2022: The Year in Obits

That headline may seem odd, but I was just trying to think of something that sort of addressed my topic, but wouldn’t sound as nekulturny as “Top Five Dead People of 2022.” Which would have reflected the post more honestly.


This is a time of year when newspapers and other outlets crank out “Best _____ of the Year” lists. I’m not sure why they still do it. In the dead-tree days, we had a reason: It was the time of year when you had the greatest amount of space (on account of all the Christmas-shopping ads) and the least amount of real news. But I guess the beast still has to be fed. We also did it because at that time when content was badly needed, a lot of people were taking end-of-year vacations, before things got busy in January. And this didn’t require reporting — someone just needed the patience to dig through the year’s pages.

Such non-news stories generally mean little to me. “Best Books of 2022” means nothing to me, because I’ve never been interested in the hot books of the moment. When I read, I’m going to choose from the best (or at least, most engaging to me) of that which has been published since (and frequently before) Gutenberg, knowing that I’ll never live long enough to read everything I’d like to read from the best of the 19th century, not to mention other eras. Why waste time on the latest tattle, or the hottest young novelist?

And as I’ve grown older — and especially since COVID — I’ve gotten the same way about current movies. Why go see the “Avatar” sequel when I didn’t much like the original, and I can stream something like “The Grapes of Wrath” or “His Girl Friday,” or “Is Paris Burning?” far more cheaply and conveniently, and without some popcorn-munching kid kicking the back of my seat? (By the way, those three aren’t my three fave films. They just popped into my head, for different reasons. They are: the film I won’t let myself watch until I finally finish reading Steinbeck’s original, which I have steadily failed to do; my actual fave comedy; and a film I’d always meant to see, but didn’t see until recently, and I was more impressed than I thought I would be.)

But you know what does interest me, aside from Dave Barry’s always-entertaining review of the year? The annual list of who died. I like to be reminded of the passing of people who have left a significant mark on our world — not so much because it tells me something about the past year, but because it provides a fascinating, personal perspective on the entire time in which they lived. It’s an interesting, fresh way of being reminded why the world I live in is the way it is, told through the lives of people who played memorable roles in making it that way. These deaths bring history to life, you might say.

And occasionally I’m surprised by the deaths I have missed. I was particularly surprised to learn that Bette Davis had left our presence in 2022, when she would have been 114. (She actually died at a more reasonable age in 1989.) It took me a moment to realize why The State had placed her picture with this story, and initially the search function was unhelpful. But then I searched on “Davis” instead of “Bette,” and found that someone associated with publishing the “Extra” pages of The State‘s e-edition didn’t recognize that the screen legend was not Miles Davis’ wife, Betty. So it was worse than simply misspelling “Bette” in the cutline.

But we all make mistakes — you’ll probably spot some below — so let’s move on from that before I get embarrassed, too.

Looking back, here are the Top Five People Who Actually Died this year, in my view…

Dang it! I don’t have time to whittle it down that far! With apologies to Nick Hornby, here are the Top 25. Of course, I’m putting them in order, so you can see what would have been my Top Five. But I thought those would all be boringly obvious, and it was more interesting to keep going:

