Let's dropkick 2016 into the past

Published: 12/29/2016 11:00 AM
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In my adult life, I don’t think I’ve ever been more affected by celebrity deaths than I have this past year. Many to me were stars whose light shined bright enough to bridge generations. They left an indelible imprint in pop culture and in the lives of those who treasured the gifts they shared with the world.

Say what you want about our culture’s obsession with “celebrity,” but although the term has been cheapened by reality television and those who are “famous for being famous,” many who we lost defined pivotal moments through their art. They were true artists.

My personal standouts may not speak to everyone, but their value was immeasurable. There are also lessons to be learned from these deaths; we’ll get to that.


David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Abe Vigoda and Paul Kantner.

It started Jan. 10 with the death of David Bowie. Although quite before my time in his prime, his timeless music, his creative persona and unique style both musically and onscreen immediately spoke to my eccentric, yet creative tendencies throughout the course of my life. David Bowie made it OK to be strange. He made it OK to be a unique starman waiting in the sky and he surely did blow our minds.


Antonin Scalia, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Harper Lee.


Nancy Regan, Phife Dawg, Garry Shandling and Patty Duke.

Nancy Reagan’s devotion to her husband was admirable and enviable. Tammy Wynette would be proud of the way Mrs. Reagan stood by her man. They were a power couple who truly seemed to have each other’s back with dignity. She also was, in my lifetime, the first First Lady who really stood out, not just as arm candy for Ronnie, but as a mover and shaker in her own right. Her “Just Say No” campaign against drugs was a quintessential part 1980s culture. And sassy quotes like, “A woman is like a tea bag, you can not tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water,” gave life to the strength women possess and the boundaries they can break without relying on the victim-based feminist ideals of the 1970s.


Merle Haggard, Doris Roberts, and Prince.

Though seemingly on opposite ends of the musical spectrum, Merle Haggard and Prince are without a doubt two of the most influential artists in their respective genres. Haggard rose from poverty to prison to fame with powerfully raw lyrics relatable to those who weren’t born with a silver spoon. He spoke for the working class and laid the groundwork for future country artist to unapologetically lay down lyrics uncoated by sugar.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” His lyrics will speak to generations. His inventiveness was like no other. His individuality and unapologetic approach to his art gained him fame while keeping him relevant for decades. Prince was part of the soundtrack of my youth. His musical talent was perhaps unappreciated by many, but impactful for the rest of time. “Purple Rain” will forever give me goosebumps.


Although hundreds died in May, for brevity purposes, without taking away from their importance, personally, none stood out to me.


In June, we lost Muhammad Ali. Coined “The Greatest of All Time” in the boxing world, Ali, who had a training camp right down the road in Deer Lake, left a permanent impression on the fighting world. Much can be said about his personal life and choices, but his career as a boxer and heavyweight titles won through his dedication to his sport was indeed history making.


Perhaps as a birthday present, I wasn’t heart pummeled by any notable deaths in July.


Then came August, and we lost Gene Wilder. Sure, he was Willy Wonka — a historic and unforgetful character — but my favorite movie starring Wilder was the lesser known “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” with his counterpart Richard Pryor. The interactions between a deaf man and a blind man create comedy gold that would maybe not fly by today’s sensitive standards. Plus, the Willy Wonka meme, man alive did that come in handy for those who are familiar.


September was a blow to golfers and lemonade-mixed-with-iced-tea enthusiasts with the death of Arnold Palmer. He kept his image untarnished, unlike a certain present-day golfer whose personal scandals all but eclipsed his talent, not mentioning any names.


October we lost Bobby Vee which hurt because of magical music of the 1960s. He will be remembered by “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Red Rubber Ball” among others. And now you’re singing them in your head — ok, at least I am. Moving on.


Janet Reno, Leonard Cohen, Florence Henderson and Fidel Castro.

Leonard Cohen played a major role on the “Pump Up the Volume” soundtrack which, if you are part of my generation, was likely a quintessential movie in your VHS collection. His smooth stylings were undeniably hypnotic with range for use from horror to romance films.

I’ll be short on my feeling for Castro. Although I will not celebrate him, it’s undeniable I have had a huge crush on Cuba for most of my life. I guess it was always the mystery and the restrictions involving travel there. It was the land that time forgot because of trade embargos which I always found fascinating. I won’t put Castro on a pedestal, but surely his life and death was impactful.


Oh December, you devil. We lost, to name a few, John Glenn, Alan Thicke, Henry Heimlich (who created the life-saving Heimlich maneuver for choking victims — which saved my life when I swallowed a Lite-Brite peg; thank you, Mom), Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Michael and Carrie Fisher.

Ok, we literally have two days left and people in the south have started a GoFundMe to keep Betty White alive for the rest of the year. Who could blame them? December was brutal. Alan Thicke was everyone’s favorite TV dad growing up in the 1980s-90s. His death while playing hockey with his young son was very sudden and tragic. He seemed in great shape and full of life.

George Michael’s “Faith” video further solidified my attraction to guys in jeans and a motorcycle jacket in my youth — Eric from “Head of the Class,” Nick from “Family Ties” and George Clooney as a handyman on “Facts of Life” to name a few. Obviously, I was barking up the wrong hide with George Michael. Still, he was a pleasure to look at and he completely blew my mind with his “Freedom ‘90” video starring the hottest of the 1990s “glamazon” supermodels lip synching to his lyrics. Beautifully shot in black and white, I can’t describe my instant, although unattainable, desire to grow up to look like one of those women. Proof in the pudding: They all have barely aged. But, George Michael was a beautiful soul. Only after his death did all his incredible generosity surface. Those who are most generous are typically quiet about it which makes it truly selfless. Say what you want about his personal life, the man had a heart of gold and is truly a great loss.

The death Carrie Fisher was the last to smack us in the face. Let it be known she was much more than that gold bikini. She was outspoken about mental illness and an example all women can look up to. Her blunt, but dignified, honesty is to be admired and mirrored.


I know I’ve missed many who may have affected others far more than those listed. Although it’s argued this year is no worse than years past, I think it was the perfect storm of devastating news worldwide, a painful election year and celebrity and personal loss which poured salt in the proverbial wound in our hearts.

If there’s anything to be learned is that life is short and unpredictable. Those we lost had an influence. Aside from their obvious fame, they leave behind a legacy with a shine that will never dull. May it remind us to never let anything dull our shine and decide what we want to be our personal legacy.

I don’t believe in resolutions as much as revolutions (Prince and the Revolution included) and revelations. May this be the year you find your purpose and if the “dumpster fire” doubles inside, know you have the capacity to leave a mark that will last forever.

(Jenna Wasakoski is an assistant editor at The News-Item. Her lifestyle column appears Thursdays.)

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