Each year, Talk of the Nation reaches out to colleagues and friends at NPR for their help in remembering some of the men and women who died during the previous 12 months. They responded with personal stories about the people who inspired them.
In our annual obituary show, we talk about the lives and careers of remarkable men and woman who did not make the front page when they died, but whose lives still made an indelible impact. NPR’s Paul Brown, Alan Greenblatt, Neda Ulaby and Susannah George share remembrances.
James M. Cox, Mark Twain scholar
Remembered by NPR Digital News correspondent Alan Greenblatt
“You should always start with a big lie.” That’s something I heard James M. Cox say at the start of a lecture on author Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was vintage Cox — winning the trust of an audience by assuring them he was going to lie.
Cox, who taught for nearly 30 years at Dartmouth College, died on Jan. 26. His 1966 book, Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor, influenced generations of scholars. Cox’s own humor, as boisterous as his booming Southern voice, was sometimes profane, occasionally dark.
“Jim Cox was the closest I ever came to meeting Mark Twain, and I’m not forgetting Hal Holbrook,” says Twain biographer Jerome Loving.
I once actually had a girlfriend break up with me after attending one of his lectures. She said realized that she’d never really heard me laugh before.
Cox wrote notable essays on nearly every great 19th-century American writer and discovered autobiography as his second great subject, years before memoirs became first a literary fashion and later a cliche.
He was a master teacher, a winner of national and campus awards, pointing with a crooked finger and avoiding what he once described as “overwrought interpretations inevitably attending overworked authors.”
Cox knew hard-worked fields. He was born and died on the family farm along Saddle Creek, deep in southwestern Virginia. He was educated in the Midwest, where he met his wife of 63 years, Marguerite, with whom he had six children.
Walking through his apple orchard one fall day, Cox quoted Robert Frost: “I have been treading on leaves all day until I am autumn-tired.” Returning to his library, he dug up the poem and showed how Frost, whom he loved, did not have a good strategy for finishing it.
Cox always ended his lectures the same way, exhorting his students to “Go forth, win victories.” He was 86.
Rosa Guy, novelist
Remembered by NPR reporter Neda Ulaby
Rosa Guy was a leading writer of young adult literature that often drew on her own experiences as a West Indian immigrant. She wrote a trilogy of young adult novels in the 1970s that examined issues such as abortion and lesbian relationships through a friendship between two girls living in Harlem.
Guy moved to Harlem from Trinidad when she was seven years old. Her family soon fell apart, and she worked in a sweatshop and lived in foster homes. As an adult, Guy co-founded the Harlem Writers Guild, and became deeply involved in the civil rights movement and black nationalist causes.
One of her novels for adults, My Love, My Love, was turned into the musical Once On This Island. The production ran on Broadway for more than a year, and was nominated for eight Tony Awards.
Garry Harrison, fiddler and music collector
Remembered by NPR newscaster Paul Brown
Garry Harrison was a remarkable traditional fiddler and music collector/scholar. He was largely unknown to the wider world but was deeply respected and admired in the world of traditional music. He died in his sleep, at home in Bloomington, Ind., apparently of a heart ailment at age 58.
While a lot of attention in documenting traditional music of the U.S. has gone to the South, Harrison collected fiddle tunes, songs, and other traditional music from mostly rural senior performers in his native downstate Illinois and elsewhere nearby. He unearthed some remarkable repertoire and, with collaborator Jo Burgess, produced a monumental collection of music and writing drawing on his field recordings titled Dear Old Illinois. The massive book and accompanying sound recordings aren’t found in stores. But you might find them by contacting Harrison’s band, The New Mules, which continues to perform with Harrison’s daughter Genevieve Koester now handling the fiddle duties solo.
And that brings us to Garry Harrison’s own music. As if it weren’t enough that he’d documented music no one else had gotten to, he was an exceedingly powerful fiddler himself, bringing the old tunes to new life for another generation. He achieved a quiet legendary status within traditional music circles, first with a band of like-minded souls called the Indian Creek Delta Boys, and later with the Mules.