  1. Elizabeth II — I doubt I need to explain this, except to say that I had to think for a moment before putting her ahead of the first pope to abdicate in 700 years. But still, she was such a part of our lives for SO long. She set too many records to get bumped to second place. And Pope Benedict only held on for less than eight years before, you know, quitting. Lilibet wasn’t one to quit. And she was a good queen.
  2. Pope Benedict XVI — Oh, and since stories I read this morning failed to name him, to my frustration, the last pope to quit, without external pressure (unlike Gregory XII), before this one was Celestine V, in 1294. He only lasted five months. I suppose I could write a book about the more recent ex-pontiff, but since I’m just getting started on my list and need to move on, I’ll just say nothing against him, but note that I’m glad our pope is now Francis.
  3. Mikhail Gorbachev — On another day (that is, a day on which Benedict had not just died) I might have put Gorby in second place, and debated whether to put him in first. He had more effect on the world than any Soviet leader since Stalin, only in a good way. Don’t try telling Putin that, though.
  4. Pelé — As you know, I’m constantly trying to throw in a little something for sports fans out there, conscious that most of y’all care more about athletics than I do. But I didn’t have to strain myself on this one. This guy was a superhero, and his superpower was football. (Real football, the kind where you use your feet.) Not having been a big fan of this sport, the first thing I usually think of when Pelé’s name comes up is that scene from “Vision Quest” when Elmo the cook talks about seeing him on TV. That was great…
  5. Jerry Lee Lewis — He wasn’t the King, but he knew the King. There are a lot of things to remember about The Killer — hammering the piano with his feet, marrying his 13-year-old cousin. Great balls of fire. But you know what I always think of? The time when he was arrested trying to break his way into Graceland. He had come to show E who the real king was. Well, he wasn’t the King, but he knew the King, you see.
  6. Sidney Poitier — I wrote about his passing earlier, and thinking back, it hits me that I still haven’t seen “A Raisin in the Sun” or “Lilies of the Field.” But I’ll tell you this: I definitely intend to see them well before I shell out money to see that “Avatar” sequel. In fact, I’d much rather sit and watch “To Sir With Love” another five times, back-to-back, than see that CGI nonsense.
  7. Madeleine Albright — She and Dick Riley were my two favorite members of Clinton’s Cabinet. Hers, of course, was the weightier position. She came along at the time when Democrats were going on about the “peace dividend,” and reminded us that in keeping with the liberal notion of America’s postwar role, we were still “the indispensable nation.” That ticks some of y’all off, I know, but not me. I appreciated it.
  8. Loretta Lynn — I was never a big fan myself, but I’m fully cognizant of her impact on our culture. I also enjoyed the movie. My favorite part was the way Levon Helm (see Ronnie Hawkins, below) absolutely embodied the Coal Miner himself.
  9. Wolfgang Petersen — My favorite Clint Eastwood movie wasn’t directed by Clint Eastwood. It’s Petersen’s “In the Line of Fire.” He also gave us “Air Force One,” and before that, “Das Boot.”
  10. Ray Liotta — One of the people who are here because they were “so young,” not so long ago. And he had a distinctive quality on screen. The first time I saw him was in Jonathan Demme’s action-comedy “Something Wild.” Jeff Daniels was funny, Melanie Griffith was sexy, and Ray Liotta was scary. Of course, he expanded on that in later roles, especially “Goodfellas.”
  11. James Caan — From Sonny in “The Godfather” to the Dad on the “naughty list” in “Elf,” he made his distinctive mark on the Hollywood of his times.
  12. Tony Dow — Yeah, I know Wally was older than the Beave and me, but it’s still a shock for him to be gone.
  13. Dwayne Hickman — Again, youth personified when we knew him. Oh, and for you clueless kids out there — we’re talking Dobie Gillis here. You don’t know who that was? Next, you’ll say you don’t remember Maynard G. Krebs.
  14. Ivan Reitman — Not one of the great filmmakers of his time, but he certainly had an impact, via  Meatballs (1979), Stripes (1981), Ghostbusters (1984), Ghostbusters II (1989), Twins (1988), Kindergarten Cop (1990), and Dave (1993). My fave might be “Dave.”
  15. Hilary Mantel — An unusual character, but an impressive writer. And while I read and enjoyed Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, I can congratulate myself that while she is gone, I still have the experience of reading The Mirror and the Light in my future.
  16. David McCullough — He not only told us, compellingly, the stories of Harry S. Truman, John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, and the Wright brothers. He also narrated Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.” Dude got a lot done in his 89 years.
  17. Meat Loaf — In drafting a list of notable names, how could I leave out this one?
  18. P.J. O’Rourke — A gifted commenter on our times, even if he was a libertarian. And don’t forget, he also was a frequent panelist on NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”
  19. Ronnie Hawkins — I don’t put him here because of his own music, about which I know little. I put him here because The Band’s first job of note was backing him up — before they did the same for Dylan. So nice work, Ronnie, because I do love those guys.
  20. Mark Shields — I enjoyed his commentary on PBS, and when he was spoken of upon his death as a decent man and a man of faith, that was no surprise. I attended Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York for the first time in 2004, when I was there for the Republican National Convention. At one point I looked around me, and saw someone familiar: It was Shields, sitting there alone. I suspect he was much in demand on the Sunday morning network political talk shows, but there he was at Mass. Not a big thing, maybe, but it made a favorable impression on me.
  21. Bill Russell — He may not have been as big as Pelé, but he was a giant in professional basketball (and not just because he was 6’10”). He was “the centerpiece of the Celtics dynasty that won 11 NBA championships during his 13-year career.” Red Auerbach called him “the single most devastating force in the history of the game.”
  22. Ronnie Spector — With the Ronettes, she gave us “Be My Baby.” And you can’t beat that, can you?
  23. Dirck Halstead — Another celebrity journalist. Don’t know him? Well, you’ve seen this picture, haven’t you? And this one? Does this guy look familiar?
  24. Nichelle Nichols — Better known to you as Lt. Uhura. I wasn’t a huge Trek fan, and I can’t say I knew her, but my old friend Burl Burlingame could. So I’m including her, as much as anything, as a way of remembering Burl.
  25. Sonny Barger — The only member of the Hell’s Angels I would have been able to name if you had asked me (you can thank Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson for that). Not that that’s a good thing, but he was a significant figure in the culture — and the nightmares — of the ’60s.

