As the year comes to a close and the in memoriam lists come out, they will be littered with names that you know. Or at least a bunch of names you know: big names with big lives. While we'll mourn their deaths, the list we assembled this year, once again, celebrates the lives of those whose deaths probably didn't cross your radar. But amazing lives they lived, and their legacies — the music they made, the things they built, the ways they touched our lives — are worth celebrating, even if they left that legacy to all of us in a quiet fashion.
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(Nov. 1, 1936–March 17, 2019)
Not many people get a big break in the music business. Andre Williams got two.
Born in Bessemer, Alabama, Zephire "Andre" Williams first hit it big as an R&B singer when he moved to Detroit in the early 1950s and won an amateur-night competition. He soon signed to Fortune Records, becoming lead vocalist in the Five Dollars, then rechristened Andre Williams and the Don Juans. A prolific writer, he also scored solo hits, including "Jail Bait," "The Greasy Chicken" and "Bacon Fat," which cracked the Top 10 on the Billboard R&B chart. He also wrote Five Du-Tones' "Shake a Tail Feather," later performed by Ike & Tina Turner (and much later, featured in The Blues Brothers and Hairspray), and even served a brief stint as a songwriter for Motown, co-writing Stevie Wonder's first song, "Thank You for Loving Me."
But by the 1980s, Williams hit rock bottom: Addiction found him homeless in Chicago. In the 1990s, however, Williams was rediscovered by the rock 'n' roll revival scene. That led to records like Greasy, released jointly on indie labels Norton and St. George Records in 1996, and Silky, released on In the Red in 1998. More indie rock collaborations followed, with Williams recording tracks with Jack White, Mick Collins of the Dirtbombs, and the country band the Sadies. His proto-hip-hop sing-talking style, penchant for profane lyrics, and sartorial preference for flashy suits and matching hats earned him the nickname by some of "the godfather of rap."
Williams continued to struggle with addiction, but he also continued to make music, releasing I Wanna Go Back to Detroit City in 2016. He died in Chicago at age 82 from cancer, but he never stopped: His manager, Kenn Goodman, told Billboard a week before his death that the singer "was committed to trying to sing and record again." — Lee DeVito
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(June 15, 1931–April 30, 2019)
If Iggy Pop is the Godfather of Punk, then Russ Gibb is its uncle.
After working as a Detroit-area schoolteacher, radio DJ and promoter, "Uncle Russ," as he was known, became a major booster of Motor City rock 'n' roll when he founded the Grande Ballroom in 1966, inspired by a visit to San Francisco's Fillmore. The venue became known for booking local acts like the Stooges, Alice Cooper, the Amboy Dukes and the MC5, who served as the venue's house band and recorded its debut Kick Out the Jams live there. That's all in addition to booking national acts like Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Cream and the Who, among others, many of whom played some of their first U.S. shows at the venue.
Gibb was involved in other milestones in rock history as well. In 1969, while working as a part-time DJ on WKNR-FM, Gibb took a call from a listener who claimed the Beatles' Paul McCartney died and was replaced with a look-alike, and that there were clues in the band's lyrics and album artwork. The conspiracy theory soon went viral. (Perhaps it would come as no surprise that much later in life, Gibb would promote Donald Trump's conspiracy theories about Barack Obama's birth certificate on his blog.)
Gibb closed the venue in 1972. But in the 1980s, he was back in the music business, providing financial backing for the Graystone Hall, a Detroit punk venue. All the while, Gibb worked as a history and media teacher at Dearborn High School; he died in April at 87 of natural causes. The Grande, however, long abandoned and now sporting an MC5 mural, could soon see a new life: It's now owned by Chapel Hill Missionary Baptist Church, who said they might lease it out for events — including possible music concerts.
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John Witherspoon (Jan. 27, 1942–Oct. 29, 2019)
"John Witherspoon is black history," Twitter's Rembert Browne tweeted after the comic actor died of a heart attack at his Los Angeles home in October at age 77. It was a fair assessment: Witherspoon's filmography spanned decades, including appearances on The Richard Pryor Show, the Friday franchise, Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Wayans Bros. and The Boondocks, as well as Jay-Z and Goodie Mob music videos, among others.
