Dead Folks 2010: Innovators, Sportsmen, and Politics
Inventors and Innovators
Fran Lee (99)
A fiery consumer advocate responsible for New York City’s adoption of pooper-scooper laws in 1978, Fran Lee initially opposed the ordinance, believing it to be too lenient as she denounced notions of dogs being allowed to desecrate the city. Though dog waste may be her claim to fame, Lee appeared on local and national radio and TV programming from the 1940s through the 1990s, playing characters such as Mrs. Fix-It, Mrs. Consumer, and Granny Fanny as she doled out consumer tips. She once appeared on “The Steve Allen Show,” and she taught Allen how to make a bikini from a tattered sweater. She acted in off-Broadway plays and had a small role as a Macy’s customer in Miracle on 34th Street.
After immersing herself in public health and safety issues, she went all out. Her son told the New York Times: “She had the elevator man in each of her buildings bring her all the medical journals that were being thrown out by the doctors in the building. So she had files on spider bites, ticks, all sorts of diseases.” He added that he could overhear his mother—a staunch atheist—talking to herself in her final years, when she would mutter, “God, when I get to see you, am I going to tell you a thing or two.”—ER
Fred Morrison (90)
Visit the beach in Santa Monica, California, on any given afternoon, and more than likely you will see Frisbees being tossed. That’s fitting, because the flying disc’s inventor was selling “Flyin’ Cake Pans” there before eventually creating a plastic version known as “Flyin-Saucer” with investor Warren Franscioni in the late 1940s. A former World War II fighter pilot, Morrison was determined to improve the disc’s aerodynamic qualities, which he did after parting ways with Franscioni. Specifically noted in Morrison’s U.S. patent is the outer third of the disc, known as the “Morrison Slope.” By the mid-1950s Morrison’s new and improved version, “The Pluto Platter,” caught the attention of entrepreneurs at Wham-O, the toy company responsible for the Hula Hoop, the Super Ball, and other iconic toys. Ed Headrick, (later owner of the Disc Golf Association), further improved the design by adding stabilizing concentric rings at the disc’s edge (known as the “Rings of Headrick”). The new name was coined when Wham-O reps learned that college kids in New England referred to the Pluto Platters as “Frisbies” after the Frisbie Pie Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. That company’s cake pans were already being used as makeshift toys. The Wham-O legal counsel naturally insisted on altering the spelling to “Frisbee.”
The whole process, instigated by Morrison’s idea to capitalize on the era’s flying saucer craze, made him a millionaire. He wasn’t the only one who got rich. Before selling the name and design for Frisbee to Mattell, Wham-O sold approximately 100 million discs.—DP
Elizabeth Post (89)
Is it proper to talk about the deceased while comforting a bereaved survivor? Are floral patterns appropriate to wear at a funeral? Is it okay to bring a date? You’ve missed your chance to ask Elizabeth Post, who succeeded her grandmother-in-law Emily Post as America’s leading expert on manners. She enjoyed a long career that included frequently revising the book Emily Post’s Etiquette. Elizabeth also kept a column under her own name that ran in Good Housekeeping for 25 years. Known as “Libby” to her pals, she had a notably relaxed notion about the etiquette industry. She mostly believed in respect and consideration as a way to bring people closer together. She was on the front lines of dealing with things like wedding showers for unwed mothers—so it’s pretty impressive she lived as long as she did.—JRT
Glenn Walters (85)
Many people can curse Glenn Walters as the inventor of cubicles. At the very least, he was a major figure behind the workplace innovation. Back in 1966, his vision was more about the concept of movable walls. Still, it was inevitable that his big idea would be turned into little boxes for office employees. Cubicles made a success of Walters, who started out as a salesman for the Herman Miller furniture company. He retired as the company’s president in 1982.
Walters might not have even noticed how his dehumanizing eight foot by eight foot enclosures (if you’re lucky) became a touchstone of Generation X revolt a decade later—and soon had hip corporations embracing an open office workplace as a fashionable option. You can still thank him for absurdist humor ranging from the “Dilbert” comic strip to the cult film Office Space. He should also get credit for that cute picture of a cubicle dolled up like a gingerbread house that someone emailed you last week.
This is also a good time to salute UAB employee David Gunnells, who was the winner of Wired magazine’s 2007 competition for America’s Saddest Cubicle. Revenge is yours, sir.—JRT
Morrie Yohai (89)
You might think of them as a trashy Southern tradition, but Cheez Doodles—marketed under the Wise Foods banner in the mid-1960s—originated in the Bronx under the eye of Morrie Yohai. His company was later absorbed by Borden, who promptly moved the product to their affiliate’s potato chip division. The cheese-flavored corn snack was a Cheetos knock-off, but the Cheez Doodles brand has continued to prosper. Yohai did pretty well for himself, going on to work with Borden’s snack food division on (the predominantly East Coast–preferred) Drake’s Cakes and (the universally beloved) Cracker Jack. Yohai always insisted that the invention of Cheez Doodles was a group effort, but he conceded that he invented the name. He certainly embraced his proud heritage—passing away in the New York home that his wife of over 50 years described as “the house that Cheez Doodles bought.”—JRT
Alexander Haig (85)
A veteran of the the Korean and Vietnam Wars, former U.S. Army General Alexander Haig was perhaps best known for wrongly declaring himself to be in charge of the country in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. It was the first of several controversial episodes that prompted Reagan to fire him after Haig was appointed Secretary of State. (He pronounced himself “the vicar of foreign policy” after accepting the post.) He took over H. R. Haldeman’s position as President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff as Watergate began to unravel and is widely credited with keeping the government functioning during Nixon’s final days.