Not even that was enough. Garry Harrison turned out to be an impressive tunesmith himself. He finally came out with a recording of his own tunes titled Red Prairie Dawn. Although I did not know Garry well, he contacted me at the recommendation of a mutual friend, and asked me to participate in the recording. He sent me music. I flew out to Indiana and contributed a couple of banjo parts to the album. It was a fabulous experience. Perhaps not surprisingly given Garry Harrison’s aversion to publicity and ostentation, the album is out of print and, like Dear Old Illinois, now hard to find.
Garry passed his fiddling art along to his own daughter, Genevieve Koester. She’s helping fuel the enthusiasm of a new generation of young adults embracing an ancient musical art in an electronic digital age. It’s easy to find her and the band at traditional music festivals, concerts and fiddlers’ conventions.
Juanita Smith, loving mother
Remembered by Tell Me More senior producer Davar Ardalan
My beautiful mother-in-law Juanita Bell Betty June Smith passed away on
Friday, Nov. 23. At 93, she had led a rich and blessed life and I was lucky to have become very close with her.
Juanita was born on Sept. 25, 1919, in Lima, Ohio, and was a big history buff.
“My grandfather had a high back chair with his stovepipe hat always on the floor beside him and whenever you went in their home he had pictures of Abraham Lincoln,” she recalled. “I just begged him to tell me those stories, and about Abraham Lincoln, my favorite historical figure, I read everything I could about Lincoln.”
Growing up, Juanita was always independent-minded, curious, and feisty.
When she was in the 8th grade at school, she and a friend were walking down the hallway when Juanita pointed out a tall, dashing basketball player walking ahead of them and said, “You see him, I’m going to marry him one day.”
And as fate would have it, in 1939, she did end up marrying her high school sweetheart James Smith. Years later she recalled, “I asked him ‘Why did you marry me when you could have gone with so many of the other girls?’ and he said, ‘Cause you were so independent.’”
Together Jim and Juanita had four children — Jim, Jane, Joan and my husband John.
In 2007, Juanita celebrated her 70th high school reunion in Lima. In an NPR interview she was asked what success has meant to her, she said, “Being able to take care of your family properly, being a firm believer in God, and trying to be broadminded with other people’s beliefs and things.”
“I don’t think scads and scads of money really is the answer to success,” she added, “I think there’s a lot more to it than that.”
Mom, as she insisted I call her, lived life to its fullest. Never holding back, she became a champion golf player and was always curious and engaged. She often reminded us to “be a good egg,” and to take care of one another and to be thankful to God for all our blessings.
Mom’s loving spirit will remain in our hearts and souls forever and we will all do our part to keep her legacy alive.
Ralph Frese, conservationist and canoe maker
Remembered by All Things Considered producer Brendan Banaszak
His name was Ralph Frese, but you could call him Mr. Canoe.
Frese owned the Chicagoland Canoe Base, a one-stop shop for canoes, paddles, lifejackets, and the history of watercraft, all within the city limits of Chicago.
And when you talked with Frese, you realized it was as much a store as it was a museum — and not just for canoes. Frese was a fourth-generation blacksmith and might have been the last one operating in the city of Chicago.
Frese dedicated his life to the canoe and the protection of the rivers around Chicago. He designed and made modern canoes, but also replicas of the huge birchbark canoes used by the first Europeans to lay eyes on what would someday become Chicago.
According to the Canadian Canoe Museum, Ralph Frese was one of the “most influential canoeists in the world.” And a huge chunk of that influence was felt locally. Frese worked tirelessly to educate people about canoeing and the city’s local waterways. He added more than a hundred canoes to the Chicago Maritime Museum. A section of the north branch of the Chicago River was named in his honor.
A few years ago a group of people helped Frese move some of his dozens of historical canoes to a new storage area. One person helping that day noted that Frese was a lucky man, he never worked a day in his life because he loved what he did.
Ralph Frese died on Dec. 10 from complications related to cancer. He was 86.
Remembered by NPR elections producer Evie Stone
Not many English Literature Ph.D.s go to work in finance. But after Alan Young-Bryant defended his 2011 dissertation on musicality and voice in Victorian Poetry (“Perverse Form and Victorian Lyric”), he needed a break from academia.
