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They changed the world a little, even if you've never heard of them



When Karlheinz Stockhausen died Dec. 5, we thought immediately of G.K. Chesterton’s well-worn waggish quip that, “Journalism consists largely in saying, ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” Serious newspapers across the globe marked the composer’s death with lengthy obituaries touting his vast influence on modern music, which, indeed, can’t be understated. And yet few outside of the more rarefied cadres of intellectuals and music nerds have ever heard his music, unless by bizarre accident. The world wouldn’t be the same without Stockhausen, but now that people know he’s dead, they still don’t know how.

That’s the sort of thing that inspired our annual salute to folks who somehow made a mark with their lives and yet didn’t have those lives properly appreciated once they were done. Plenty of tears and ink were spilled when Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut passed, not to mention Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrew Hill and Max Roach, Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti, Marcel Marceau and Deborah Kerr, Evel Knievel and Boris Yeltsin, Ike Turner and Pimp C, Anna Nicole Smith and Jerry Falwell.

But once again, we opt to celebrate a few lesser-known lives that ended over the past 12 months. (Ironically, Stockhausen was too famous.)


Momofuku Ando

Imagine a world in which ramen, that simple and salty noodle soup most of us can get for 35 cents a package at any supermarket or convenience, had to be purchased on the black market. That’s the world Momofuku Ando lived in, and the one that inspired him to find a way to get soup to the people.

Just after the end of World War II, Taiwan-born Ando was living in Japan and he saw people standing in line at a black-market stall where fresh ramen -– Japanese noodle soup – was being made. Food shortages were plaguing the country and Ando decided to create an easy-to-prepare noodle soup that could be eaten anytime, anywhere, without need for scarce fresh ingredients.

Ando, whose expertise was in running clothing companies, formed Nissin Food Products in 1948. According to the Nissin website, Ando’s corporate philosophy for the company was “peace will come to the world when the people have enough to eat.” A decade later, in 1958, Nissin introduced its first ramen product: instant chicken ramen, the world’s first instant-noodle product, made by boiling ramen noodles with flavorings then deep-frying them with palm oil to dry them out.

Ando’s dehydrated noodle soup wasn’t cheap, at first; Japanese grocery stores sold their own ramen at one-sixth of the cost of Ando’s revolutionary concoction, so Nissin’s ramen was initially a luxury item. (It’s now roughly as cheap in Japan as it is here.) Despite that, people bought the product, and other companies soon followed in Ando’s footsteps, marketing their own versions of instant ramen products. It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that Ando’s ideas became truly mainstream; that’s when Nissin Foods introduced Cup o’ Noodles, a cheaply produced, inexpensively priced chicken-flavored noodle soup packaged in a Styrofoam cup. The product was wildly popular overseas and introduced the instant-soup revolution to the United States.

In 1999, Ando opened the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Japan, and in 2005 he retired as chair of Nissin Foods. He died of a heart attack Jan. 5, but he lived long enough to see his company introduce a specially designed instant ramen called Space Ram for astronauts. In July 2005, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi took the instant ramen product with him on a mission aboard the U.S. space shuttle Discovery. Ando was quoted as saying, “I’m happy I’ve realized my dream that noodles can go into space.”


Liz Renay

It’s not like being famous for pneumatic body parts or cashing in on a slutty reputation is anything new. Decades before the likes of Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, Liz Renay made a career out of making a literal spectacle of herself with all manner of self-exploitation: Vegas showgirl, modeling, game shows, stripping, Z-movies, tell-all memoirs, public nudity and more stripping. In between, she dated mobsters (and a lot of other guys, too), went to prison and married at least seven times. It’s amazing she made it to 80.

Pearl Elizabeth Dobbins was born into a fundamentalist Christian household in Chandler, Ariz., in 1926. Despite regular churchgoing and strict rules (no movies, for example), Dobbins was eager for bright lights; as a teenager she started running away to Las Vegas to try to break in as a showgirl. She hoped that her 44DD breasts and passing bottle-job resemblance to megastar Marilyn Monroe would get her noticed, and they did. She had already been married twice, had two kids and won a bra-modeling contest when she landed a job as an extra on a film being shot in Phoenix in 1950; she somehow parlayed this modest exposure into a Life magazine photo spread called “Pearl’s Big Moment.” Her first moment, anyway.