Born in Detroit to a family with 11 siblings, Witherspoon got his start taking theater classes in the Motor City in the early '70s. He got into standup at the behest of his acting instructor, who thought he'd be funny in a holiday comedy show. Witherspoon soon relocated to Los Angeles, opening for the legendary Richard Pryor at the Comedy Store. Later, Pryor cast him as part of his short-lived NBC variety show in 1977 before it was canceled for being too risque.
For many, though, Witherspoon will always just be "Pops" — the amusingly cantankerous father to Ice Cube's Craig Jones in the 1995 stoner comedy Friday. Witherspoon would reprise the role in 2000's Next Friday and 2002's Friday After Next, and was cast in a similar role as "Granddad" in the comic strip-turned-Adult Swim cartoon The Boondocks, which debuted in 2005. After years of development hell, a fourth Friday film was finally given the green light in 2017, but was only in pre-production at the time of Witherspoon's death. He was also set to appear in a recently announced Boondocks reboot, though that project had not begun production yet either.
In an odd way, Witherspoon got to enjoy a final goodbye. In 2012, when a false report of his death went viral, Witherspoon reacted to the news just as Pops might. "What the hell ya'll talkin 'bout on here?!?!?" he tweeted. "I ain't dead, I'm in Ft. Lauderdale."
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(March 3, 1928–Jan. 5, 2019)
In 1969, Bernice Sandler was a bright young instructor at the University of Maryland, hoping to land a full-time spot on the faculty.
She knew she was a good teacher, and there were seven open positions. So when she was barely considered, she asked a male faculty member if he had any insight. He conceded she was easily qualified, "but let's be honest, you come on too strong for a woman."
Sandler, who died in January at age 90, probably repeated that quote thousands of times in interviews and speeches in the five decades that followed.
"Sometimes people ask me what inspired me to get involved in women's issues," Sandler supposedly said in 2012 after receiving a human rights award. "I have to tell you, I wasn't inspired at all. I was mad."
She began researching sex discrimination and found an executive order barring organizations that received federal money from discriminating based on race, religion, national origin or gender. Armed with that information, Sandler filed complaints against 250 universities, battling the system that routinely discriminated against female teachers and students. She partnered with crusading U.S. congresswoman Edith Green to pass Title IX. The 37-word bill, signed in 1972 by President Richard Nixon, has since become a versatile and powerful tool for fighting sex discrimination. Most famously, it has been applied to collegiate sports, guaranteeing female athletes opportunities previously unheard of.
Sandler spent the rest of her life advocating for equal rights. She served as chair of the National Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs under presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and has been cited as a hero by some of this country's top athletes. But she never forgot that line about coming on "too strong for a woman." It turns out, she was too strong to be stopped.
— Doyle Murphy
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(May 26, 1925–April 1, 2019)
Dan Robbins was a little-known commercial artist at a Michigan paint company in the late 1940s when his boss asked him for an idea to help sell paint sets to adults.
Robbins eventually settled on a system that allowed even the most unskilled, inexperienced customer to create paintings that looked professional, if not exactly imbued with an artist's originality. His paint-by-numbers kits were a bona fide sensation by the early 1950s.
The early offerings were faint line drawings, created by Robbins himself, intricately divided into sections that corresponded to pre-mixed paint colors. Soon, an army of artists, working under the Craft Master brand for Detroit-based Palmer Paint Co., were churning out kits based on Robbins' model. Using the slogan "Every man a Rembrandt," 20 million kits were sold in 1955.
Artists and critics were appalled that painting had been turned into a step-by-step instruction guide and mass marketed, but Robbins didn't seem to mind.
"I remembered hearing that Leonardo used numbered background patterns for his students and apprentices, and I decided to try something like that," he once told the Associated Press.
The paint-by-numbers craze crashed within a decade, and Robbins' boss sold the business. But he made a mark, even penetrating an art world that derided his efforts. Andy Warhol riffed on the model, and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History even displayed an exhibition of paint-by-numbers pieces in 2001 and 2002. Robbins died at 93 knowing he had influenced legions of people who might have never picked up a brush if not for him.