That’s enough for me. Who makes the top of your list?

23 thoughts on “2022: The Year in Obits

  1. bud

    Here are a few that should make any list:

    Olivia Newton John
    Angela Lansbury
    Barbara Walters
    Franco Harris
    Kirstie Alley
    Christine McVie
    Irene Cara
    Loretta Lynn
    Bernard Shaw
    Bob Saget

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yeah, I had Olivia Newton-John on my list for awhile, when I had a list of 30. But some of the others in the 30 seemed less notable, so I trimmed it down to 25. But I felt pop music was fully covered by Jerry Lee Lewis and Ronnie Spector, who I think were more significant figures. No, Ronnie Spector probably wasn’t as big a star at the time as Olivia, but she was more accomplished, and it seemed important to recognize that. I have trouble thinking of another pop song as awesome as “Be My Baby.”

      I’ll have brickbats thrown at me for this, but a lot of Olivia’s fame came not from the music, but from the fact that she was really, really pretty. Which is why she ended up transitioning into movies.

      Sure, I could have put her ahead of Ronnie Hawkins, but how could I miss a chance to mention The Band?

      And as I said, how do you ignore the fact that someone named “Meat Loaf” died?

      1. bud

        Ok. Olivia Newton John is a phenomenal singer, accomplished actor, a successful business women with her exercise videos and a defender of animal rights. And she’’s attractive. It can’t be defended to exclude her yet include Tony Dow???

  2. Ralph Hightower

    1) Olivia Newton John (singer)
    2) Louise Fletcher (actress. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Star Trek Deep Space Nine as Kai Winn)
    3) Christine McVie (singer: Fleetwood Mac, and solo)
    4) Fred Brooks (American computer scientist and writer). You wouldn’t know him, but he was the author of The Mythical Man-Month. In the book he points out that the “Nine Pregnant Women Project Management Model” is flawed: If it takes a woman nine months to produce a baby, then nine pregnant women can produce a baby in one month; throwing more bodies into a project won’t help get the schedule back on track.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I also had Big Nurse on my longer list, but then she fell off.

      As a Ken Kesey fan, I considered the release of that movie to be a major event. But, not being a fan of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” I don’t recall seeing her in anything since 1975. But for that moment, she was impressive…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Interesting thing about that character. Did the movie ever refer to her as “Big Nurse,” which is how I remember her from the book? People remember Louise Fletcher as “Nurse Ratched,” not “Big Nurse,” I think.

