Where Aren't They Now? 25 Overlooked Deaths Of 2019 (Pt. 1)
Only a precious few celebrities are a big enough deal to get an entire news cycle out of their passing. Sure, you probably heard that in 2019 we lost David Koch, Robert Forster, and, uh, Grumpy Cat. But every year at this time, we like to stop and remember the second tier of prominent people, those whose deaths maybe caused them to trend on Twitter for a few hours, and that was that. As always, there are enough of these that we split it into two parts. The second runs tomorrow. For now ...
January 2: A Wrestling Icon (Who Didn't Wrestle)
Pro Wrestling Announcer/Interviewer "Mean" Jean Okerlund
Go watch any legendary '80s wrestling promo, and you'll see Gene. He's the tiny bald guy holding the microphone.
He played the straight man to these laughably over-the-top characters for almost half a century, apparently picked purely because he so clearly didn't seem to belong in that world. This nonthreatening accountant-looking dude got his nickname as a joke. He was said to be the nicest guy in the business (Randy "Macho Man" Savage apparently gave him the nickname). He was the best man at the Iron Sheik's wedding.
It's about the best you can hope for out of a career, really. Okerlund found his niche and knocked it out of the park, making a ton of weird friends along the way. Likewise ...
January 2: "Super Dave Osborne"
Actor and comedian Bob Einstein.
This man committed to doing the same running joke for 41 straight years, turning up on various shows as fictional stuntman Super Dave Osborne. The punchline was the same every single time: After an extremely long and pointless setup, the stunt would go wrong and "Dave" would be brutally destroyed in a way he couldn't possibly survive.
For four straight decades, the audience 100% knew what was coming, with the deadpan Einstein stretching out the setup without cracking a single joke. And then, when catastrophe inevitably struck, they laughed every time. The meta joke -- that this was the exact same bit, and he intended to keep doing it forever -- only got funnier as time went on.
In his final years, Einstein was on Curb Your Enthusiasm as Larry David's friend Marty Funkhouser. And through it all, it wasn't until his obituary that most people found out that he was the brother of comedy legend Albert Brooks. The guy went off and did his own weird thing, and just kept doing it for pretty much the rest of his life.
January 5: The Godmother Of Title IX
Bernice Sandler, womens' rights advocate.
When Bernice Sandler tried to land a teaching position at the University of Maryland in 1969, she found out the hard way that higher education back then was still a boys club. Though there were several jobs open, she wasn't even considered. One person even went so far as to tell her that they didn't hire women because they stayed home with sick kids too often. Another told her she came on "too strong for a woman."
Sandler started a movement and raised hell, drawing attention to the fact that institutions of higher learning either had limits as to how many women they would hire, or didn't hire them at all. She joined the Women's Equity Action League and began pressing 250 universities on gender discrimination. She also joined up with Congress to help pass Title IX, which says that no person shall be denied the benefits of higher education because of their gender. It's a lesson in how social change usually happens: a few relentless and boisterous people keep banging the drum until the rest of society finally comes around.
Related: 5 Great Women Ignored By History For Absurdly Sexist Reasons
January 25: A Titan To Remember
Julius Campbell, college football player (at a key moment in history).
Multiple organ dysfunction syndrome.
Have you seen that movie Remember The Titans, about a '70s high school football team overcoming racial animus? Well, weirdly enough, three different real people the movie was based on all died this year.
When high schools in Alexandria, Virginia integrated in 1971, juniors and seniors went to T.C. Williams, home of the Titans. That team went undefeated that year and won the state championship, in spite of all the strife going on surrounding the integration. Defensive lineman Julius Campbell was instrumental in bringing the team together and fostering acceptance between people who otherwise would have never spent time together.
You already know all of this if you've seen the movie, in which Campbell (played by Wood Harris, aka The Wire's Avon Barksdale) becomes pals with a white linebacker on the team, which paves the way for the team to build bonds across racial lines. In real life, Campbell's athletic career ended soon after due to an injury. He wound up working for the county animal control department, spending the last two decades of his life speaking publicly about his experiences during desegregation and knowing that in high school he did something cool enough to get turned into a Denzel Washington movie.