"We like to think dad was one of the most-exhibited artists in the world," his son Larry Robbins told AP. "He enjoyed hearing from everyday people. He had a whole box of fan letters."
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(Dec. 2, 1919–May 5, 2019)
People were done with the waltz and tired of the tango as the '20s came to a close. The craze that came next was swing, a vivacious, freewheeling dance born in Harlem.
Swing spread across dance floors the world over with the help of the dance group Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, named for the Lindy Hop, an especially athletic member of the swing dance family. It was a specialty of Norma Miller, a dancer who earned her spot in a group that counted Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr. among its members, and whose skill and renown earned her the moniker "Queen of Swing."
Miller was a woman of many specialties. A Harlem native, she worked as a choreographer, actor, author and a Redd Foxx-backed comedian. But being a black girl in early 20th-century America was a circumstance with limited paths toward success. Her mother cleaned houses, and Miller likely faced a similar life of hard labor, but she was clearly an anointed talent. By 5, Miller was wowing locals at talent shows. She and her preternatural prance were discovered outside the famous Savoy Ballroom and, by 14, she was in Paris performing with Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. Through the '30s and '40s, the group set the standard for swing on international tours and in movies like the 1941 major motion picture Hellzapoppin'.
Miller, who passed away this year of congestive heart failure at 99 in her Fort Myers home, was not just the youngest member of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers but also the last surviving member. Into her 90s, she was teaching swing courses, speaking at engagements, choreographing dances and composing music.
In the documentary about her, Queen of Swing, Miller summed up the secret to her long and active life: "Keep on swingin'." —Solomon Gustavo
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(June 12, 1931–Nov. 3, 2019)
Barbara Hillary was not an explorer. Because she was the first black woman to reach the North Pole, and the first to summit the South Pole, she is often described as one, placing her in the company of intrepid trekkers like Robert Peary and Matthew Henson.
She accomplished those firsts relatively recently, reaching the North Pole in 2007 and the South Pole in 2011, a century after men first set foot on either spot.
Hillary was something more: a cultural adventurer, charting paths untrodden by black women like her — but also paths that few dare traverse.
The Harlem native, born in 1931, made her pole expeditions in her 70s (North, age 75; South, 79). She always wanted to travel and, after retiring after more than 50 years as a nurse, began making plans to visit non-touristy locations. How many black women before her, how many people in general, have seen Paris? Now, how many have been to the very tippy-top and very bottom of the globe? She went to Manitoba to photograph polar bears, and went dog-sledding in Quebec, and then she learned no black woman had been to either pole before and decided to be the one. Those treks are arduous, with stretches of intense hiking and skiing requiring immense stamina against harsh weather conditions that would hamper an athlete of any age. She hired a trainer and started eating more vegetables.
It was the kind of challenge that appealed to Hillary, who habitually stared down towering obstacles throughout her life. She beat breast cancer in her 20s and lung cancer at 67. In Queens, New York, she founded and was the editor-in-chief of The Peninsula Magazine, a nonprofit multi-racial publication that was the first of its kind in the area. She said she avoided stress and maintained happiness and a youthful, pole-summiting spirit, by choosing to stay unmarried.
In 2017, she spoke at the commencement of the New School, her alma mater, and advised the grads, "At every phase in your life, look at your options. Please, do not select boring ones."
That was Hillary's style. She created her own desires, destinations that she reached by following a compass of her own making. — Gustavo
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(Jan. 9, 1943–March 22, 2019)
How could one craft an appropriate epigraph to sum up the singular musical life of Scott Walker? Can you imagine Frank Sinatra in his later years collaborating with a doom metal band? Or Justin Timberlake chucking away stardom for cigarettes, sunglasses, Bertolt Brecht and slabs of raw meat as percussion instruments? Walker did it his way, and then some.
Fresh from a stint as a teenage session musician in L.A., Walker (born Noel Scott Engel) became one-third of the Walker Brothers in the mid-1960s; they became immediate sensations in the U.K., mixing beat-combo moves with symphonic grandeur, yielding hits like "Make It Easy on Yourself" and the immortal "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore." Soon enough, Walker found that the screaming fans and the pop life weren't for him, at one point apocryphally retreating to a monastery to get his head together before being ejected by the monks as fans besieged the gates.
