This is the time of year when the media engage in the rather morbid task of revisiting all the noteworthy deaths that occurred during the previous 12 months, and readers mutter to themselves, "He died this year? I thought he was already dead."
I often end up feeling badly for the people whose deaths pretty much escaped notice the first time around. And for the people whom I don't even recognize. You have to be glad they are not around to endure these slights.
I read over this year's list of the famously departed with the same question in mind that daily obituary readers have: "Older than me or younger than me?" But I also make a mental note of those whose passing had meaning for me on something other than a People magazine level.
We lost a number of horrible autocrats this year, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and North Korea's Kim Jong Il among them. And Navy SEALs took down the biggest bad guy of them all, Osama bin Laden. There is little to mourn in these deaths, except that sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know.
But some who departed this world took with them powerful memories from my own life, and for that I am sorry.
Elizabeth Taylor tops that list. Her love affair with Richard Burton was almost gothic in its trajectory. Her courage in fighting AIDS when no one wanted to even shake hands with the afflicted changed the way we faced up to that disease. And the auctioning of her jewels and movie memorabilia brought in $156 million. That's an impressive legacy, too.
Steve Jobs, commentator Andy Rooney and former Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer were brilliant in their orbits, but they were also cranky and mean. Betty Ford, on the other hand, embodied warmth and compassion and generous acceptance. She made it possible for future first ladies to be un-regal.
The Washington Post's David Broder, with his unshakeable belief in shoe-leather political reporting, and New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, whose grace under fire covering the Kennedy assassination led to a brilliant career, were among the giants in my field. I grew up in journalism worshiping the likes of them.
I can still hear Phoebe Snow's voice in my head, singing "Poetry Man." And the saxophone solos of Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band were like love letters to the female heart. But I have to say I don't know who Heavy D was.
Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey was a martyr to the cause of player safety in the NFL, and Bubba Smith proved to be a remarkably gentle, and funny, giant off the field. Al Davis, as owner of the Oakland Raiders, was the dark prince who, year after year, stood between my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers and triumph. But his "Just win, baby" bottom line is one for the ages.
No mother ever read a Bil Keane cartoon without seeing her own brood — and herself —– in his panels. And Jeff Conaway's turns as the airhead driver on "Taxi" recall an era when prime time television was a gold mine of good comedy.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian started a conversation we have still not finished: how to exit this world with dignity. Joe Frazier never received the honor that was due him from his longtime foe, Muhammad Ali, until he died — one of the great injustices of the sweet science.
I remember Jackie Cooper not as Peter Parker's gruff city editor in "Spiderman" but as a sweetly befuddled child in "The Little Rascals," and Jack LaLanne when he was teaching us to do our very first television sit-ups. And Harry Morgan was the taciturn detective on "Dragnet" long before he was a charmingly gruff Sherman Potter on M*A*S*H. Those are memories that surely date me.
But the 2011 death that haunts me most is that of the eloquent essayist and contrarian Christopher Hitchens. His intellect was so broad and so on fire that he was writing until almost his last breath. But he disparaged Mother Teresa and he titled a book on religion "God is Not Great."
I cannot help but wonder where he is now. In an over-populated heaven, filled with all the believers he disdained and a God who forgave him? Or in an underpopulated hell, with a few defiant friends, a bottle of booze, a pile of books and all the time in the universe to talk?