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Life In Legacy - Week ending Saturday, April 3, 2021

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Isamu Akasaki, Nobel-winning Japanese physicistGianluigi Colalucci, Vatican conservator whose team restored Sistine ChapelB. B. Dickerson, cofounder of versatile band WarJudge Paul Feinman, first openly gay jurist to serve on New York State’s highest courtMartha Lou Gadsden, Charleston chef and restaurateurGloria Henry, played mother of 'Dennis the Menace' (Jay North)Arthur Kopit, avant garde playwrightG. Gordon Liddy, Watergate figureBibian Mentel, champion Dutch snowboarderRobert A. Mundell, Nobel-winning economistSarah Onyango Obama, step-grandmother of former US President Barack ObamaWinfred Rembert, artist who carved scenes from his life in leather

Art and Literature

Gianluigi Colalucci (91) led what was known as the restoration of the century—the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel—and in so doing revealed a new vision of Michelangelo’s work there. It took Michelangelo four years to create the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling frescoes and six more to paint his Last Judgment on the altar wall. Almost immediately both works were under assault. Soot, smoke, and dust began to darken the once-vivid colors. Starting in 1565, after years of criticism that called the naked figures of the Last Judgment obscene, draperies were painted over their genitals. In the five centuries since, the chapel grew only darker. But in 1980, Colalucci, a veteran Vatican conservator, and his team began the monumental task of cleaning and restoring the chapel. What their efforts revealed stunned the world. Michelangelo’s hues were bold, clear, and bright—apple greens, startling blues, rosy peaches. Gone were the somber, shadowy images. Michelangelo, it turned out, was a masterful, even revolutionary, colorist and a virtuoso at fresco. Colalucci died in Rome, Italy on March 28, 2021.

Winfred Rembert (75) survived a near-lynching in rural Georgia in 1967. Just 21 at the time, Rembert had been stripped of his clothes by a mob of white men and hoisted upside down from a tree, a noose around his ankles. One man nearly castrated him. The only reason he wasn’t killed was that another white man stepped in, saying there were better things that could be done with Rembert, like throwing him back in jail from which he had just escaped. After seven years of incarceration and hard labor for stealing a car, taking a gun from a deputy sheriff, and escaping, Rembert was released. Married, he moved north and had eight children, then became an artist of some renown: Carving figures into leather, a craft he had learned in prison, he recreated scenes from his life, of picking cotton, being lynched, and busting rocks in his prison stripes. His art told the story of the Jim Crow South. It was exhibited in galleries and museums and helped to support his family. In later life he suffered from diabetes, kidney disease, and hypertension. He died in New Haven, Connecticut on March 31, 2021.


Business and Science

Isamu Akasaki (92) Japanese physicist who helped to develop blue light-emitting diodes, a breakthrough in the development of LEDs that earned him a Nobel Prize and transformed the way the world is illuminated. Akasaki shared the Nobel in Physics in 2014 with Hiroshi Amano of Japan and Shuji Nakamura of UC Santa Barbara. Their invention of blue light-emitting diodes led the way for a vast wave of light sources that are cheaper, more durable, and environmentally safer than incandescent and fluorescent bulbs. Unlike incandescent bulbs, which heat metal filaments to create energy, and fluorescent lamps, which use ionized gas, LEDs are tiny semiconductor chips that emit photons of light when an electric current is applied to them. Akasaki died of pneumonia in Nagoya, Japan on April 1, 2021.

Martha Lou Gadsden (91) it’s impossible to add up all the meals Gadsden cooked over her lifetime. She had to feed eight children and worked for years in other people’s restaurants. In 1983 she opened her own place in an old gas station amid a stretch of car dealerships just north of downtown Charleston, South Carolina. She called it Martha Lou’s Kitchen, and for the next 37 years she dished out home cooking to everyone from longshoremen to famous chefs and became an essential figure in the preservation of Low Country cuisine. But for all those plates of lima beans simmered with smoked pork neck and chicken fried to order, and all those bowls of red okra soup and oxtail stew, Gadsden couldn’t give you a recipe if she wanted to. She did not measure, because she knew what she wanted. Gadsden survived both Covid-19 and heart surgery in the fall of 2020. She died in Charleston on April 1, 2021.

Robert A. Mundell (88) Nobel Prize-winning economist whose theorizing opened the door to understanding the workings of global finance and the modern-day international economy, while his more iconoclastic views on economic policy fostered the creation of the euro and the adoption of the tax-cutting approach known as supply-side economics. Mundell, a Canadian who taught at the University of Chicago and Columbia University, among other places, was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1999 for his analysis of monetary and fiscal policy under different exchange rate regimes and his analysis of optimum currency areas. He died of cholangiocarcinoma, or cancer of the bile duct, at his home, a Renaissance-era palazzo that he and his wife restored, near Siena, Italy, on April 3, 2021.


Law

Paul Feinman (61) first openly gay jurist to serve on New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. Feinman's appointment came barely 10 years after the Court of Appeals had ruled that the state Constitution conferred no legal right for same-sex couples to marry. That right was granted by the Legislature in 2011 by the Marriage Equality Act. Feinman was unanimously confirmed by the State Senate, although during a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee, one legislator noted that a white man was succeeding the first black woman to serve on the appeals court, Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, who had recently died at 65 in what was later ruled a suicide. Feinman was sworn in on June 21, 2017, during Gay Pride Month. He died of acute myeloid leukemia in New York City on March 31, 2021.