Then in May, defensive coach Bill Yoast (played by Will Patton) died at the age of 94. In December, Herman Boone (the head coach played by Washington) died at age 84.
February 12: The Champion Of Paperbacks
Betty Ballantine, publisher.
Some people are crazy and like to hold a big weighty hardcover book in their hands. Others appreciate the ease and efficiency of a nice, much smaller paperback. And Betty Ballantine had a hand in making those so prevalent. She and husband Ian exploited a copyright clause that waived fees on paperbacks from Britain, where they were way more common. They planned to take over America.
The Ballantines sold paperbacks for dirt cheap, making them ubiquitous. They sold so many, in fact, that they established huge new markets for science fiction and other genres. She even put out the first paperback versions of The Hobbit, bringing it to a whole new gaggle of nerds. So in memory of Mrs. Ballantine, grab a paperback the next time you're at the pharmacy, take it to the beach, and peel the cover all the way around the back of that sucker.
March 4: A Larger-Than-Life Wrestler
King Kong Bundy, professional wrestler.
Complications from diabetes.
Wrestling fans of the '80s feared few men the way they feared the unitarded meatball King Kong Bundy, built up by the WWF as the nemesis to America's wrestling hero Hulk Hogan. At 6'4'' and a supposed 458 pounds, the guy definitely looked the part.
The venue up there was Wrestlemania 2 in 1986, the WWF's biggest stage at the time. The Hulkster was set to take on Bundy in a steel cage match, and let us tell ya brother, it wasn't looking good for Hogan. Bundy had set a then-record for quickest victory at the inaugural Wrestlemania. Nevertheless, Hulk defeated Bundy, and it would go down as one of the seminal moments of the glory years of wrestling.
Bundy, real name Christopher Pallies, would eventually retire from wrestling in 1995 and do some film and stand-up comedy work, even appearing on Married ... With Children. He was only 61 when he passed, but if you've read these lists in previous years, you know that's longer than a lot of these guys last.
March 23: The Spy Who Caught Adolf Eichmann
Rafi Eitan, Mossad agent.
When the Third Reich went belly-up, various Nazis quickly fled Germany and spread all over the world like a plague. One place they found quite accommodating was South America -- in fact, as many as 9,000 headed to the continent. Rafi Eitan, one of the founders of the Israel intelligence agency Mossad, learned that one of the highest-ranking fugitives, Adolf Eichmann, had taken up residence in Argentina. This, he decided, could not stand.
Eitan went after Eichmann with a crew of seven men, snatching him up on his way home. They identified him by searching for scars on his body, and even crammed a glove in his mouth in case he had a cyanide pill hidden in his teeth. They had him put on trial in Jerusalem, where he was convicted in 1961 and hanged soon after. If it's not justice, it's at least something.
April 18: The Mother Of The Modern Ghost Movie Boom
Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigator.
You know how every haunted house or haunted doll movie that comes out now claims it's "based on a true story"? Well, you can thank Lorraine Warren for that, along with her husband Ed. As part of this paranormal investigation team, Warren headed up such famous cases as the Amityville haunting and the Rhode Island property that inspired the first Conjuring movie. Recently, she's been played by Vera Farmiga in those Conjuring films and the Annabelle series.
Warren started up the New England Society for Psychic Research in 1952. She and Ed investigated and wrote books on over 10,000 cases from all over the world. Lorraine in particular was a medium, and claimed to be able to see ghosts. They weren't without their detractors, of course -- they were accused of not producing much in the way of scientific evidence, and the Amityville case has since been outed as a ridiculous fraud.
Still, Warren went all over the country telling her stories, and even lent her expertise to some of those horror films, presumably knowing that 99% of the audience was just there for some quick jump scares. She also probably helped a whole lot of people sell "haunted" dolls on eBay.
May 4: The Christian Blogger Who Questioned Evangelicalism
Rachel Held Evans, writer.
