Don’t know about you, people, but I’m thankful for anonymity. It’s been a crappy dumpster-fire year to be a celebrity.
The old saying is that deaths of famous people come in threes. This past year, they hit us in bunches, like a handful of rice hurled in your face by a jealous ex-boyfriend outside a wedding chapel.
We lost The Greatest, golf’s King of Kings, a Prince, a sci fi Princess, a First Lady, and the El Comandante, with varying degrees of shock.
We bid goodbye to soaring luminaries like Ziggy Stardust, NASA’s original Rocket Man, and a rock music Eagle.
We surrendered writing titans like Harper Lee of “To Kill a Mockingbird” fame (and who would have absolutely despised being labeled “celebrity”) and playwright Edward Albee, who penned “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Oh, the musicians we mourned - Prince, Bowie, Glenn Frey, the legendary Leonard Cohen, outlaw Merle Haggard, Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White, rapper Malik Taylor, powerful soul singer Sharon Jones, Greg Lake (King Crimson), and Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake and Palmer), who tragically took his own life. That group - what a showbill.
On a personal note, I’ll add my sister Ellen to the list of losses in 2016. She never did made a dime in music, but she wore out a lot of guitars and to the very end, was a legend in the southern Iowa karaoke dives. Goodbye, sis.
We lost enough fine actors to populate a studio. The great Gene Wilder, elegant Alan Rickman, Oscar winner Patty Duke, Alan Thicke, Abe Vigota, George Kennedy, Robert Vaughn, Gary Shandling, Za Za Gabor (managed to survive nine husbands), a handful of Emmy winners, even the diminutive Brit actor who played Star Wars’ R2-D2.
Gone is lifesaving doctor. Henry Heimlich. I didn’t hear a cause of death, but I’m willing to bet it wasn’t choking.
Notable leaders disappeared from the world stage - Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres who once spoke at BVU in Storm Lake, Nancy Reagan, first woman attorney general Janet Reno, UN leader Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt. If you’d like to classify despot Fidel Castro as a great leader, that’s your choice. Same for Rob Ford, the late Toronto mayor scandalized for smoking crack and cavorting with hookers.
Legendary journalists will be missed - Morley Safer of “60 Minutes,” PBS news host Gwen Ifill, and political commentator John McLaughlin signed off for the final time in 2016.
A couple of noted activists from opposite sides of the track checked out - conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly, and liberal radical (and ex-Jane Fonda hubby) Tom Hayden.
The sports world was particularly hard-hit, losing all-timers Muhammad Ali, Arnie Palmer and Gordie Howe, as well as young pitcher and Cuban-American hero Jose Fernandez, player/personality Joe Garagiola, college hoops coaching great Pat Summit, and reporters Craig Sagar and John Saunders who made us love sports that much more.
Someone actually did a study and found we averaged nearly one famous-folk fatality a week through 2016. In fact, the celeb toll has increased substantially in each of the last five years.
That means, I guess, that: A. Being a celebrity is hard on a person, or B. Geez we have dirt-old celebrities, or C. The rest of us just can’t afford to die.
Fate took the first U.S. astronaut to orbit Earth John Glenn, Holocaust survivor and Noble Peace Prize honoree Elie Wiesel, and Brady Bunch mom Florence Henderson, all of whom I appreciated dearly at different stages of life. Damn you, Grim Reaper.
We dealt with all the losses with a mostly stiff upper lip and carried on. But fate wasn’t satisfied.
Christmas day, no less, it had to clobber us with pop crooner George Michael, who recorded “Last Christmas.” Should have seen that one coming.
Just as we decided “you gotta have faith” and recovered from that news, and reeled toward New Year, Carrie Fisher left us in the wake of a heart attack. Princess Leia was in her sixties - when did that happen? What Darth and the Empire couldn’t do, time did. You suck, 2016.
Perhaps the cruelest blow was the death of Fisher’s mother, silver screen diva Debbie Reynolds, the very next day. Doctors mumbled something about how it could have been any of several health factors. She lost a child, damn it… it doesn’t take a med school degree to diagnose a broken heart. We probably all felt ours crack a little over those two days.
As much as it stings us to lose so many people who contributed so much and who were so familiar to us for so long, I wonder if there is a lesson here.
The reason we care is that they dared… they created, they paved new paths. They attempted things others would love to, if they weren’t afraid of failing. They gave us smiles, maybe a bit of inspiration. Through their contributions, something of them will live on.
Those of us still able to wobble wearily on into the blank canvas that is 2017, still on the top side of the grass for now, could take a note. Not to lust for celebrity, exactly, but to do and try all we are capable of.
Write, paint, sing, act, compete, speak out, take the lead in something - when an opportunity comes, drive it like you stole it. Time and fate are undefeated, but they can’t stop us from living memorably while we have the chance.