News and Entertainment

B. B. Dickerson (71) few bass lines can be said to define an entire West Coast vibe, but War cofounder Dickerson’s funky maneuvers on “Low Rider”—along with a well-placed cowbell—did just that. He made his name driving the bottom end of War, a seven-man southern California band known for hits including “Cisco Kid,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” “Slippin’ into Darkness,” and “Spill the Wine.” Sampled by hundreds of artists including Janet Jackson, Kanye West, De La Soul, Mac Miller, Madlib, the Beastie Boys, and D. J. Quik, the rhythms Dickerson built with drummer Harold Brown and percussionist Thomas (“Papa Dee”) Allen united the sounds of rock, soul, and Latin music to create something diistinctively Californian. Dickerson died in Long Beach, California from a series of strokes on April 3, 2021.

Gloria Henry (98) B-movie actress of the ‘40s and ’50s who became best known as the patient mom on the TV series Dennis the Menace. Henry was a veteran of more than two dozen films in 1959 when she was cast as Alice Mitchell, the constantly horrified mother on Dennis the Menace, a sitcom based on Hank Ketcham’s popular comic strip. Dennis (played by Jay North) was an angelic little boy on the surface, but every time he tried to help or just do something nice, it somehow backfired. The show ran for four seasons on CBS. In two films—The Strawberry Roan (1948) and Riders in the Sky (1949)—Henry starred opposite Gene Autry, getting third billing, after Autry and his horse. Once she had made her TV debut, she devoted her career almost exclusively to series TV. Over 40 years, on and off, she appeared on shows from My Little Margie, Perry Mason, and The Life of Riley to Dallas, Newhart, and Doogie Howser, MD. Her final TV appearance was on a 2012 episode of the sitcom Parks & Recreation. Henry died in Los Angeles, California on April 3, 2021.

Arthur Kopit (83) playwright who thrust Off-Broadway into a new era with the absurdist satirical farce Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad and earned Tony Award nominations for two wildly different plays, Indians and Wings, and the musical Nine. In 1962, when Oh Dad, Poor Dad opened at the 300-seat Phoenix Theater on East 74th Street, American popular culture was shifting. Julie Andrews was between the idealistic Camelot and the wholesome Mary Poppins. Lenny Bruce, the hot comic of the moment, was known for what came to be called “sick humor.” Broadway was dominated by How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and A Man for All Seasons. Along came a 24-year-old playwright with a script about an older woman who liked traveling with her virginal adult son and her husband’s preserved corpse. It won the Drama Desk Award (then the Vernon Rice Award) and even transferred to Broadway for a few months in 1963. Kopit died in New York City on April 2, 2021.


Politics and Military

G. Gordon Liddy (90) Watergate operative who went to prison rather than testify and later turned his Nixon-era infamy into a successful TV and talk show career. While others swept up in the Watergate scandal were contrite or squirmed in the glare of televised congressional hearings, Liddy seemed to wear the crime like a badge of courage, saying his only regret was that the mission to break into the Democrat National Committee's headquarters had been a failure. He drove around Washington in a Volvo with license plates reading H2OGATE, openly discussed the botched burglary on talk radio and late-night TV, took TV roles that seemed to trade on his soiled reputation, and mocked his fellow Watergate operatives as bumblers. Liddy refused to testify at either the Watergate hearings or at his own criminal trial, accepting his fate and a 20-year prison term. But when his sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter and he was freed after 52 months in prison, he couldn’t stop talking. Liddy died of Parkinson's disease at his daughter's home in Virginia on March 30, 2021.


Society and Religion

Sarah Onyango Obama (99) matriarch of the Kenyan side of President Barack Obama’s family. Mama Sarah, as the step-grandmother of the former US president was called, promoted education for girls and orphans in her rural village of Kogelo, Kenya. She was the second wife of President Obama’s grandfather and helped to raise his father, Barack Obama Sr. The family is part of Kenya’s Luo ethnic group. Former President Obama often showed affection for her and referred to her as “Granny” in his memoir, Dreams from My Father. He described meeting her during his 1988 trip to his father’s homeland and their awkwardness as they struggled to communicate, which later developed into a warm bond. Sarah attended his first inauguration as president in 2009. For 10 years, she helped orphans, raising some in her home. The Mama Sarah Obama Foundation helped to provide food and education to children who had lost their parents—providing school supplies, uniforms, basic medical needs, and school fees. Mama Sarah tested negative for Covid-19 but died in Kenya of age-related illness on March 29, 2021.


Sports

Bibian Mentel (48) champion Dutch snowboarder who lost her lower right leg to cancer, then returned to the sport a few months later and dominated it for the next 16 years. Mentel, a determined competitor who won gold medals at the 2014 and ‘18 Winter Paralympic Games, was considered among the best snowboarders in the world. She was also a celebrity in the Netherlands, where her athletic achievements, inspirational life story, and natural poise made her the subject of fashion-magazine cover articles and TV profiles. She was already a six-time Dutch champion in the halfpipe and snowboard cross events when she injured her right ankle while training for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Doctors found a tumor on her tibia—a recurrence of a cancer that had first appeared in 1999. They removed her right leg below her knee in 2001. She was told she wouldn’t snowboard again, but she was soon back on the slopes, competing against able-bodied snowboarders, and seven months after her surgery she won a gold medal at the Dutch snowboarding championships. She died of cancer in Loosdrecht, the Netherlands, on March 29, 2021.


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