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Life In Legacy - Week ending Saturday, October 24, 2020

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Marge Champion, half of '50s dance team, with husband Gower in 'Show Boat' (1951)William Blinn, TV and film screenwriterAlan S. Boyd, first US secretary of transportationSpencer Davis, British rock guitaristJames A. Johnson, campaign operativeDr. J. Michael Lane, epidemiologist who helped to eradicate smallpoxBill Mathis, NY Jets running backJames Randi, magician who debunked 'supernatural' performersJerry Jeff Walker, country singer and songwriter

Business and Science

Dr. J. Michael Lane (84) epidemiologist who waged a 13-year war against the scourge of smallpox and led the final drive for its global eradication in 1977, when the last known vestige of the disease was snuffed out in East Africa. In his years of writing and lecturing on smallpox, Lane drew a vivid portrait of that unseen enemy, one of humanity’s oldest and most terrifying infectious diseases. Perhaps emerging from a rodent virus 10,000 years ago, it periodically swept around the world over the centuries, killing or blinding a third of its victims: hundreds of millions in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas; 80 per cent of the Native Americans who caught it from European invaders; and the multitudes and monarchs of many lands. Its traces were found in the 3,000-year-old mummy of Pharaoh Ramses V of Egypt. US Presidents George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln survived it, and in the 20th century it was blamed for 300 million deaths before it was finally wiped out in an international campaign led by public health officials in the US and the Soviet Union. Smallpox was declared dead by the World Health Organization in 1980 after a global search found no evidence of it more than two years after it had infected its last human being, a hospital cook in Somalia in 1977. Today, 40 years later, no verified smallpox case has surfaced anywhere, and historians call its extermination one of humanity’s greatest public health achievements. Lane died of colon cancer in Atlanta, Georgia on October 21, 2020.

News and Entertainment

William Blinn (83) screenwriter for the landmark TV projects Brian’s Song, Roots, and the Prince film Purple Rain. Blinn won Emmy and Peabody honors for the 1971 TV movie Brian’s Song, which dramatized the friendship between Chicago Bears players Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers. It was a hit when it aired and is an enduring favorite with sports fans and critics. Hall of Fame running back Sayers died last month at age 77. Blinn’s work on Roots, the blockbuster 1977 miniseries adapted from Alex Haley’s book about his black ancestors in slavery and freedom, won an Emmy and a Humanitas Prize. His early TV credits included the ‘60s shows Rawhide, Bonanza, and My Favorite Martian. He also created and produced shows, among them Starsky & Hutch, The Rookies, and Pensacola: Wings of Gold, in a career that spanned 50 years. Blinn died in Burbank, California on October 22, 2020.

Marge Champion (101) dancer and choreographer who with her husband, Gower (died 1980), epitomized the clean-cut, all-American dance team of Hollywood musicals, Broadway productions, and TV variety shows of the ‘50s. Marjorie Belcher was a child of Hollywood, the daughter of a dance coach who taught her ballet, tap, and the twirls, kicks, and sweeps of the ballroom. She performed at the Hollywood Bowl as a girl and as a teenager was a model for three Walt Disney animated features, from the heroine of Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the Blue Fairy that gave life to the puppet in Pinocchio (1940), to the hippo ballerinas tripping lightly in tutus for “Dance of the Hours” in Fantasia (1940). But her career came to little until 1947, when she and Gower Champion, a childhood friend, became partners both professionally and personally. Over the next few years they were pivotal in the transition from the escapist musicals of the Depression to an exuberant new postwar age, successors to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the first dance team to achieve national popularity through TV. The Champions divorced in 1973, and Gower became a Broadway choreographer and director (Bye Bye Birdie; Hello, Dolly!). Marge Champion died in Los Angeles, California on October 21, 2020.

Spencer Davis (81) Welsh-born guitarist and bandleader whose rock group had ‘60s hits including “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man.” Influenced by the British blues and skiffle scenes, Davis performed in bands with future stars including the Rolling Stones’s Bill Wyman and Christine Perfect—later Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie. He formed the Spencer Davis Group in 1963 with a teenage Steve Winwood on keyboards and guitar, his brother Muff Winwood on bass, and Pete York on drums. With Steve Winwood as lead vocalist, the band had two No. 1 British singles—“Keep on Running” in 1965 and “Somebody Help Me” in ‘66—and seven British top 40 hits before Steve Winwood’s departure in ’67. Davis released several solo albums without recapturing his ‘60s fame and later reformed the Spencer Davis Group without the Winwood brothers. In later years he was regarded as an influential elder statesman of British rock. He died in Los Angeles, California while being treated for pneumonia, on October 19, 2020.

James Randi (92) magician who challenged the authenticity of spoon benders, mind readers, and faith healers and became regarded as the US's foremost skeptic. Entertainer, genius, debunker, atheist—Randi was them all. He began gaining attention not long after dropping out of high school to join a carnival. As the Amazing Randi, he escaped from a locked coffin submerged in water and from a straitjacket dangling over Niagara Falls. Magical as his feats seemed, Randi concluded his shows around the globe with a simple statement, insisting that no other-worldly powers were at play. He died in Plantation, Florida on October 20, 2020.

Jerry Jeff Walker (78) Texas country singer and songwriter who wrote the pop song “Mr. Bojangles” and helped to build a new era on the Austin music scene of the ‘70s. Walker emerged from New York's Greenwich Village folk scene of the ‘60s and was a founding member of the band Circus Maximus. He later moved to Texas and in 1972 scored a hit with his version of the Guy Clark song “LA Freeway.” With the Lost Gonzo Band, Walker recorded a 1973 album live in Texas called Viva Terlingua that became a classic of the country-rock scene. In Austin he associated with the likes of Willie Nelson and Clark, morphing the local country scene along the way. In all, Walker released nearly 40 albums from 1967–2018. He died of throat cancer in Austin, Texas on October 23, 2020.

Politics and Military

Alan S. Boyd (98) first US secretary of transportation, named by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 to integrate the nation’s sprawling networks of planes, trains, ships, and highways into a new superagency. Boyd won relatively high marks for a two-year effort to merge dozens of transportation-related federal agencies into a cabinet-level department with 95,000 employees and a more than $5 billion budget. Half a century later, the Department of Transportation’s $76.5 billion budget and 54,700 employees regulate aviation, railroads, mass transit, shipping, highways, pipelines, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and other transport entities. After the 911 attacks, the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard were transferred in 2003 to a new Department of Homeland Security. Boyd died in Seattle, Washington on October 18, 2020.

James A. Johnson (76) former campaign operative who was chief executive of housing lender Fannie Mae in the ‘90s and chairman of Walter Mondale’s presidential bid. Johnson chaired the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Brookings Institution think tank, and Fannie Mae all at the same time. Besides running Mondale’s failed run for the White House against Ronald Reagan in 1984, he was a key player in the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy, Edmund Muskie, and George McGovern. Johnson died of a neurological condition in Washington, DC on October 18, 2020.


Bill Mathis (81) running back, an original member of the New York Jets franchise. Mathis played his entire career in New York. He joined the Titans, as the Jets were originally known, in 1960, the year the American Football League began. He was named the franchise’s Most Valuable Player in 1961 and was selected an AFL All-Star in ‘61 and ’63. He helped the Jets to beat the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in 1969 in a stunning upset. In his 10-year career, Mathis rushed for 3,589 yards and 37 touchdowns. He also caught 149 passes for 1,775 yards and nine scores. He died on October 20, 2020.

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