Walker struck out on his own, and from 1967 to 1969 crafted four of the most exquisite and heartbreaking albums of all time, the eponymous Scotts 1 through 4. This was Walker at his most iconic: sunglasses, shag haircut and a soaring, unbelievably gorgeous voice offering no hope whatsoever. Latterly hailed as the gospel by artists from David Bowie to Thom Yorke, these albums had the net effect of destroying his career, eventually forcing him back into the arms of the Walker Brothers for a reunion in 1975, but Scott couldn't even do a cynical cash-grab right, penning the sinister "Nite Flights" and "The Electrician," two gleaming hits of dystopian electro-pop that still sound state of the art, pointing the way to possible sonic futures even now.
From there, Walker began his gradual disappearing act, retreating to a life based around the simple pleasures of bicycling, seeing movies, and going to the pub and watching regulars play darts. He'd emerge every few years with ever-more ambitious and mind-bending solo work — Climate of Hunter, Tilt and The Drift — but by the time Walker was given the hagiography treatment in the 2006 documentary 30 Century Man, it was clear he wasn't going to give fans a triumphant return to the stage. Instead of the nostalgia circuit, he gave them strange and beautiful work like the instrumental piece for dance "And Who Shall Go to the Ball? And What Shall Go to the Ball?," collaborations with Sunn O))) and Bat for Lashes, a final solo album, Bish Bosch and two film scores for Brady Corbet.
Walker passed quietly this year due to complications from cancer, enigma fully intact. — Matthew Moyer
(April 13, 1920–Feb. 16, 2019)
You may not know Ken Nordine's name, but chances are you've heard his voice.
Over the course of a 60-year-plus career, Nordine put the "art" into the concept of a voice-over artist. His silky baritone graced the airwaves of Chicago radio stations, narrating The World's Great Novels and other programs. He was also the voice behind several educational films, so if your teacher ever used a woefully out-of-date filmstrip in class, you might recognize his timbre. His most enduring creations, though, were his Word Jazz albums, on which, over backing tracks of cool jazz, Nordine tells stories or acts out scenarios with a particular focus on meter and sound.
Nordine's success with the Word Jazz series earned him a weekly program of the same name on flagship NPR station WBEZ in Chicago, and the show ended up running for more than 40 years. His 1967 Colors album, in which Nordine expounds upon the personalities of various hues, remains a favorite of those interested in offbeat curiosities from yesteryear. (It grew out of his radio commercials for the Fuller Paint Company.)
Lines from his recordings have been sampled in songs by Aesop Rock, Pizzicato Five and the Orb, and in 2007, David Bowie himself asked Nordine to perform at the High Line Festival in New York.
Nordine passed away on Feb. 16, 2019, at the age of 98, preceded three years earlier by Beryl Vaughn, his wife of 71 years. — Thaddeus McCollum
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(birthdate unknown, 1990–Sept. 9, 2019)
Football — not the American kind — is the world's sport, in part because of its low barriers to entry. You don't need any expensive equipment to start a soccer game, just a ball.
But in Iran, half the population is barred from entering sports stadiums. Women have not been allowed to watch their favorite teams in person since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This has led some women to disguise themselves as men in order to attend games, even though being caught likely means imprisonment and possible torture.
One woman, 29-year-old Sahar Khodayari, decided to take the risk to see a match at Tehran's Azadi Stadium between Esteghlal FC — her favorite team — and Al-Ain FC. She dressed as a man, but didn't make it to her seat before being noticed and arrested by security guards for "openly committing a sinful act."
After being released on bail, Khodayari was told that she was looking at a six-month jail sentence. In protest, she left the courthouse, poured gasoline on herself and lit herself on fire.
She died in hospital a week later.
Since her death, FIFA, the international governing body of football, informed Iran that women must be allowed to attend scheduled World Cup qualifying matches taking place in Iran. On Oct. 11, the Iranian national team beat Cambodia 14-0, cheered on by 3,500 women sitting in a segregated section of the stadium. — McCollum
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(April 2011–Dec. 1, 2019)
It's been a bad year for viral cats. Not only did Grumpy Cat, perhaps the most commercial of all the internet animal celebs, die in May, but just as we finished putting this article together, the inimitable Lil Bub passed away in her sleep, victim of a persistent bone infection.