Redubbed Liz Renay, she worked as a stripper and developed a taste for Mafia men, which ultimately led to her spending 27 months in the federal penitentiary at Terminal Island for perjury.

Her conviction killed whatever legitimacy there was to her career, but she pressed on. In addition to stripping, she started appearing in low-budget exploitation films with titles like The Thrill Killers, Hot Rods to Hell and Blackenstein. She was not above the occasional attention-getting stunt: In 1974 she tried to draw attention to the premiere of one of her films by running naked down Hollywood Boulevard. She also published a memoir in 1971 called My Face for the World to See. Her breathless account of her adventures and trials (literally) made it a cult fave, and the book helped win Renay the role of which she was most proud: Muffy St. Jacques, the lipstick half of the leading Mortville lesbian couple in John Waters’ Desperate Living. The film renewed and solidified her demimonde icon status.

Though past 50 when Desperate Living was released in 1977, Renay continued stripping and making appearances. She wrote another memoir with the arresting title My First 2,000 Men, though she later acknowledged that the title figure was a little high.

Her life was not without its share of tragedies: She and her daughter Brenda had a mother/daughter strip act until Brenda killed herself in 1982. But Renay continued marketing her ample flesh and va-va-va-voom mystique throughout her twilight years, which she spent in Las Vegas, the city of her original dreams of stardom. She died Jan. 22.


Alice Coltrane

Jazz giant John Coltrane changed thousands of lives, but none more than Alice Coltrane’s. While they were partners, musical and domestic, just a few short years before he died in 1967, the spiritual and musical growth she experienced with Coltrane shaped the rest of her life.

Born in Detroit in 1937, Alice McLeod grew up steeped in gospel (thanks to her mother) and jazz (through her older brother, bassist Ernie Farrow), but her musical training, beginning at age 7, was in classical piano. By her early 20s, she had traveled to Paris to study with bop legend Bud Powell and was gigging professionally in Detroit and then New York. She met John Coltrane backstage at Birdland in 1962; the two introspective introverts were soon inseparable and married in 1965.

By that time, John Coltrane had driven his music near what was then the outermost edge of jazz. When pianist McCoy Tyner quit, the saxophonist asked his wife to join the greatest quartet of the time, maybe all time. “I just said, ‘Are you sure? Is this what you want?’” she recalled for a 2002 interview in The Wire magazine, “and he said, ‘I’m positive.’” Alice’s more expansive approach better suited her husband’s increasingly protean sound, but their journey together was cut short by his liver cancer.

Alice Coltrane found herself a widowed mother of four (including a son from a brief prior marriage) and, almost as unexpectedly, a solo artist. Her debut as a leader, 1968’s A Monastic Trio, delivered a stripped-down, more emollient take on Coltrane’s late-period explorations, and she sometimes doubled on harp, an instrument that remains almost unknown otherwise in jazz.

Coltrane made 11 albums in 10 years and then effectively retired from music to devote herself to her spiritual interests. A disciple of Indian guru Swami Satchidananda, she founded a still-extant ashram in Southern California in 1983 and lived a quiet life with her family. (She never remarried and reportedly took a vow of celibacy after Coltrane’s death.) Her music, a little outré even for the ’70s, was largely dismissed as jazz took a neo-classical turn. But, by the turn of the century, crate diggers and a new generation of more open-minded jazz fans had discovered the mystical yet enduring beauties of her omnivorous sound. After more than 20 years, she was lured into a modest comeback by saxophonist son Ravi, releasing the spry Translinear Light in 2004 and performing several concerts. She more or less returned to humble obscurity before dying of a lung ailment on Jan. 12.


Robert Adler

If you’re like most Americans, when you get home you flop down on the couch, turn on the television and start searching around to see if there’s anything good on. You perform those unthinking actions in large part thanks to Robert Adler, the co-inventor for the earliest successful TV remote control.

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1913, Adler earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Vienna in 1937 before joining the exodus of affluent, educated European Jews to the United States. He went to work for Zenith in 1941 and stayed with the company for almost 60 years in some capacity, including director of research.

