorcist and Ming the Merciless in “Flash Gordon.”
Ann Reinking, 71, is remembered as a Broadway dancing queen and Hollywood actress. Tony Award winner Ian Holm, 88, was nominated for an Oscar for “Chariots of Fire," but is also remembered as an evil android in “Alien.” The “Chariots” cast also lost actor Ben Cross, 72.
Jacqueline Scott, 89, was known as “The Youngest Old-Timer” after appearing in more than 100 movies and TV series such as “Bat Masterson” and “The Fugitive”; Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, 87, a breakout star of the 1958 TV show “77 Sunset Strip” also appeared as the dance-show host in “Grease”; character actor Wilford Brimley, 85, brought homespun truth to his roles in “Cocoon," “The Natural” and the journalism drama “Absence of Malice.”
Ken Osmond, 76, played the unctuous Eddie Haskell on “Leave it to Beaver” – “What a lovely dress, Mrs. Cleaver” – and later, for real, became a Los Angeles police officer. And no, he did not become rocker Alice Cooper, one of the urban legends that plagued his career. Character actor John Karlan, 86, besides playing Tyne Daly’s husband on “Cagney and Lacy,” first freed vampire Barnabas Collins on the “Dark Shadows” soap opera in 1967.
Other perennials included Hugh Downs, 99, whose career goes back to the original "TODAY" show; comedy writer Carl Reiner, 98, who created the “Dick Van Dyke Show” and was straight man for Mel Brooks’ 2000-Year-Old Man; singer/dancer Paula Kelly, 77; deadpan satirist Buck Henry, 89, and comedian Norm Crosby, 93; comic actors Fred Willard, 86, and Jerry Stiller, 92; Ja’Net DuBois, 74, of “Good Times”; and Monty Python’s Terry Jones, 77.
Gruff-guy-next-door Brian Dennehy, 81, appeared in 180 films; actress Honor Blackman, 94, played Pussy Galore in “Goldfinger”; the movie star looks of Lyle Waggoner, 84, drew laughs with Carol Burnett; David Lander, 73, was memorable as Squiggy on “Laverne and Shirley”; and TV star Robert Conrad, 84, who saw his profile grow in ads with an Eveready battery on his shoulder. “I dare ya to knock this off.”
Among unexpected deaths were “Glee” star Naya Rivera, 33, who drowned in a boating accident; actor Orson Bean, 91, who was struck by a car; and Chadwick Boseman, 43, who died of cancer after portraying Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and a new cultural touchstone, the Black Panther.
Actress Kelly Preston, 57, who appeared in “Jerry Maguire” and 60 other films and TV shows, died of breast cancer in July. “Happy Birthday, Hon!’’ posted husband John Travolta on her birthday in October. “All my love, John.”
SPORTS LOSES LEGENDS
So many iconic baseball players died in 2020 that their names are almost enough. Besides Seaver of the Mets, gone are slugger Al Kaline, 85 (Tigers), and Dick Allen, 78 (Phillies); pitchers Whitey Ford, 91, and Don Larsen, 90 (Yankees), and Bob Gibson, 84 (Cardinals); knuckleballer Phil Niekro, 81 (Braves); speedster Lou Brock, 81 (Cardinals), and second baseman Joe Morgan, 77 (Reds). Also gone is legendary baseball writer Roger Kahn, 92, who chronicled everyone listed here.
Football lost running backs Paul Hornung, 84 (the “Golden Boy” from Notre Dame and Packers), and Gayle Sayers, 77 (Bears), along with Don Shula, 90 (coach of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins).
Basketball greats include Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr., 78; Boston Celtics player/coaches Tommy Heinsohn, 86, and K.C. Jones, 88; Tommy Heinsohn, 86, who was with the Celtics as a player, coach and commentator for all 17 championships; Wes Unseld, 74 (Bullets); Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, 78, and NBA Commissioner David Stern, 77.
In hockey, Henri “Pocket Rocket” Richard, 84, won 11 Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens, the most by any player. And 1960 Olympic decathlon winner Rafer Johnson, 86, is also noted for helping subdue Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin in 1968.
Beyond John Lewis, the civil rights movement lost the Rev. Joseph Lowery, 98; C.T. Vivian, 95, a close ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King; and Charles Evers, 97, brother of slain activist Medgar Evers.
Other notables include deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, 91; former Sens. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., 92, Tom Coburn, R-Okla. 72, and Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., 87; former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, 95; David Dinkins, 93, the first Black mayor of New York City; test pilot Chuck Yeager, 97, who broke the sound barrier in 1947, decades before NASA aimed at the moon; quantum physicist Freeman Dyson, 96; and Katherine Johnson, 101, a “Hidden Figures” mathematician who helped NASA get to the moon.
Cable television tycoon Sumner Redstone, 97, GE’s Jack Welch, 84, and TV producer Fred Silverman, 82, were among leaders who found their core businesses changing in a digital world.
ARTS AND LITERATURE
“The replenishing thing that comes with a nap – you end up with two mornings in a day,” were the soothing words of usually hard-boiled New York City columnist Pete Hamill, gone at 85. Journalists silenced included jazz columnist Stanley Crouch, 74; political columnist Richard Reeves, 83; Deb Price, 62, who wrote a groundbreaking column on gay issues for The Detroit News; and PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, 85.
Top authors ranged from spy turned spy novelist John le Carré, 89, adventure novelist Clive Cussler, 88, and “Queen of Suspense” Mary Higgins Clark, 92 (all 51 of her books were bestsellers), to Shere Hite, 77, whose 1976 “Hite Report on Female Sexuality” raised consciousness.
Creative forces such as fashion icon Pierre Cardin, 98; magazine designer Milton Glaser, 91; Christo, 84, who unveiled epic artwork in public spaces; Mad magazine artist Mort Drucker, 91; and “Blade Runner” futurist Syd Mead, 86, set standards for artists to come. And playwright Larry Kramer, 84, used his plays to push for AIDS awareness and government action.
MUSIC MUTED IN 2020
The world of music lost players in all genres, including hyper-kinetic rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen, 65; classical guitarist Julian Bream, 87; country stars Pride, Kenny Rogers, 81, Charlie Daniels, 83, Mac Davis, 78, Jan Howard, 91, K.T. Oslin, 78, and Billy Joe Shaver, 81; rapper John Fletcher, 56; and Ennio Morricone, 91, composer of the classic theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
Other musicians included Helen Reddy, 78, whose “I Am Woman” became an anthem; Jerry Jeff Walker, 78, writer of “Bojangles”; Annie Ross, 89, of the bebop jazz trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross; and singers Bill Withers, 81, Betty Wright, 66, and Johnny Nash, 80, who sang “I Can See Clearly Now.”
Lost band members included Leslie West, 75 (Mountain); Bonnie Pointer, 69 (Pointer Sisters); Ronald Bell, 68 (Kool & the Gang); Peter Green, 73 (original Fleetwood Mac); Neil Peart, 67 (Rush); and Spencer Davis, 81 (whose Spencer Davis Group was fronted by Steve Winwood).
Finally, anyone still living from World War II remembers the hopeful poignancy of “We’ll Meet Again,” aired during the war on big band broadcasts and Armed Forces Radio by British singer Vera Lynn, who died in June at age 103.
The song was used ironically at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” in 1964, but the words still have meaning, especially now after a year like no other:
We'll meet again
Don't know where
Don't know when
But I know we'll meet again some sunny day
David Colton – @dcoltonnow – is a former executive editor at USA TODAY.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: RBG, Kobe Bryant, Little Richard among the notables who died in 2020