So he moved from Cornell University to Los Angeles and took a job at Oaktree Capital Management, and threw himself into his new role with the rigor of a scholar. According to his longtime partner, Alexis Briley, “he must have read 200 books on the history of American Industry” to get ready for his new career.
After joining the marketing department at Oaktree, he was baffled and entertained by the lingo of high finance, scribbling terms like “deliverables” into notebooks and onto scraps of paper.
He wrote a hundred-page style guide for the firm’s memos and public documents, similar to the Modern Language Association [MLA] for scholars or the Associated Press Stylebook for journalists — likely a unique document in the financial world.
That combination of zeal and detail was typical for Alan. He embraced every new hobby (squash! bridge! cooking!) with a combination of heavy library research and daily practice.
Alan was a wellspring of spontaneous kindnesses, a leaver of love notes, a guy who called long-lost friends when a song lyric reminded him of a shared memory.
He was that rare combination of gregarious extrovert who delighted in hosting parties, and gentle listener who never made himself the center of attention.
He died in the early hours of Dec. 5, after an accidental fall into the Cascadilla Gorge in Ithaca, New York. He was 32 — but since he was born on Leap Day, Feb. 29, he just celebrated his eighth birthday this year.
Alan and Alexis were back in Ithaca for her thesis defense, their last act as the graduate school couple who had spent seven years living and studying there, taking walks through the snow, hashing out ideas, and editing each other’s chapter drafts.
They took a victory lap of sorts around the town. As Alexis described it, “we went back to the apartment where we had met, walked around all of our old haunts, and remembered things we hadn’t talked about in years. And then we talked so intensely about the future and all the things we wanted to do…and we were both just ecstatic.”
Alan leaves behind Alexis Briley, his sister Noelle Young-Ellis and her family, and his parents, Judy and Peter van Wageningen. He also leaves his writing: most formally, his exceptional dissertation and its careful meditation on Victorian lyric expression; but also countless notebooks, emails, and scraps of paper, the artifacts of his own thoughts and voice.
After his accident, she found a piece of paper tucked into a book on the nightstand of the bed and breakfast where they were staying:
“Discovered today that what I want is to feel good about what I’m doing (and good about myself in doing it).
Anthony Shadid, New York Times foreign correspondent
Remembered by newscast producer Susannah George
I first met Anthony in Baghdad, around the dinning room table in the dusty house that we were sharing as a bureau. He was working for the Washington Post then, and while most journalists over for dinner complained and told cynical jokes, Anthony recounted even the mundane task of negotiating check points with wonder and curiosity.
Later, during a rare shopping trip to Baghdad’s old city, Anthony narrated the drive with that same tone, pointing out landmarks from recent events (this street used to be a no mans land, that’s the intersection where the American contractors were lynched) and scenes from Iraq’s past (that’s the cemetery where Gertrude Bell is buried). He turned an oppressive city, scarred by war, made claustrophobic by blast walls protecting against suicide bombs, into a magical place.
At the end of that day he left a rug shop not only with carpets, but with a beautiful set of old copper doors as well. Originally the doors weren’t for sale — they were hanging as decoration. But somehow Anthony persuaded the shopkeeper to part with them. He was a master haggler.
And Anthony never lost sight of the humanity around him. When he recounted his kidnapping and beating in Libya he often mentioned the moment when one of his guards loosened the ties on his wrists — a sign, he said, of the Middle East’s “deeply humane culture.”
Over the past year I’ve missed Anthony. I wish he were just another overseas assignment away. But maybe more, I’ve missed having his journalism to turn to. As the Syrian crisis worsened, as Egypt’s Morsi consolidated power and as Libya fractured, I longed to hear Anthony’s take, his voice full of that same wonder and curiosity as he guides readers down the streets of Aleppo, Cairo and Benghazi.
Frances Hashimoto, inventor of mochi ice cream
Remembered by NPR staffer Wilma B. Consul
Like the fortune cookie first molded in California, Frances Kazuko Hashimoto’s culinary invention is strictly Asian-American. Mochi ice cream fuses perfectly the texture, taste and technique of a traditional Asian ingredient with the classic Western frozen dessert. A bite into a small ball of paste made of pounded sweet, sticky rice engages the palate with the flavors of vanilla (original flavor), strawberry, chocolate, mango, green tea, red bean and Kona coffee.