        I seem to remember something similar happening with “Chief Broom.” I don’t think they used that nickname in the film — did they? And yet that was used prominently in the book…

        It seems like a movie would be MORE likely than a book to use nicknames. But in this case, it didn’t work out that way…

  3. Doug Ross

    From the NY Times:

    Early in 2022, the retired pope, who resigned as the leader of the global Catholic Church in 2013, admitted to providing false information to a German inquiry into clerical sexual abuse, while strongly denying any misconduct or intent to mislead on his part.

    In a written statement to the inquiry, he said he did not recall attending a meeting with local officials in 1980 to discuss a priest suspected of pedophilia. Yet Benedict changed that position days after reports came out accusing him during his time as archbishop of Munich, from 1977 to 1982, of mishandling the cases of four priests accused of child sexual abuse. The reports said his denial of being at the meeting lacked credibility.

      1. Doug Ross

        He was young and impressionable as a Nazi. He was an adult and corrupted by the Catholic Church when he covered up the rampant sexual abuse. Only one of those misdeed is slightly forgivable. The other should have left him in shame and not allowed him any tributes on his passing.

          1. Doug Ross

            What did he do as a 14 year old forced to join the Nazi army in 1941 until he deserted in 1945 that compares to covering up sexual abuse by pedophiles as an adult in a powerful position in the Catholic Church? There’s been no pattern of similar behavior in the church for decades, right? I mean, you never hear any jokes about Catholic priests and altar boys as much as you do about Baptist or Mormon pedophiles… I remember that movie Spotlight that covered the abuse in.. what was it… the Amish church?

            Ok, I give… being a Nazi youth is the equivalent of being a Catholic altar boy. You win.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I don’t know who you’re arguing with, because I’m not saying the things you seem to think I’m saying.

              Yeah, I saw Spotlight. I was on a panel that discussed it after it was shown at Nickelodeon.

              You know what the big, shocking reveal was in that movie? It was the fact that 6 percent of priests tended to be pedophiles, just as 6 percent of men in the general population did. And just as 6 percent of those in the Baptist denominations do, or, I assume, in Amish communities.

              And that IS a big, shocking thing. First, I find it horrifically shocking that 6 percent of men can be so unbelievably twisted and evil. Then, I find it much more horrible to consider that priests are not an exception to that. But that’s what Spotlight told us. Remember? The reporters were very surprised to find that there were multiple priests who were offenders. And then the pedophilia expert told them to expect 6 percent because that’s what it was in society at large, and they found that high number to be unbelievable, but he was close to the truth.

              So there’s that very, very shocking thing.

              Then there’s the less shocking, but disappointing, fact that the church — which is actually a religion and not a criminal justice system or mental health treatment organization — did a lousy job of dealing with the revelations, for years and years. It’s made a lot of progress, but needs to make more. And it will have to deal with the public perception that it is a unique institution in having this problem, when it absolutely is not. You know that, right? Because it sounds a bit like you don’t.

              The Church has to totally own that and deal with it. But I don’t have to take seriously people who want to make like that scandal is all the Church is, and therefore the guy who was head of the church is a monster, because he said something once on the subject that turned out not to be right. To you, someone who thinks in ones and zeroes, that’s absolute proof that he’s a lying scumbag. To me, it’s incontrovertible proof that he was yet another human…

              Was it disappointing? Yep. Does it mean that, upon his death, we should immediately cite that incident as proof that he was an utterly worthless person? Of course not. Benedict provided lots of reasons to criticize his leadership. And as I said, I’m very glad Francis is now the pope. But I don’t take one thing and wave it in the air and expect everyone to agree that he was an asshole…

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Oh, and just as I find it shocking to learn that 6 percent of men tend toward pedophilia, and that priests are no exception (which I would expect them to be), I find it hard to believe that it happens in Baptist churches. But it does

                We live in a shocking world.

