Departures you might have missed: Notable obituaries of 2014

From a beloved Mexican comedian to the woman who brought hula into modernity, these people changed the world around them

If you ever played “Pong,” you have this man to thank. Ralph Baer, a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in 2009, holding a prototype of the first video game console, which he invented. He died Dec. 6, 2014.
Jens Wolf / AP

Ralph Baer

March 8, 1922 – Dec. 6, 2014

In 1955, a young engineer working for an electronics firm in New York was asked to build “the best television set ever.” His subsequent self-described “epiphany” was television gaming. It could be a massive moneymaker, he believed, as well as a way to make these increasingly pervasive machines interactive. He asked, but Ralph Baer was turned down.

Baer was born in Germany only a few years after the end of World War I. His family fled to the United States in 1938. During the next war Baer worked for military intelligence. After the war, he was awarded one of the first bachelor's degrees in television engineering.  

By 1971, television manufacturer Magnavox began production of the Odyssey model 1TL200, a version of Baer’s Brown Box, the first interactive gaming console. By decade’s end, it had sold several thousand units, inspiring fledgling gaming company Atari to design Pong, and nothing was ever the same. Baer was a National Medal of Technology recipient and member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He died in December, age 92.

Puppeteer Bob Baker surrounded by some of his creations in 1997. His Bob Baker Marionette Theater was a Los Angeles legend.
Susan Sterner / AP

Bob Baker

Feb. 9, 1924 – Nov. 28, 2014

Virtually every remembrance of Bob Baker described him as a legend. A puppeteer from the age of 5, Baker was an early television pioneer. Along with partner Alton Wood, Baker founded the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in 1963.  

In addition to making marionettes and giving live performances, Baker worked on hundreds of films, including Walt Disney’s “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” 

During a lifetime of entertaining children, Baker noticed that some things never change. “Kids will always hug the puppets,” he said in 2005. “They think the puppet is alive.”

Baker died in November, age 90, of natural causes.

Gary Becker in 1992 after he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. He looked at the economics of discrimination, education and family.
Brian Bahr / AFP / Getty Images

Gary Becker

Dec. 2, 1930 – May 3, 2014

Gary Becker was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1992 “for having extended the domain of microeconomic analysis to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including nonmarket behavior.” Fellow Nobel laureate James Heckman was typically unreserved in his praise. “He was a creative mind,” Heckman said, “and he ranged in his thinking across a large set of issues — the economics of education and skill formation, economics of discrimination, law and economics, the economics of social interactions and economics of the family.”

Many of these subjects — discrimination, social and familial interactions — were seen as irrational before Becker’s work. He published “The Economics of Discrimination” in 1957, “Human Capital” in 1964 and “A Treatise on the Family” in 1981. Each of these works applied economic analysis to its subject, not without controversy. “For a long time, my type of work was either ignored or strongly disliked by most of the leading economists,” Becker wrote.

Gary Becker went on to have a distinguished career as an author, economist and educator. He died in May at the age of 83.

Poet and feminist Simin Behbahani, known as “the Lioness of Iran,” in 2007 in front of a banner reading, “1 million signatures to change the biased laws,” a reference to the inequalities women face under Islamic law. She wrote about everything from poverty to her plastic surgery.
Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty Images

Simin Behbahani

July 20, 1927 – Aug. 19, 2014

The first poem Simin Behbahani wrote, at the age of 14, was published in a local newspaper. She composed in the style of the old Iranian masters like Rumi, but her words were spoken in a modern voice. During the country’s violent revolution and subsequent governmental crackdown in 1979, she managed this unflinching verse:

I can’t look: a corpse lies on the ground,
its horrifying outline punctuated by bullets,
the swamp bubbles that were his eyes
expelled from their sockets,
emptied of all joy and sadness,
separated from all hatred and love.

Still, Behbahani maintained a fierce love of her country, despite its various regimes and extended conflicts, until her death in August, age 87. She wrote about poverty, prostitution and her own plastic surgery with equal passion, becoming known as “the lioness of Iran.”

"My Country, I will build you again,'' she once wrote. "If need be, with bricks made from my life/I will build columns to support your roof/ If need be, with my bones.''

Beloved Mexican comedian Robert Gómez Bolaño, who was known as Chespirito, as one of his characters, El Chapulin Colorado.
Televisa / AP

Roberto Gómez Bolaños

Feb. 21, 1929 – Nov. 28, 2014  

Roberto Gómez Bolaños was more commonly known as Chespirito, and under this name the beloved Mexican comedian entertained on television for decades. He played a boy who lived in a barrel and a superhero called the Crimson Grasshopper. 

