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10 People We Lost in 2009 Who Deserve to be Remembered

This list isn’t about the Michael Jacksons and Ted Kennedys, the Farrah Fawcetts or the Walter Cronkites. It’s about 10 less-celebrated people who passed away in 2009, and we felt deserved a little more spotlight than the media gave them.

1. Crystal Lee Sutton: Labor Hero

Screen shot 2009-12-30 at 12.43.03 AMCrystal Lee Sutton had been a textile worker for the J.P Stevens textile plant in Roanoke Rapids, NC, from age 16. She then lived through teenage motherhood and two divorces. At age 33, she was still working for Stevens, making $2.65 an hour folding towels. Fired for putting up flyers, she stood on her work station, holding a piece of cardboard on which she had written the word “UNION”. It would lead to a work stoppage at the plant that day, and eventually to unionization (affiliation with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union), folk hero status, and an Oscar for Sally Field, who played her in the 1979 film Norma Rae (which changed her name, but retained the most exciting details. Sutton’s willingness to stand up for worker’s rights (literally) has since helped thousands of textile workers – one of the last major groups of workers to be unionized in America.

2. Michael Polakovs, a.k.a. Ronald McDonald

Screen shot 2009-12-30 at 12.45.14 AMLatvian-born circus performer Michael Polakovs inherited from his father Nikolai the role of “Coco the Clown”, one of Europe’s favorite clowns. Working in British circuses, as part of the family act, young Michael was billed as “Coconut”. In 1951, feeling eclipsed by their father, Michael and two of his siblings joined a rival circus, where he became “Coco Jr”. Seven years later he moved to the US, where he was given star billing in the Barnum & Bailey Circus (“The Greatest Show on Earth”) as “America’s own Coco the Clown”. But his most significant character was an even more famous clown. In 1966, McDonald’s hired him to create the character of Ronald McDonald. He designed the outfit and make-up, and appeared in the first eight television commercials that featured the character. Before long, Ronald McDonald was recognized by American children more than almost anyone (other than Santa Claus). Even the legendary Coco Sr was never that popular!

3. Rodger McFarlane: AIDS Activist

10rodgerIn 1982, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Rodger McFarlane volunteered at the newly formed (but under-resourced) Gay Men’s Health Crisis support center, and even decided to start a help-line from his home phone. “We were forced to take care of ourselves because we learned that if you have certain diseases, certain lifestyles, you can’t expect the same services as other parts of society,” he explained. Within months of the GMHC’s establishment, he became executive director. Under his watch, it became a haven for crisis counseling, legal aid, education, social workers and a buddy system. McFarlane headed the organization until 1985. He later founded the Bailey House, an organization that assists homeless people with AIDS. He would continue to work tirelessly for gay rights and AIDS advocacy, believing that they both pointed to “the inequitable status of gays.” At the same time, he was suffering from an agonizing heart and back condition. As this worsened, he took his own life at age 54.

4. Millvina Dean: Last Survivor of The Titanic

mdeanElizabeth Gladys Millvina Dean was the youngest passenger aboard the ill-fated HMS Titanic and the last surviving, er, survivor. At the age of eight weeks, the London-born Millvina (along with her mother) was among the first steerage passengers to escape the “unsinkable” ocean liner when it struck an iceberg and sank on April 14, 1912, killing some 1500 passengers and crew. As the baby who survived, she was given much press coverage, and her education was funded mainly by charities dedicated to Titanic survivors. Nonetheless, until she was eight, she was unaware of her role in history. In 2008, she auctioned off many of her Titanic mementoes to pay the costs of her room at the nursing home where she lived, and announced that she was still struggling. Soon before she died, James Cameron, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, the director and stars of the 1997 blockbuster Titanic, all made generous donations to the Millvina Fund, set up by her friends. She had been the only survivor since Barbara Dainton, another child survivor, died in 2007 at age 96.