Noted for his staunch anticommunist posture, Haig readily admitted to feeling that way at a young age in a 2000 interview with Fox’s James Rosen: “I started out as a Cold Warrior, even my last years in grade school. I used to read everything I could get on communism. In fact, the first paper I wrote as a plebe at West Point caused a major upheaval in the faculty, because I predicted that our next enemy was the Soviet Union. . . . It was during the war [World War II], when we were allies. . . . I was viewed with some suspicion by the social sciences department.” Later in the interview, he knocked his old boss Reagan: “There ain’t anybody else in America that I know that has quit three presidents—but I have. And I quit Ronald Reagan for exactly that reason. He’s sitting there, not knowing what the hell was going on, and he had [Deputy Chief of Staff Mike] Deaver and [Chief of Staff James] Baker and Mrs. Reagan running the government!”—ER
James Kilpatrick (89)
Like many Southerners before him, political writer and pundit James Kilpatrick finally realized that the racial discrimination he once championed was simply wrong. As the editor of the Richmond News Leader in the 1950s and ’60s, Kilpatrick was a fervent segregationist who in editorials espoused states’ rights and separation of the races. In 1963, he submitted an article to the Saturday Evening Post titled “The Hell He Is Equal,” writing that the “Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race.” The Post pulled the article out of sensitivity to the deaths of four young black girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. By the late ’60s, Kilpatrick began to repent.
Kilpatrick became a conservative political TV star for his in-your-face debating prowess on the CBS “60 Minutes” segment “Point-Counterpoint.” He verbally jousted with liberal opponents, the most memorable instances being snide exchanges between him and liberal Shana Alexander. Kilpatrick and his colleagues called their debates “a political form of professional wrestling.” The pair was parodied by Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd on “Saturday Night Live” during Weekend Update sketches.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy was a neighbor and friend of Kilpatrick’s. “The man is not locked into a mold. He’s not just the curmudgeon you see on TV,” McCarthy told The Washington Post in 1973, adding that Kilpatrick had “kind of a country manor style.”
My favorite things that Kilpatrick wrote were his weekly syndicated columns on grammar and word usage in the Birmingham News each Sunday. He mercilessly scolded, scoffed at, and corrected writers who committed grammatical sins in print. I was once inspired to send him an email praising him after he relentlessly shamed a writer for misusing the word “shimmy” when the scribe wrote of someone who “shimmied up a pole.” Kilpatrick admonished, correcting the mistake with the pointed barbs and verbal skill of a master swordsman when he informed that “shinny” is the correct verb to represent such an action. “Shimmy” is more correctly used to define the intense shaking in the front end of an automobile. I shared with Kilpatrick that I first heard the word “shimmy” used by my father to describe the intense vibrations from the engine of our 1967 Chevelle. The next morning, Kilpatrick had already responded, writing:
Dear Mr. Reynolds,
Many thanks for your note. We have a good deal in common. I’m 84. I learned to drive under my father’s tutelage in a Studebaker sedan, and thus learned all about shimmy. This was in 1934 or thereabouts. Great car, but—
You could do me a favor if sometime, when you’re thinking about my column, you could drop a note to the News editor saying you enjoy my pearls of wisdom. Nothing helps a columnist quite so much as a few letters from readers, writ by hand.
James J. Kilpatrick
I remain forever amused that a writer of Kilpatrick’s prominence asked me to dash off a note to the editor of a newspaper that ran his column to tell them what a great job Kilpatrick was doing.—ER
“Dandy Don” Meredith (72)
For nine seasons “Dandy Don” Meredith was quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, later making a name for himself as part of the original Monday Night Football broadcasting team. Meredith was commentator Howard Cosell’s comic foil for 12 years. His ever-present smile, effervescent personality, and down-home humor made him popular with viewers. One of his favorite quips was the night he was working a game in Denver. “Welcome to Mile High Stadium—and I really am,” he said.—Ed Reynolds
George Steinbrenner (80)
Noted for his demanding, outspoken demeanor, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was the first professional sports franchise owner to pay outrageously large salaries to players. Building a baseball dynasty second to none, Steinbrenner was renowned for firing and rehiring managers, with hothead Billy Martin taking five turns managing the team. The revolving door of personnel changes earned the Yankees the nickname “the Bronx Zoo.” During his college years, Steinbrenner flirted with coaching football and was an assistant coach to Woody Hayes at Ohio State the year the Buckeyes were the undefeated national champions. Before acquiring the Yankees in 1973, he dabbled in producing Broadway plays.—ER
Bobby Thomson (86)
Born in Scotland, Bobby Thomson moved to the United States at age two. His game-winning home run—known as “the shot heard ’round the world”—lifted the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers in a 1951 playoff game to secure the National League pennant. It was later confirmed that the 1951 Giants employed telescopes to steal the pitching signals that opposing catchers gave to pitchers.—ER
John Wooden (99)
Known as the “Wizard of Westwood,” John Wooden is considered the greatest basketball coach in college history; his UCLA Bruins won 10 national championships in 12 years, including 7 in a row. No collegiate team dominated a sport the way UCLA did basketball with Wooden at the helm, spawning two of the greatest names to play the game: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. His teams were noted for their merciless full-court press on defense. Wooden always described his job as teacher, not coach. Abdul-Jabbar wrote in the New York Times in 2000, “He broke basketball down to its basic elements. . . . He always told us basketball was a simple game, but his ability to make the game simple was part of his genius.”—ER