Dead Folks: Trailblazers & Entrepreneurs
A look at some of the notable individuals who passed away in 2008.
If you can just get your mind together,
Then come on across to me.
We’ll hold hands and then we’ll watch the sunrise
From the bottom of the sea.
But first, are you experienced?
Have you ever been experienced?
Well, I have.
Albert Hofmann didn’t say that; Jimi Hendrix did. But in the case of Dr. Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in 1938, actions speak louder than words. His was the original experience, the first time being the accidental absorption through his skin of a small portion of the substance in 1943 at Sandoz, a Swiss pharmaceutical firm. After a few hours of colors and visions and other sensations he couldn’t describe, Hofmann determined that LSD had induced a temporary and profound psychological reaction. On April 19, 1943, Hofmann dosed himself with a small amount of LSD, then recorded in his lab journal that he began feeling the simultaneous sensations of “anxiety, and the desire to laugh.” Anticipating even stronger reactions, Hofmann returned home on his bicycle. It was some trip, and not a very pleasant one.
It wasn’t long before Sandoz was issuing samples of LSD to medical researchers, psychiatrists, and various experts in the field of mental illness. A body of research grew over the next decade, much of which indicated that LSD warranted further examination as a valuable tool in treating addictions, personality disorders, and various mental afflictions.
Meanwhile Hofmann’s research continued apace, leading to the synthesis of psilocybin, the psychedelic component in certain varieties of mushrooms, and the discovery of lysergic acid amide and lysergic acid hydroxyethylamide in a Mexican morning glory vine, Ololiuqui.
All of that coincided with the emergence of a young counterculture that was questioning social mores, values, and the reliability of individual perception. The idea that taking an ostensibly harmless drug that assisted one in “breaking through to the other side,” well, that warranted further examination as well—according to Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary.
Leary’s promotional efforts for psychedelics may have been sincere, but the flamboyance—and often arrogance—with which he encouraged the use of drugs to achieve “higher consciousness” established ground zero for a new conflict: the establishment versus youth/drug culture. LSD lost that battle in 1966 when it was outlawed, and Leary’s subsequent catchphrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out” merely guaranteed that LSD would remain a controlled substance. Hofmann often expressed keen disappointment with that turn of events, once telling Leary in person that the self-styled guru’s exploits were responsible for the prohibition of LSD.
From his earliest research into psychedelic chemicals, Hofmann’s conviction was that the mystical and spiritual experiences either mimicked or induced by LSD and psilocybin should remain in the serious realm of a search for enlightenment. What he envisioned as a sacred journey, too many recreational users saw as a one-way ticket to wig city. Hofmann frequently adopted a capital R Romantic stance in this regard; he declared that the modern, materialist world was too much with us, and so this Wordsworth of the pharmaceutical lab urged the responsibly applied therapeutic principles of mind-blowing chemicals. He often urged friends and colleagues to take LSD and then contemplate flowers in a garden. He went so far as to suggest that psychedelics could ultimately reveal to the human race its authentic nature, “what we are supposed to be,” as he phrased it. Or getting back to Hendrix, “Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful . . .” (102, heart attack.) —DP
Sir Edmund Hillary
On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. This was later embarrassing for Hillary Clinton. She tried to convince a Nepalese audience that she was named for the famous explorer who didn’t really become particularly famous until six years after her birth.
Hillary himself was a lot more sincere in his devotion to the region. The native New Zealander continued adventuring right through the 1980s—including a flight with Neil Armstrong to the North Pole—but also spent much of his life financing the Himalayan Trust to benefit the people of Nepal.