5. Mahmut Aygun: Fast Food Genius

Screen shot 2009-12-30 at 9.10.26 AMScreen shot 2009-12-30 at 9.09.11 AMIn Europe, the doner kebab – grilled meat carved from a skewer and wrapped in pita bread – is like the hot dog in America: an essential meal at major sporting events. For millions of soccer fans and drunken revelers, it is the ideal takeaway food. For this, they can thank Turkish native Mahmut Aygun, who emigrated to Berlin at age 16. He invented this culinary delight in 1971. It was based on a traditional Turkish meal, in which the meat is traditionally served with rice. He replaced the rice with pita bread (making it more portable), invented a now-famous yoghurt sauce, and named it a doner kebab after the Turkish word “dondurmek” (rotating roast). It was especially popular in Britain, leading to dwindling numbers of the time-honored fish-and-chip shops.

6-7. Heinz Edelmann and Lucy Vodden: Beatles supporting characters

yellow submarineThe Beatles are so famous that other people, who contributed in some way to their legend, are simply famous through association. Their original drummer Pete Best, for example, is famous for being fired (and hence missing his chance at being famous). We even know about the people who played small parts in the legend. Art director Heinz Edelmann, who created the unforgettable look of their 1968 animated kids’ film Yellow Submarine, died this year at 75. Though this was his only film, the psychedelic landscape of Pepperland and the cartoon versions of the Beatles are still well-renowned (from both the movie and the album cover).

Lucy Vodden has an even more esoteric (but equally psychedelic) role in the Beatles story. In 1967, she was a classmate of four-year-old Julian Lennon, and the subject of a painting that he proudly presented to his father John: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. This inspired the classic song of that title in the groundbreaking Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. (The song was even heard in Yellow Submarine.) She was never flattered by this, and admitted that she didn’t like the song – especially when she heard the suggestion that the title really stood for ‘LSD’. She died at age 42, after battling lupus.

8. Virginia Davis: Alice in Disneyland

Screen shot 2009-12-30 at 9.14.14 AM
Easily one of the last of the silent movie stars, Davis was only four when struggling, 21-year-old filmmaker Walt Disney hired her to star in his ambitious Alice series of movies, in which the live-action girl walked into several animations. Starting with Alice’s Wonderland (1923), she made 12 popular short films before she was replaced by the slightly younger Margie Gay in 1925. She later played bit parts in feature films, and was even shortlisted for the voice of Snow White in the groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), though her mother pulled her out of the running because of the meager salary. She later quit acting to become an interior designer. When film archivists rediscovered the Alice series in 1992, however, she was overwhelmed by the sudden interest in her role in the birth of Walt Disney Studios, as Disney’s first human star.

9. Robert Heft: Fixing the Flag

Screen shot 2009-12-30 at 9.17.29 AMAs a high-school student in Lancaster, Ohio, in 1958, Robert Heft designed the first 50-star American flag as part of a class history project, when there were only 48 states in the Union. He spent hours designing the flag on his mother’s sewing machine, earning a “B-minus” for his efforts. His teacher, however, promised to upgrade that to an “A” if he could get the U.S. Congress to accept the flag. After Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union in 1959, President Eisenhower chose Heft’s simple re-design to replace the 48-star flag, finally earning him that elusive “A.” The feat allowed him to meet every U.S. president from Eisenhower to Bush II.

10. Dame Victoire “Paddy” Ridsdale: The Real Miss Moneypenny (or was she?)

PD*468657The future Dame Paddy (then Miss Paddy Bennett) was a secretary in the wartime Naval Intelligence Department while Ian Fleming was assistant to the Chief of Naval Intelligence. “He’d go off and do something brave and come back with silk stockings and lipsticks for me,” she said in 1998. “I always kept him at arm’s length.” Nonetheless, she never denied that she was the model for Miss Moneypenny, M’s super-efficient secretary in Fleming’s James Bond novels, even though Moneypenny was full of unrequited love for Bond. There were other candidates, but Ridsdale had the most in common with Moneypenny (despte insisting that she was “never taken in by [Fleming’s] charm”). Intriguingly, Naval Intelligence did have a policy of recruiting very attractive women. The head, Admiral John Godfrey (the model for M), considered that they had less reason to impress men, and were therefore less likely to give away intelligence secrets. At least, that was his excuse…


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