Support the news
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 sixth annual obituary show, we talk about the lives and careers of remarkable men and woman who did not make headlines when they died, but whose lives still made an indelible impact. NPR's Neda Ulaby, Sonari Glinton and Andy Carvin are among those who share their remembrances.
Paul Epstein, Physician
Remembered by Joanne Silberner
Paul Epstein, who died in November at the age of 67, was a physician who saw the Earth as a patient in need of a good doctor. He went about trying to provide care in a way that was both optimistic and pessimistic, combative and gentle, and brilliant and humble and stubborn.
Epstein started out doctoring to the poor, first in Mozambique and then in Boston. In the early 1990s, he became interested in climate change and co-founded the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. He developed a course on health and climate change that's now given at dozens of universities.
I met him in 2007 while looking for a climate change expert to profile for NPR's Climate Connections series. Other scientists pointed me to Epstein because his focus on human health had added a whole new chapter to the climate change discussion.
So for one exhausting day, I followed him around New York City and listened as he talked to policymakers and legal experts and philanthropists and business leaders. He talked to anyone and everyone who would listen, including the cab driver and the cashier at a coffee shop.
Climate change won't just acidify oceans or displace polar bears, he said. It will hurt people. He offered plenty of examples: Warmer, wetter weather increases the population of infection-bearing mosquitoes and ticks. Hurricanes, floods and heat waves kill people.
It was a scary and disturbing message, and after hearing it repeatedly, I was pretty depressed. But he wasn't.
The past year has been tough for people concerned about climate change — reports of carbon pollution being worse than predicted, accusations of scientific bias, and a poor economic environment for government action. One could easily enough assume Epstein's mission is on the rocks. "No," I can hear him saying with a wry twinkle. "I've trained a lot of students."
Sylvia Robinson, Rap Pioneer
Remembered by Neda Ulaby
Sylvia Robinson was not a rapper herself — she was a hit singer. In 1957 she had Billboard-charting single called "Love Is Strange," a duet with ace guitarist Mickey Baker. The song has been used in movies from Dirty Dancing to Mermaids to Casino.
But after "Love Is Strange," the Harlem-born musician moved to New Jersey with her husband to raise their children. Sylvia and Joe Robinson were ambitious. They built a nightclub favored by boxers and Motown stars, and a recording studio where Robinson began writing songs for other artists.
"I saw this DJ playing music and saying things to the kids," she said in a VH1 documentary about the history of hip-hop. "They would answer him back, and I say, 'That's a great idea.' "
At the time, the conventional music industry wisdom was that the live energy of rap was impossible to capture on vinyl. Nevertheless, one hot August night in 1979 Robinson made her son Joey drive her around Englewood, N.J., looking for rappers.
The Robinsons kept driving around, people kept hopping into the car, and The Sugarhill Gang was born.
" 'Rapper's Delight' was a monumental song. It introduced the world to rap and rhyming," says Grandmaster Caz, of the early rap group The Cold Crush Brothers. In 2004 he told NPR that many New York rappers felt the single misrepresented the scene. "They weren't real emcees," he said. "[They were] a group put together to showcase the music going on."
Robinson fought with her musicians. She wound up in vitriolic lawsuits with many of them, a magazine that accused her of "jerking" it, and other record labels. She sold Sugar Hill in 1994. The original studio burned down eight years later.
But none of the rancor overshadows Robinson's singularity — as a female record producer and the visionary who put rap on the map.
Sylvia Robinson died Sept. 29, 2011, in a New Jersey hospital. She was 75 years old and reportedly suffered congestive heart failure.
This remembrance was first published on NPR's The Record blog.
Harry Wesley Coover Jr., Inventor
Remembered by Amy Blaszyk
In 1942, an accident in his lab made Harry Wesley Coover Jr. one of the most famous people you've probably never heard of. During World War II, Coover was working to create clear plastic gun sights for military firearms. He ultimately gave up on his chemical substance because it stuck to everything it touched.
Six years later, while working on jet cockpits in Eastman Kodak's laboratories, he revisited the extremely sticky adhesive that required no heat or pressure to bond, and cyanoacrylate — best known as Super Glue — was born.
After the adhesive first hit the market in 1958 as Eastman 910, Coover appeared on the television show I've Got a Secret. When asked to demonstrate what the product could do, he used a single drop to connect two metal parts that lifted the show's host off the floor.
Aside from the unintended consequence of gluing one's own fingers together, the uses for this quick-drying, strong-bonding adhesive are numerous. It saved lives by stopping bleeding during the Vietnam War, thereby allowing the wounded to be transported for medical care. Hobbyists use it to repair coral in aquariums. Practical jokers affix quarters to the floor. And after a party I held in high school, I used it for the first time to repair a jewelry box shattered by a stereo playing at full blast (sorry, Mom).
In 2004, Coover was inducted into the National Inventors Hall Of Fame. In 2010, President Obama awarded him the National Medal Of Technology and Innovation. At the time of his death, he held 460 patents. The chemist and inventor was 94 years old.
Hubert Sumlin, Musician
Remembered by Dennis Herndon
It has been said the Hubert Sumlin was often imitated but never duplicated. For more than two decades he was the guitar sideman for Chester Arthur Burnett, aka Howlin' Wolf. When you watch that TV commercial for Viagra and hear "Smokestack Lightning," that guitar sound is Hubert Sumlin.