Lil Bub's "dude," Mike Bridavsky, found her in an Indiana barn in 2011, the runt of a litter expected to die quickly due to her dwarfism and other genetic anomalies. Enchanted by her bulging eyes and stubby legs, Bridavsky took in the toothless, droopy-tongued "permakitten" and gave her a life beyond feline imagining, full of hand-fed fishy yogurt and specialized medical attention — and she returned his attentive care tenfold in grit, spunk, and adorable cheeps, snorks and chirrs. (Truly, Bub seemed to speak a language all her own, related to but not the same as regular housecats' meows.)
Not only did Bridavsky's many Bub-centric bits of merch — socks, T-shirts, plush toys, fridge magnets — prove catnip to her internet fans, the monies raised were donated to various animal shelters and rescues for special-needs cats. And not only did Bub's oddball mug feature on consumer goods, she starred in a Vice documentary (Lil Bub & Friendz), hosted 14 episodes of a talk show (Lil Bub's Big Show, with guests including Michelle Obama and Steve Albini), recorded her own album (Science and Magic, with a cover illustration by Orlando artist Johannah O'Donnell) and guested on Run the Jewels' feline remix album, Meow the Jewels. Bridavsky always claimed Lil Bub was a "magical space being," and whether she came from outer space or not, she certainly seems to be magic: She raised $700,000 for animal charities in her short life, and brought immeasurable joy to millions.
Good job, Bub. — Jessica Young
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(May 30, 1928–March 29, 2019)
She's sometimes called the mother — or grandmother — of the French New Wave of cinema, but Agnès Varda was more of an Auntie Mame type: whimsical, generous, but nobody's doormat or den mom. Her work was marked by a formal brilliance that influenced her fellow Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, but her fierce humanism — a deep concern for women and workers — buoyed her above the style-obsessed pack.
Her recent collaboration with French muralist JR, Faces Places, gained her more attention in 2018 than she'd seen since the '80s. With her two-toned bowl cut, sneakers and loose tracksuits and pajamas — although, we note, they were by Gucci — Varda was a welcome haimish presence on the awards season's red carpets, looking like a comfy little kitchen witch among the gazelle-like starlets.
She inhabited the film world in the same way — showing up when and where and exactly how she chose, following no rules but her own. Rather than stick with the narrative films that won her acclaim (Cléo From 5 to 7; One Sings the Other Doesn't) she followed her muse to documentaries (Mur Murs; Jacquot de Nantes). She made lightly dramatized biopics of her loved ones' lives, cast family members as actors, and inserted herself into her documentaries; she made dramas, comedies, a sci-fi parable and a feminist musical.
More rule breaking: After losing patience with the traditional dance of studio backing, she founded her own production company to handle her films and those of her husband, Jacques Démy; but she ran the office (located across the street from her home) like a shop, often hand-selling DVDs to visitors or allowing them to watch her editing. "I love being able to have the direct contact with people who are consumers. It's like a peasant, you know, who grows tomatoes and you can come and buy the tomatoes at the farm," she bubbled to Sight + Sound magazine in 2011.
Her final film, Varda by Agnès, was released posthumously in November. It's a self-directed retrospective of her 60-year career, a knowing and playful wink to an oeuvre preoccupied always with human behavior in the face of mortality. — Young
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(March 9, 1932–Nov. 2, 2019)
Walter Mercado was much more than a TV astrologer born in Ponce, Puerto Rico. By the time he died at age 87 on Nov. 2, he had created a cultural legacy far beyond the televised predictions viewed by millions of abuelitas across Latin America: Mercado had become an icon and inspiration for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people living in Latinx society.
"This is a culture that's been dominated by machismo and homophobia for a very long time," film producer Alex Fumero told Fox News upon his passing. "He was really brave."
It didn't take clairvoyance to know Mercado's on-screen persona, a stylistic cross between Carolina Herrera and Liberace, was an act of courage. He owned more than 2,000 capes and pointed to viewers through the camera lens with fingers adorned in colorful rings. He never publicly discussed his sexuality, but he definitely let audiences know which team he played for.