Like most American scientists at the time, Adler mostly worked to further “the war effort” during World War II, in his case improving aircraft radios. When the war ended, he and many of his colleagues turned to the then-emerging technology of television. It seems TV sets weren’t around long before manufacturers went looking for ways to prevent viewers from having to get up from their seats to operate them. Zenith introduced the first TV remote in 1950; the company called the bulky box connected to the set by a wire “Lazy Bones.” Even if the insulting name didn’t limit sales, the wire did, and the company introduced the wireless “Flashmatic” in 1955; the new iteration worked with a light beam that triggered photovoltaic cells, but the cells reacted to other light sources as well, making the setup unpredictable.

Adler wrestled with the problem until he came up with a solution: ultrasound. On his Space Command remote, introduced in 1956, the buttons cued tiny hammers to strike aluminum rods inside the housing; the resulting tones triggered vacuum tubes inside the TV set that changed channels, adjusted the volume, etc. It weighed a half-pound and cost $100 (the equivalent would buy a wall-sized LCD flat screen in 2007 dollars), but people bought it.

Every bio of Adler mentions the Space Command as his claim to fame, but he enjoyed a long and distinguished career apart from that one soon-outmoded device. He published dozens of articles, won numerous awards and honors (including an Emmy) and kept innovating, including seminal work on acoustic wave technology, the field that underpins another everyday device: the touch screen. He held more than 180 patents: His last was awarded in 2006 and related to touch-screen technology; he applied for another two weeks before he died on Feb. 15, at age 93. He apparently watched little TV.

Barbara Gittings

Growing up in Wilmington, Del., Barbara Gittings knew she was different early on. She found herself having crushes on female students at school. In 1949 she enrolled in Northwestern University as a theater major but flunked out after a year. Rather than studying theater, she had spent all her time researching what exactly it meant to be a lesbian.

“There was nobody I could talk to, so I went to the library for information,” Gittings said in a 1999 American Libraries magazine interview. “That was what I was raised to do, but it wasn’t very much help. I had to find bits and pieces under headings like ‘sexual perversion’ and ‘sexual aberration’ in books on abnormal psychology. I kept thinking, ‘It’s me they’re writing about, but it doesn’t feel like me at all.’”

In 1956, she traveled to California and met the founder of the Daughters of Bilitis, which would become the first national lesbian organization in the United States. Gittings had found her people and was asked to start a New York chapter two years later. She met her partner of 46 years, photographer and writer Kay Lahusen, at a Daughters of Bilitis picnic. She even became the editor of the national Daughters magazine, The Ladder, in 1963. Over the three years she ran the magazine, she changed the cover art from drawings of women to photographs of actual lesbians.

Gittings took part, in 1965, in what is believed to be the first protest at the White House for gay rights and continued to march in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall every Fourth of July through out the ’60s. “It was called annual Reminder Day,” Gittings told Philadelphia City Paper in a 1999 interview. “The purpose was to remind the public that the guarantees of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that are in the documents we celebrate on July 4 are not extended to gay people.”

Perhaps Gittings’ greatest accomplishment was her work to get homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders. In 1972, she was invited to sit on a panel on the topic at an APA symposium. “My partner Kay said, ‘This isn’t right. Here you have two psychiatrists pitted against two gays, and what you really need is someone who is both,’” Gittings recalled while accepting an award from the APA in 2006. Finding someone willing to come forward proved difficult, but one gay psychiatrist finally agreed to speak, though he insisted on wearing a mask and wig and disguising his voice. He was called Dr. H. Anonymous and his testimony was seen by many as a turning point. The APA voted to take homosexuality of its list of mental illnesses a year later.

She won numerous awards; she and her partner donated books, writings and paraphernalia from the gay-rights struggle to libraries to ensure that future generations won’t have to hunt for information about their history and identity as she did. She continued speaking out even as she battled the breast cancer that ended her life Feb. 18 at age 74.


Madeleine L’Engle

“A straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.” So realizes Madeleine L’Engle’s classic character, the at-turns obnoxiously and charmingly precocious Charles Wallace Murry. It would take a kid to accept something like that.

Kids grow up, of course. Somewhere in the drawn, odd years that lead into being an adult, imagination learns to quiet itself, loses its sense of necessity. Science-fiction writers, above all others in words, are those who never lost it. And you can’t help but feel a ping of jealousy when a science-fiction writer dies; death must mean something different. You have to hope, anyhow. You have to hope that L’Engle (born Madeleine L’Engle Camp in New York in 1918) thought of skipping across time with her most famous literary creation, the tesseract.