In 2007, Rachel Held Evans began a blog, as so many did, to put out her ideas of faith and what it meant to her. What it became was so much more, as she began pushing against old religious morals and how evangelicals interpreted the Bible. She was a rising star who was massively in favor of queer participation in the church, even if the old school wasn't ready for it.
Evans wrote books on how she struggled with the church and her faith, earning a massive social media following. She supported presidential candidates who were pro-choice, even if she herself was anti-abortion. In one post on her blog, she remarked, "I thought God wanted to use me to show gay people how to be straight. Instead God used gay people to show me how to be Christian."
Because of her willingness to question a culture that doesn't usually like close examination, she actually helped more people develop their faith (interesting what people choose when you don't force them). On April 14, she tweeted that she was in the hospital for the flu and an allergic reaction, lamenting that she'd miss the Game Of Thrones premiere that night. A few days later, she began having seizures and was placed into a medically induced coma. By the morning of May 4, she was dead at only 37.
May 16: The Builder Of The Modern World
I.M. Pei, architect.
Undisclosed, but it probably had to do with being 102 years old.
The East Building of the National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. The iconic glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame building in Cleveland. These are the timeless designs of architect I.M. Pei, and they're far from the only ones. The list of notable structures he helped create is staggering.
Pei had a flair for the dramatic, and if you see enough of his work, you'll notice the man was a huge fan of geometric shapes. His first big project was in 1964, designing the JFK Library in Boston. It won instant approval from the public and Jackie Kennedy. Some of his later, higher-profile projects drew criticism, however. The Louvre's super-modern addition clashed with the old-school Parisian crowd. His firm's John Hancock Tower skyscraper project in Boston rained glass windows down onto the city's streets. Sure, it seems like an odd design choice, but who are we to doubt him?
May 27: An All-Star Remembered Mostly For His Worst Mistake
Bill Buckner, baseball player.
By all metrics, the Red Sox should have won the 1986 World Series. They held a 3-2 series lead on the New York Mets heading into Game 6, and in extra innings took a 5-3 lead, enough for the words "Congratulations Boston Red Sox, 1986 World Series Champions" to flash on the scoreboard at New York's Shea Stadium. Then the wheels fell off, culminating in one of the most famous plays in sports history: a "through the legs" error by Red Sox infielder Bill Buckner.
The Sox would go on to lose the World Series in seven games.
It's a shame that Buckner's gaffe is his legacy to most, as he had quite a solid Major League career otherwise (without Buckner's bat, there's a good chance the Red Sox don't make it to the World Series at all). Boston fans were especially ruthless to Buckner, as they were in the midst of an almost century-long gap between championships. He somehow found the humor in it all, and even poked fun at himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Wait, how many people who appeared on that show died this year?) In a bit of poetic justice, Buckner did get to throw out the first pitch of the 2008 season after the '07 Sox won the World Series.
Related: How The 'Major League' Movies Predicted Modern Baseball
May 30: The Real "American Gangster"
Frank Lucas, drug kingpin.
This is somehow the second person on this list to have their life turned into a Denzel Washington movie. In this case, it's the crime lord he played in American Gangster. After witnessing his cousin's murder at the hands of the KKK, Frank Lucas moved to New York City to begin an absolutely staggering reign of crime. He took the drug game in Harlem and slid it into his pocket. He owned it all eventually, earning up to a million dollars a day in the '70s.
Lucas claimed to have used soldiers' coffins being sent back during the Vietnam War to smuggle in his drugs. His brand of heroin, which he called "Blue Magic," came directly from Southeast Asia, and was not run through the usual middlemen. Those claims of rigged coffins, as portrayed in the movie, are dubious, but no one disputes that Lucas was a giant. He was ringside at Muhammad Ali fights, commonly replete with chinchilla coats and $25,000 hats.
But it was his gaudy living that earned the attention of the DEA, and in 1975 they finally caught up to him. He got a prison sentence of 70 years, but quickly flipped and ending up serving six. Then he got a movie made about his life and was on the set to provide tips to Denzel, even if he later noted that very little of it was actually true.
All right, that's Part 1, come back tomorrow for Part 2!
For more, check out How Humans Will Eventually Beat Death:
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