In his decades of appearances on Telemundo Puerto Rico, Mercado became a common point of relation between superstitious oldsters and open-minded youth — perhaps even more so after he moved to Florida to broadcast on Univision. In college, he had studied pharmacology, psychology and pedagogy, before becoming a well-known ballet dancer and theater star, and later appearing in telenovelas.
His fans will perhaps remember him most by his catchphrase, somehow even more meaningful after his death: "Pero sobre todo, mucho, mucho, mucho amor," or "Above all, much, much, much love." — Dave Plotkin
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(Dec. 14, 1949–May 27, 2019)
When he hung up his cleats after a playing career that stretched across an incredible four decades, one of only 29 ballplayers to do so in baseball's entire history, Bill Buckner laid claim to an incredible list of achievements. And those numbers and stats look even more impressive now, 29 years after his retirement. He ranks among the top 200 men to ever play the game in hits (2,715, ranking 66th), RBIs (1,208, ranking 150th) and extra-base hits (721, ranking 174th). He was an All Star, a batting champion and an evangelist for the game long after he stepped off the field, until his death this year from Lewy body dementia at the age of 69.
After 22 seasons with stints spanning the Red Sox, Dodgers, Cubs, Angels and Royals, Buckner moved to Boise, Idaho, with his wife and three children, where he stayed involved with the game, joining the Boise State baseball team as a hitting instructor in 2012. For all his gaudy stats and contributions that helped the Red Sox make the 1986 World Series, his legacy was much more. As Gary Van Tol, who was the Boise State coach while Buckner was with the team, said, "He taught me humility, dignity, grace and patience."
And yet, he's remembered in popular culture for one error, an infamous miscue during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, when he was at first base for the Red Sox. The Red Sox lost the next game and with that the series; and Boston fans, rarely noted for the virtue of forgiveness, focused their ire on Buckner, raining taunts, boos and even death threats on him. The heckling was picked up by opposing teams and their fans, and followed him for years.
Seventy-eight players, many of whom played far fewer games than Buckner during his career, have made more errors at first base than the legendary stalwart. None of them were forced to move to Idaho to spare themselves and their family the taunts and hatred of sports fans and reporters who care far more about the results of games than the humanity of the players that play them. — Vince Grzegorek
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Donald "Nick" Clifford
(July 5, 1921–Nov. 23, 2019)
We build things, large and small, temporary and permanent, and then years later we marvel at them. The names attached, through the names of these things themselves — built by, named for or dedicated to — are monumental, notable ones. But we also marvel, perhaps without knowing or fully recognizing, at the people who built these things, the men and women who toiled in ways big and small, through ideas or labor, to make them reality.
So for all the names associated with Mount Rushmore — the four presidents, to start with; followed by Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum, the father-son sculptor and artist team who designed the monument; followed still by Doane Robinson, the South Dakota state historian who first conjured up the idea of a sweeping mountainside sculpture to drive tourist traffic to a neglected part of the state — let us also immortalize Nick Clifford, who died this year at the age of 98.
Clifford was the last living worker who helped build Mount Rushmore, a job he fell into after being recruited by the Borglums to South Dakota to play for a baseball team they'd put together. Work began in 1927 and lasted 14 years, and when Clifford turned 17 in 1938 and could qualify to work the site, he jumped at the chance to join the other 400 men. Half a century later, Clifford was unendingly proud of his contribution and was often present at the Mount Rushmore gift shop to sign copies of his book about the work, which paid tribute to the other workers who created the monument. Recognition for them was hard to come by prior to Rushmore's 50th anniversary, but with the celebration came interviews and a chance for Clifford to expand on his and their histories, while paying respect to its designers.
"None of us were sculptors," Clifford, who was also a World War II veteran, said in one interview. "We had only one sculptor — that was Mr. Gutzon Borglum."
A few years before his death, Clifford said: "I feel like Mount Rushmore was the greatest thing with which I was ever involved. It tells a story that will never go away — the story of how America was made and the men who helped make it what it is today."
Clifford was one of them, and let us remember his story too.