It was the idea that drove the author’s most popular books, beginning with 1962’s almost-never-was A Wrinkle in Time, an epic package that takes a lot of the stuff kids think about – school, boys, being weird – and wraps it in an adventure built of witches, dimension-hopping, mind control, intergalactic conspiracy, quantum physics and communism.

A Wrinkle in Time, now in its 67th printing, got its expected lambasting by the jittery right, no matter that it was rife with anti-communist and religious overtones. (It even quoted the Bible.) L’Engle’s was likewise the wrong kind of religion. In being a Universalist – you know, we’re all saved – she may as well have been an atheist. L’Engle recounted to Newsweek in 2000, that her opponents “were Christians, mostly, and that made me very sad.” A Wrinkle in Time is also saddled with the honor of being the American Library Association’s 22nd-most-banned book.

L’Engle, while working as a librarian in Manhattan and raising three children, wrote two more books in the Time series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet and A Wind in the Door, similarly deft balances between sci-fi and morality (secular and otherwise)/humanity. Concurrent with the Time series, L’Engle was leaving an imprint with a separate family-centric series – the Austins this time – dealing with an epic, but always very literal, battle between good and evil, presented with intergalactic boundary bending swapped for relatively constrained ideas like telepathy.

L’Engle never stopped writing, producing more than 60 books between her first in 1944 and her death on Sept. 6, crossing more and more into the realm of autobiography and overt religion. Her final book is set for publication in 2008.


Paul W. Tibbets

In the weeks after the end of World War II, the U.S. military put the ruined cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima “off limits.” When reporters snuck in and dispatched reports detailing the devastation, including the then-unknown phenomenon of radiation sickness, the U.S. military censored the story and countered with propaganda.

The story we learned was this: Because brave men dropped the first atomic bombs on a dauntless enemy, America did not have to invade the Japanese mainland, saving at least 1 million lives on both sides of the conflict. It is an enduring lie.

We know it is a lie because, 62 years on, historians (see Joseph C. Grew, Gar Alperovitz, Greg Mitchell, James Hershberg, Martin Sherwin and so on) have long reported what Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman knew before the bomb was dropped: Japan was about to surrender anyway. But this fact is entombed in thick books with copious footnotes, so most Americans still don’t know, and many of them deny it bitterly despite the evidence. Their patron saint is Paul W. Tibbets, who died in his Columbus, Ohio, home on Nov. 1, at the age of 92.

Courageous, precise, a consummate pilot, Tibbets assembled and commanded the 12-man crew of Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber he named for his mother. The Illinoisan was chosen over two higher-ranked pilots because, as he told an interviewer, “they were looking for someone who wouldn’t flinch.” On Aug. 6, 1945, Tibbets and crew dropped a 20-kiloton uranium bomb on Hiroshima.

Hailed as a hero, Tibbets served in the Air Force for another 20 years and never doubted the rightness of the bombing even in the face of declassified documents and the unfolding history – political and medical – of what atomic weapons wrought. In the 1990s, when the Smithsonian Institution commissioned an exhibit of Enola Gay’s forward fuselage, National Air and Space Museum director Martin Harwit also wanted to put the bombing into historical context. Calling the proposed exhibit “a package of insults,” Tibbets gave no quarter to the historians: “Today, on the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the end of World War II, many are second-guessing the decision to use the atomic weapons. To them, I would say, ‘STOP!’” He had learned all the facts he’d ever need from his superiors in the months before he dropped the bomb, and he had no use for any more. Tibbets, as he never tired of saying, “never lost a night’s sleep” over the bomb.

But he did not leave it at that. He joyfully re-enacted the bombing and hawked triumphalist memorabilia from his official website, including signed books, photos and a 10-inch-long scale replica of the “Little Boy” atom bomb; $275 plus shipping.

In 2002, as the “war on terror” got under way, Studs Terkel put his microphone before Tibbets. “One last thing,” he asked the old hero, “when you hear people say, ‘Let’s nuke ’em, let’s nuke these people,’ what do you think?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t hesitate if I had the choice,” Tibbets replied. “I’d wipe ’em out. You’re gonna kill innocent people at the same time, but we’ve never fought a damn war anywhere in the world where they didn’t kill innocent people. If the newspapers would just cut out the ****. ‘You’ve killed so many civilians.’ That’s their tough luck for being there.”