Both Eric Clapton and Keith Richards played with Sumlin on his Grammy Award-nominated album About Them Shoes. While Sumlin was nominated many times for Grammys, he never won — but he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2008.
Although I am an acoustic blues player, the electric blues belonged to Hubert Sumlin, who was ranked 43rd on Rolling Stone magazine's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of all times.
Hubert Sumlin died this year of congestive heart failure. He was 80 years old.
Harold Russell, Accountant
Remembered by Sondra Russell
Financial scandals can't happen without an accounting firm or credit ratings agency willing to look the other way. My dad was the managing partner of the Oklahoma City branch of the "Big Eight" accounting firm Arthur Young during the oil boom of the 1980s, and even though one of the largest sources of oil and gas loans, Penn Square Bank, was one of his most important clients, he refused to validate its less-than-sound methods of securing these loans.
The bank found a more lenient accounting firm; more than a year later, it collapsed. Penn Square Bank's failure destroyed our local economy and contributed to the collapse of 139 other Oklahoma banks and the Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Co. — at that time the largest bank failure in U.S. history.
So, Dad was vindicated for that particular tough call. I'm sure he made other tough calls that nobody will ever know about. He died Dec. 6, 2011, at the age of 77.
Merlin Stone, Author And Artist
Remembered by Margot Adler
Merlin Stone was an artist and professor of art history. But she is best known for her feminist book When God was a Woman, published in the mid-'70s. First published in England as The Paradise Papers, Stone believed there was a prehistoric matriarchal religion that was destroyed by patriarchal Indo-Europeans. Her theory was that matrilineal societies in ancient Canaan were suppressed by Judaism.
Mainstream scholars did not accept many of her theories, but she was seen as one of the foremothers of goddess and feminist spirituality in the 1970s and '80s. Her work is cited along with Elizabeth Gould Davis, Maria Gimbutis, Robert Graves and others. Another major book was Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood,which collected the stories and myths of goddesses from around the world.
I met Merlin Stone many times. She was a funny, down-to-earth woman, who sometimes suffered from agoraphobia. We would meet in a coffee shop in Greenwich Village. More than 25 years before her death she wrote a poem that symbolizes her character perfectly: "For When I Pass On."
Here is a bit of it: "Don't grieve over me," she wrote, "I did what I wanted to do, lived as I wanted to, rejected traditions and rules. I let my loves flow; my furies explode, smashing icons and celebrity. I thought rude questions, smashed superficiality and pretense, laughed at established lies, decided that most people were afraid to live. Don't grieve over me. I was blessed with a full measure of the juices of conscious life."
Merlin Stone died in late February 2011. She was 79.
Charles Ka'upu, Hawaiian Chant Master
Remembered by Wilma Consul
Charles Ka'upu is best known as the Hawaiian chanter in the recordings of the popular musical duo HAPA. But in his home in Hawaii, Ka'upu has been a revered master of the oli (chant) and the hula. His family roots come from Molokai and the Big Island of Hawaii. Born on Oahu, he moved in 1993 to Maui, where he taught history, culture and religion at Maui Community College and hosted a radio program on KPOA. To his listeners, he was the charismatic "Bushman." He helped found the annual Celebration of the Arts Festival in Kapalua.
With a mission to preserve the Native Hawaiian culture and traditions, he traveled extensively to other islands and the mainland. In Washington, D.C., he lectured at the National Geographic Society and performed at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Indian.
Loea Hula Charles Kauhi Ka'upu Jr. graduated from the prestigious Kamehameha Schools for children of Hawaiian blood. His sudden death on July 12, 2011, left heavy hearts in Hawaii. His family and friends held two ceremonies to honor his Christian faith and the Hawaiian traditions which he dedicated his life to teaching.
Ralph McDonald, Percussionist
Remembered by Felix Contreras
Ralph McDonald was the first call studio percussionist for countless sessions in the 1970s and '80s. His list of credits reads like a history course on the past 40 years of music.
What McDonald did so well was give recordings a little extra groove by adding just the right rhythm or color from his array of hand percussion instruments.
In fact — you know when you go to concerts and you see the percussionist sitting behind a battery of what looks like drummers' toys? Many drummers credit McDonald with starting that practice when he was playing with Harry Belafonte before he had even turned 20.
McDonald was also a Grammy-winning composer. During a recording session with vocalists Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, he offered them this song he co-wrote with his writing partners. They also wrote the song "Calypso Breakdown" on the soundtrack to the film Saturday Night Fever.
McDonald knew a thing or two about calypso: His father was from Trinidad and was a well-known calypso singer from the island. McDonald's drumming was informed by that family musical background. He mastered Afro Cuban drumming and just about any rhythm that had more than four beats.
My favorite example of his adventurous sense of rhythm is a song he wrote for saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., "Mr. Magic," from his first solo album, The Sound Of A Drum. His solo (at 2:03) could be taught in music schools to illustrate how you construct an intricate and tasteful conga solo.
By nature, studio musicians remain faceless names on album liner notes. I hope you'll now connect Ralph McDonald's face and story to his impressive list of studio sessions and memorable songs.