But Hashimoto didn’t just shine in the kitchen. In fact, she broke many grounds when in 1970, on her mother’s insistence, she quit her third-grade teaching job to run the pastry business in Los Angeles that’s been with her family since 1910. Under her leadership, the Mikawaya shop expanded to locations in California and Hawaii, and its signature product now sold at Trader Joe’s, Albertsons, Safeway, Costco and Asian groceries.
Hashimoto’s husband, Joel Friedman, told me that it was in 1984 on a bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya where he had the idea for the dessert. But, he said, Hashimoto took it from there. She got a bank loan, and together, they researched and developed the product for 10 long years (“rice doesn’t like to be frozen,” he said) before mochi ice cream entered the market and became a household favorite.
Born in 1943 inside the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona, Hashimoto remained true and passionate about her Japanese identity. She served as a leader and mentor in her community, including the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Nisei Week Japanese Festival. She was president of the Little Tokyo Business Association for 14 years.
Her legacy remains prominent today at the intersection of Azusa and 2nd Streets in Los Angeles, unveiled as the Frances K. Hashimoto Plaza two weeks after she died on November 4, 2012.
Bill Reedy, firefighter
Remembered by NPR staffer Jessica Reedy
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.” — Mr. Rogers
On September 14th we lost one of those helpers. Bill “the Chief” Reedy was a firefighter, responding to numerous disasters in 30 years with the Santa Cruz Fire Department. I don’t know how many lives he saved, but I do know he made it on the front page of the Santa Cruz Sentinel at least once. He retired having attained the rank battalion chief — hence the nickname.
But my grandfather didn’t just help people during fires or earthquakes. He helped my grandmother Kathy raise three children — my father Michael and my aunts Patty and Colleen. He helped his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews on family fishing trips, always offering to bait your hook and clean your catch. When his grandchildren were sick, he would help take care of us by making grilled cheese sandwiches and cracking jokes during The Price is Right. When I was 14, he dropped everything to help me after I called him in tears, because I had accidentally caused a small electrical fire and didn’t know what to do. In his final years, he helped give back by working as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army.
At my grandfather’s memorial, the first guest to arrive was one of his middle school classmates. She immediately mentioned that Bill would always assist her in math class.
Bill “the Chief” Reedy leaves behind a close-knit family, a massive fishing pole collection, a mouthwatering turkey meatloaf recipe, and a wicked sense of humor. But his remarkable legacy as a helper deserves the most merit.
Oswaldo Paya, Cuban political activist
Remembered by NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten
Oswaldo Paya, the leading political dissident in Cuba, died in a car crash in July under circumstances his supporters describe as suspicious. Paya was a passenger in a car driven by one of his international supporters, Angel Carromero of Spain. According to the Cuban police report, Carromero lost control of his vehicle due to excessive speed and crashed into a tree.
A practicing Catholic, Paya led Cuba’s biggest and most successful nonviolent movement advocating political reform. Unlike some other dissidents, he worked within the Cuban legal system and opposed U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba economically. In 1992, Paya attempted to run as a candidate for the Cuban legislature, but was barred from doing so. In his second attempt at legal reform, he took advantage of a clause in the Cuban constitution that required a national referendum on a question if 11,000 signatures could be gathered in support of the effort.
The petition called for freedom of speech and assembly, an end to one-party rule in Cuba, and legalization of private business ownership. By 2003, Paya had managed to collect over 25,000 signatures. The Cuban authorities, however, countered with their own petition drive, declaring socialism in Cuba to be “irrevocable”. In recognition of his political activism, the European Parliament honored Paya with its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Paya’s supporters and family members say he had received threats in the weeks preceding the crash, and associates of Carromero say he and a Swedish activist with whom he was traveling both sent text messages before the crash, saying Paya was being followed and harassed by Cuban state security agents. Paya’s family members said they had information that another car rammed Carromero’s vehicle before he lost control. Carromero, who survived the accident, was charged with vehicular homicide and sentenced to four years in prison for his alleged responsibility for the crash. In public testimony, he did not implicate any other vehicle else in the crash, but friends and Paya family members believe Carromero kept quiet out of fear for his own safety.