Sue Hannah

Sue Hannah didn’t know it at the time, but a small bar she and her partner bought in 1983 became her legacy.

Hannah was born in a small Georgia town and moved to Orlando in 1958 where she began working for a catering company, later working for a series of bars and operating midway arcades and games with partner Angie Spruill. She later owned clubs called Cheeks and Key Largo before Spruill and Hannah opened Faces, which quickly became a safe haven for lesbians.

She sank most of the bar proceeds into local charities. But her favorite cause always was helping lesbians with cancer.

“She’d help anyone in trouble. She had so much compassion for people,” says Wanda Waldrop, Hannah’s sister-in-law.

In a darkly ironic turn of events, Hannah died of lung cancer that had spread to her liver in February, just weeks after she had helped a woman who had a radical mastectomy raise $10,000. She died at 63, just two weeks after she learned of her illness.

Sara Daspin

Even when stricken with illness, Sara Daspin was still planning to direct a drama at Seminole Community College. The artistic director of the Fine Arts Theatre at SCC for decades, Daspin had become a pillar in the local arts world.

She graduated from the theater program at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, while working as a waitress to support herself. She met her husband, Mike, at the New York resort where both worked and married in 1957.

But it was her presence in Central Florida that made her memorable. She was well respected as a teacher, director and actress. Along with Stuart Omans she founded the Orlando Shakespeare Festival, which later became the Orlando Shakespeare Theater. She directed one of the theater’s earliest works, The Taming of the Shrew. She introduced a theater academy for children at the Civic Theatres of Central Florida, where she later won two acting awards for her role portrayal.

She died in August of liver cancer at 72.

Jeff Wood

There’s a certain chin-out, nihilistic prophecy to planting the Clash’s London Calling album cover on your chest in ink, but it shouldn’t have been this: 42 year-old drummer Jeff Wood died of a brain tumor on Sept. 12 at his mother’s home in Valrico.

The Tampa native had been popping-up around the bay area local music scene for years, gigging in incarnations of Barely Pink, Spiller and Joe Popp among others. But it was the raunchy power-pop he created with guitarist Greg Reinel with Nutrajet for which he will most be remembered.

What set Nutrajet – and Wood – apart was their untamed bravado, turning a two-man band into room-sized racket. The band was bicoastal, if you consider Orlando a coast, and defied membership to any one scene (although they could be found squirming around in the rockabilly pool of the Hate Bombs and the Delusionaires). They recorded just two albums (only one with Wood), and never seemed interested in the rock’s golden ticket out.

Bob Mervine

On Oct. 16, following complications from routine surgery, Orlando Business Journal staff writer Bob Mervine died. He was 60.

Mervine, known for wearing Hawaiian shirts and sporting a ponytail, had covered tourism and hospitality for the OBJ since August 2001. During his years at the business paper, Mervine won a number of state and regional awards, including a Society of Professional Journalists Green Eyeshade award, which honors excellence in reporting. He also developed into an opinionated and funny restaurant critic.

In 2005, he authored a book called Orlando Chow: Restaurants for the Rest of Us, a collection of reviews of roughly 100 Central Florida restaurants, especially such smaller, out-of-the-way diners as Johnny’s Fillin’ Station.

Mervine will be remembered as a connoisseur of all things Orlando, and as one who helped, and then reported on, the tourism industry’s rise.

Earlean Taylor

If you know how a good sweet potato pie should taste, you probably knew Earlean Taylor, or at least you knew of her work. Since 1996 – when Taylor took over the task of running Johnson’s Diner from her mother, Lillie Johnson – her prowess in the kitchen won her many devotees and landed the miniscule soul food restaurant, then located on Robinson Street and Parramore Avenue, on seemingly everybody’s list of the best places to eat in town. When the New York Times outlined its recommendations for spending 36 hours in Orlando April 1, one of the stops was Johnson’s “for a classic Southern breakfast served with a side of local history ….”

In 2006, Johnson’s moved into more expansive digs on West Church Street, but the comforting food and atmosphere are unchanged, a legacy of the woman known almost as well for helping the homeless as for her cooking. Taylor died of cancer July 25. She was 63.

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