              2. bud

                I agree the Catholic Church should not be judged solely on the pedophilia scandal. The former pope also fought against Same sex marriage, women in the priesthood and birth control. Plenty of terrible things to be angry about this vile institution. And to be so dismissive of the former popes handling of the scandal is pretty bad Brad. Why can’t you just condemn his terrible behavior unambiguously?

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  “The former pope also fought against Same sex marriage, women in the priesthood and birth control.”

                  No, he did not. Those things weren’t on the table, at any time. There was nothing to fight against. What an odd way to put it.

                  It’s fascinating to me the way people who are outside the church and know pretty much nothing about it not only expect this 2,000-year-old body to hold its finger to the wind and change its collective mind according to what is popular this week. And not only expect it, but get outraged and call it a “vile institution” when their impatient expectations are not met.

                  Let me point something out to you. You may not agree with this interpretation of what the church is and should be — in fact, I’m quite sure you don’t — but can you understand that the Church itself sees itself as being dedicated to truths that are, not just 2,000 years old, but eternal? Its mission over the ages has been to try to identify those truths the best it can, and not vary from them, while at the same time being open to any new revelation that might improve its understanding of such matters.

                  How could such an institution twitch to the vibrations of the moment? Why would anyone expect it to, or — and here you and I really differ — even want it to?

                  1. Brad Warthen Post author

                    You see, I might be wrong about something. The Church is capable of being wrong about something, too, although not quite as adept at it as I am.

                    But it is under a moral obligation to do its best to understand what is right and what is wrong. I am under the same obligation.

                    The key thing here is that I believe there is such a thing as right, and such a thing as wrong. I may not identify these things correctly, and I should constantly look critically at my own judgment and question whether I’m on the right track. But those things are there, whether I can see them clearly or not. And I have to try hard at all times to see them as clearly as possible.

                    Whether I’m seeing them clearly or not, they do not change. Right and wrong are what they are, regardless of what I think they are, whether we are living in the time of Emperor Claudius or in the 20th century, or today, or 2,000 years from now (assuming humans are still around to contemplate such things). They don’t change; they don’t evolve. Our understanding of them might; we might get wiser — one certainly hopes so. But right and wrong remain the same, regardless of our opinions or preferences.

                    To many in our time, these remain difficult concepts to embrace as I’m stating them, although you might on a certain level embrace them. I suspect that you believe the right to abortion has always been right, is right now, and always will be right, and you are grateful for living in an “enlightened” age when so many recognize it. Am I right? Perhaps not, but that’s seems to be what I frequently hear from folks on that side of the question.

                    Correct me if I’m wrong about the way you see it. But if I’m right, why would you expect someone, or some institution, that believes otherwise to “change with the times,” as one frequently hears?

                    1. bud

                      I don’t give a damn what the church represents or how it interprets things. It’s nothing but a sort of club that can be wrong til the cows come home. It just has no intrinsic value to me. But. When it intrudes on fundamental values in society at large then I’m compelled to speak up. When they enable pedophiles or promote corrosive policies like discouraging birth control then I feel a need to speak out. So have your rituals and nonsense if you like but don’t shove your toxic tenants down others throats.

                    2. Brad Warthen Post author

                      I won’t. I never have. I’m sorry that you have the impression that I have done so. I was trying to show you how someone else might, quite legitimately, see things differently from the way you do, without being some sort of monster. I failed.

                      We live in a time in which otherwise good people just can’t stand it when other people disagree with them. The purpose of this blog is to find a way to talk to each other that gets us past that. To my regret, I so often fail miserably…

    1. bud

      I guess I’m a bit torn between including people who were notable for their fame whether in a good or bad way. Or should this be a list of people who improved the human condition for the better. If you only include people that made the world a better place the Pope absolutely has no place on the list. But he did have an impact. Sadly his handling of the pedophilia scandal disqualifies him from any positive listing.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I tend to look at these things as a newspaper editor. Other people may speak of “good news” and “bad news,” but to me, news is news.

        And newsworthy deaths are newsworthy deaths.

        I don’t see how you might think I was going for just “people who improved the human condition” when I included Sonny Barger….


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