Hillary enjoyed plenty of celebrity, beginning with a knighthood granted in the same year as his ascent. He always remained a favorite son of New Zealand and a popular international figure. Hillary also wisely marked his Everest triumph with a pithy quote, informing fellow climber George Lowe, “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.” (88, heart failure) —JRT
Stuhlinger was one of hundreds of Nazi rocket scientists behind the German V-2 missile program who surrendered and emigrated to the United States at the end of Word War II. He played the somber, behind-the-scenes genius to the more flamboyant Wernher von Braun as the pair developed the Saturn V rocket that launched men to the Moon. Stuhlinger was essentially von Braun’s right-hand man, his most valued assistant. When America launched its first orbiting satellite, Explorer (in response to the Soviets’ Sputnik satellite), Stuhlinger created an ingenious timing device that allowed him to press the command button at the precise time needed to fire the second rocket stage that put Explorer into orbit. His contribution earned him the nickname “the man with the golden finger.” (94, natural causes) —ER
Richard Knerr and his pal Arthur “Spud” Melin, both USC graduates living in Pasadena and looking for the fast track to fame and fortune, started a toy/gadget company in Knerr’s garage in 1948. Their company, Wham-O Manufacturing, made a decent slingshot but not much else. It took about a decade for the entrepreneurs to realize it, but Wham-O’s future would be determined not so much by products as by demographics. The Baby Boom was working in their favor. Children were everywhere, and consumerism was in full force. Show the kids something neat, swell, or cool, and their money was yours.
Enter the Hula Hoop, first marketed by Wham-O in early 1957 and immediately recognized as an out-of-control fad. Knerr and Melin sold 100 million units in roughly two years, after which Knerr claimed they couldn’t give them away. By definition, a fad doesn’t last, but with almost $50 million in profits, Knerr was okay with that. The template was in place; wow your audience, and demand will take care of itself. (Knerr often claimed that the ideal product was any item that had kids screaming, “What’s that?!”)
By 1958, Wham-O was producing or marketing all kinds of “what’s that?!” gadgets. It was the golden era of being a kid, so sales were reinforced by ads on afternoon and Saturday morning TV and through displays at every dime store in the land. The price for most items made it easy for moms to acquiesce when a visit to Woolworth’s brought the inevitable request for a Slip & Slide, a Superball, Silly String, or a Frisbee.
With the market for fun practically in his lap, Knerr even found ways to bounce, as it were, Wham-O fads off other fads. California was ground zero for beach music and drag racing in the 1960s, so the Wham-O Wheelie Bar, ideal for the sleek new banana-seat Schwinn bikes, hit the stores just when Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys were hitting the charts. The Wheelie Bar TV ad and product package employed music and images associated with hot-rod culture. This kind of marketing dream lasted only as long as its demographic stayed young. Though it’s easy to regard much of Wham-O’s success as fad-driven, it’s worth noting that Knerr passed away after seeing the Frisbee mark its 60th anniversary. (82, stroke.) —DP
Hardee ended up earning little money from the Hardee’s restaurant chain he founded. He sold his share in his burger namesake (which included five franchise locations at the time) in 1963 for $37,000 amid rumors that he had lost controlling interest during a poker game with his new business partners. In 1960, already an established success with a dozen other restaurant ventures, he opened his first Hardee’s drive-in in Greenville, North Carolina. The place had no tables or waiters, and “char-broiled” hamburgers sold for 15 cents—the same price as his milkshakes. Hardee went on to earn a small fortune with other food enterprises. (89) —ER
The founder of the Carl’s Jr. fast-food hamburger chain got his start in the restaurant business when he spent $326 in 1941 to open a Los Angeles hot dog stand. In 1945, he opened his first full-service restaurant, Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue, in Anaheim, California. In 1956, he began opening Carl’s Jr. restaurants, which eventually numbered more than 1,000 worldwide. An outspoken political conservative, Karcher was often at war with the gay community after he urged the firing of homosexual schoolteachers and all who defended them. Karcher, who fathered a dozen children with his wife of 66 years, rubbed elbows with Presidents Nixon and Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bob Hope, and Pope John Paul II.
In 1981, Karcher took the company public, allowing it to expand from the existing 300 locations. He was later accused of insider trading. He forked over $600,000 in fines but never admitted any guilt. In 1993, after years of clashes with the company’s board of directors, Karcher was ousted as CEO. He could only watch from the sidelines as the company began running provocative TV ads starring Dennis Rodman and Paris Hilton that clashed with Karcher’s conservative beliefs. In 1997, Carl’s Jr.’s parent company, CKE Restaurants, purchased the Hardee’s chain. (90, Parkinson’s disease) —ER
Gygax help create Dungeons & Dragons, the seminal role-playing game where a fantasy universe evolved into actual role-playing instead of being confined to the pages of books such as those by J.R.R. Tolkien. An experienced creator of board games, Gygax later criticized interactive computer-based games because participants did not have to rely on their imaginations. (69, abdominal aneurysm) —ER &