Chespirito, a name that roughly translates to “Little Shakespeare,” wrote in a clean style, reminiscent of the physical comedies of the 1930s. “I always tried to be as concise as possible, all to try and reach everyone,” he said, “but especially the simple people, those who needed to be reached more than anyone else.”

Bolanos got his start as a television scriptwriter. By the 1960s he was creating popular sketch-comedy characters, and in 1970 he was given his own program. Chespirito continued to entertain until the mid-1990s. He died in November.

“Mexico has lost an icon whose work has transcended generations and borders,” Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said in a statement after the comedian’s death.

Alice Coachmen clears the bar at 5 feet to win the running high jump at the Women’s National Track Meet in Grand Rapids, Iowa, in 1948. That year she became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

Alice Coachman

Nov. 9, 1923 – July 14, 2014

Alice Coachman  won an Olympic gold medal after her first high jump at the 1948 London Olympics. She was awarded her medal by King George VI, was recognized by then-President Harry Truman and had a party thrown for her by jazz great Count Basie, but when she returned home to Georgia the audience gathered to honor her was segregated, the mayor wouldn’t shake her hand, and she had to leave by a side door.

She was the first African-American woman to win Olympic gold.

Segregation also forced Coachman to train on her own, improvising with sticks and running in open grassy fields.

“I made a difference among the blacks, being one of the leaders,” she said in 1996. “If I had gone to the games and failed, there wouldn’t be anyone to follow in my footsteps.”

Because of World War II, Coachman was not able to compete before 1948, nor did she appear in subsequent Olympics.  She went on to become an educator and coach, and died in July, age 90.

Thousands around the globe mourned the death of Aloha Dalire, who made sure that the traditional hula made its way into the modern era.
Merrie Monarch Festival

Kumu Hula Aloha Dalire

June 22, 1950 – Aug. 6, 2014

Kumu Hula Aloha Dalire brought Hawaii’s hulu tradition into the modern era. She began her studies under hula master George Na’ope at the age of 3, and in 1971 was crowned the Merrie Monarch Festival’s first Miss Hula.

“I don’t think at that time anybody really realized it was a hula competition,” she remembered. “It was everybody just being there and hula becoming alive again and everybody having a great time.”

Dalire’s three daughters — Kapualokeokalaniakea, Kau’imaiokalaniakea and Keolalaulani — have continued the tradition of dance and song, each winning Miss Aloha titles in their own right.

Dalire danced “from the heart,” remembered friend and fellow dancer Lani-Girl Kaleiki-AhLo.

“When she danced, you could feel the love inside and see the joy on her face that radiated from inside.”

Dalire died in August, age 64.

Isabelle Collin Dufresne, left, and Andy Warhol in New York City in 1968. She was a muse and an assistant to Salvador Dalí when he introduced her to Warhol. Not long after, she was known as Ultra Violet, one of his Factory superstars.
Tim Boxer / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Ultra Violet

Sept. 6, 1935 – June 14, 2014

Isabelle Collin Dufresne was better known as Ultra Violet, having been given that name by pop artist Andy Warhol when she became one of his superstars. She had already been an assistant and muse to Salvador Dali since the early 1950s. After her rechristening, she died her hair violet and starred in several of Warhol’s more explicit experimental films as well as a string of B movies, including “Curse of the Headless Horseman.”

A near-death experience in 1973 caused Ultra Violet to abandon a life of excess and become a Christian. Not long ago, she was asked for a short autobiography and provided this:

1935 - I was born a mystical child.
1940 - I was raised in France at the Sacred Heart Catholic convent, where I became rebellious.
1950 - I was exorcised at age 15.
1951 - I was sent to a correction home at the age of 16.
1968 - I burned my bra as a sign of rebellion.
1972 - I questioned the masculinity imbued in religion and scriptures.
1998 - I had absorbed and accepted the gender differences.
Present - I believe Jesus Christ to be the Messiah and the Savior of the world.

Dufresne, who never stopped calling herself Ultra Violet, died of cancer.

Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, whose testimony led to the execution of her and her husband, Julius Rosenberg, for giving atomic secrets to the Soviets. Many historians later concluded that Ethel Rosenberg’s role had been exaggerated.
Henry Griffin / AP

David Greenglass

March 2, 1922 – July 1, 2014

His name might as well have been Notorious. It was his 1951 testimony that largely condemned his sister Ethel Rosenberg to death for sharing atomic secrets with the Soviet Union. Greenglass, who previously admitted his participation as a co-conspirator, served only 10 years. His sister and her husband, Julius Rosenberg, died in the electric chair.

Greenglass later admitted to lying under pressure about the extent of his sister’s role. 

“As a spy who turned his family in … I don’t care,” he said.  “I sleep well.” He died in July, after living in a nursing home under an assumed name.

BKS Iyengar is credited with popularizing yoga in the West.
Lyn Alweis / Denver Post / Getty Images

BKS Iyengar

Dec. 14, 1918 – Aug. 20, 2014

“I set off in yoga 70 years ago when ridicule, rejection and outright condemnation were the lot of a seeker through yoga even in its native land of India,” wrote guru BKS Iyengar.  By the time of his death in August, Iyengar was credited with almost single-handedly helping to popularize yoga in the West.  He developed his own practice and ultimately set up more than 100 institutes bearing his name.

A sickly child, afflicted at different times with typhoid, malaria and tuberculosis, Iyengar credited the ancient practice with saving his life. He spent his early life mastering the art of attaining positions and breath control, and was introduced to the world outside India by violinist Yehudi Menuhin in the 1950s. 

Despite attaining celebrity status, Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar stayed grounded.  “How can you know God,” he would ask his students, “if you don’t know your big toe?"

Martin Litton, rowing the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon in 1991. A conservationist whose motto was “To compromise is to lose,” he helped keep dams out of the canyon.
Tom Bean / Corbis

Martin Litton

Feb. 13, 1917 – Nov. 30, 2014

Martin Litton was a white-maned, loud, lifelong conservationist. He worked tirelessly to conserve the Colorado River, a river he boated in wooden dories well into his ninth decade.

“When you compromise nature, nature gets compromised,” he once noted. “It’s gone. It’s hurt. It’s injured. You gain nothing back ever. 

Friends and colleagues remembered Litton as fierce, cantankerous and entirely committed to the conservationist cause.

“To compromise is to lose,” he said.

His work in the late 1960s helped establish the Redwood National Park, and he later pushed to expand the park by scores of thousands more acres. He kept dams out of the Grand Canyon and ski resorts out of the Sierras. David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, called Litton “my environmental conscience.” Martin Litton died in December at the age of 97.

After his suicide, friends of Xu Lizhi worked to make sure his poetry was translated and published.

Xu Lizhi

1990 – Sept. 30, 2014

After his death, Xu Lizhi became known as a poet. Before that, he spent most of young adult life working in a Foxconn factory in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, making Apple iPhones. 

Xu looked for employment elsewhere — his dream was to become a librarian — but was frustrated in these efforts, as he was by a brief move to Suzhou to look for work. He returned to Foxconn on Sept. 29. On the last day of that month he jumped out of a window of a residential dormitory. He was 24.

“They’ve trained me to become docile,” he wrote in a poem, “I Fall Asleep, Just Standing Like That”:

Don’t know how to shout or rebel
How to complain or denounce
Only how to silently suffer exhaustion 

After his death, Xu’s friends collected his work, getting some of it translated into English.

Bunny Yeager in 2013 with a camera similar to the one she used when she worked as a pinup photographer in the 1950s and ’60s, making famous the likes of Bettie Page.
Lynne Sladky / AP

Bunny Yeager

March 13, 1929 – May 25, 2014

Diane Arbus once described Bunny Yeager as “the world’s greatest pinup photographer.” Yeager perhaps most famously took photographs of actress and model Bettie Page, whose straight black bangs, winsome smile and curvy figure made her an icon. Yeager, a model herself, designed the bikinis her subjects wore and had little problem getting some of them to wear nothing at all.

“Most girls were afraid if a man approached them,” she said. “They had no fears with me.”

Yeager’s work was simple, carefully lit and cleanly composed. Her models appeared poised and confident of their sexuality.

“I’m not doing it to titillate anybody’s interests,” she said. “I want to show off how beautiful my subjects are, whether it’s a cheetah or a live girl or two of them together.”

At the time, the mid 1950s, doing such things was considered taboo. Undaunted, Yeager elevated the erotic to art.

Bunny Yeager died in Miami. She was 85.

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