My Personal Edition of “The Lives They Lived”

“The Lives They Lived” is an annual end-of-the-year issue of The New York Times Sunday Magazine that tells the stories of people–some famous, some not at all–who died during the previous year.  When it appears, my wife and I read it from cover to cover, as perhaps you do.

Many more interesting men and women who lived lives of significance are not included, naturally, and so here’s my addendum, a tribute to five people who led lives of consequence:  Peter Kaufman,  Gerald Huff,  Bernice ‘Bunny’ Sandler, and two former colleagues, Brian Dowley and Mike Bowler

Peter Kaufman, a brilliant university teacher and co-author of Teaching with Compassion , was only 51 when he died in November of lung cancer. I never met Peter; his parents, Tobey and Barry, are friends and neighbors in our Manhattan apartment building, but you have only to read what his students have to say about him to understand that he led a life of consequence.  If you do nothing else today, please, please read Peter’s powerful reflection on death and dying: (here’s how it starts):

I’m dying. I don’t mean this figuratively—like I’m dying of thirst or dying to visit Hawaii. I mean it quite literally. I have incurable, stage IV lung cancer.

I was diagnosed in June 2017, a few months after my fiftieth birthday. My only symptom was a nagging, dry cough, but by the time the disease was detected the cancer had metastasized throughout my body. Since then I have had numerous treatments and interventions. Some of these worked quite well, allowing me to resume most of my normal activities; others were not as effective, resulting in adverse side effects, extreme discomfort, and, in one instance, a week-long stay in the hospital. My current treatment plan showed great initial promise but now, after just a few weeks, the tumors started growing again.      

For me to have lung cancer—indeed any form of cancer—is the epitome of a tragic irony. I have never smoked or tried illegal drugs, and I’ve never even been drunk. I’ve pursued clean living, good nutrition, and regular exercise in part to avoid the sort of medical misfortune that I am now experiencing. As a kid I played sports all day long. At sixteen I swore off junk food. At eighteen I became a vegetarian. In my twenties I ran marathons and did triathlons, and, in my thirties and forties when my aching knees no longer let me run, I swam or biked most days. About six months before my diagnosis I completed a one-day workout that simulated two-thirds of an Ironman triathlon, swimming 2.4 miles, then biking 120 miles (with 5,000 feet of climbing). A few weeks later I recorded my fastest one-mile swim time ever. I was incredibly healthy . . . until I wasn’t.

Peter Kaufman did not ‘go gently into that good night,’ but neither did he ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ Instead, he looked death in the face, turned it every which way, and thought deeply about its–and life’s–significance.

I predict that you will also find Peter’s Twitter Feed intriguing and moving.   I urge you to share these links widely

Cancer also took Gerald Huff, the author of Crisis 2038.  Gerald was only 54 when he died in November, just seven weeks after his diagnosis.  Like Peter Kaufman, Gerald Huff led a life of consequence, and–with our help–his legacy will continue.  I met Gerald only once, and then just to shake hands and exchange pleasantries.  His mother, Gisele, was and is a good friend; through Gisele I learned of her son’s accomplishments and concerns.

A libertarian who came to believe that Americans should be provided with an adequate living income as a floor to build on, Gerald was consumed by questions we all would do well to ponder: “Will society change fast enough in response to the rise of AI, automation, and robots?  If it does not, what will happen as more and more jobs disappear?”   He did more than write, of course.  He was a principal software engineer at Tesla, where he was the technical lead for the software that manages the flow of thousands of Model 3 parts throughout the factory. Before joining Tesla, Gerald was director of the Technology Innovation Group at Intuit, exploring the application of emerging technologies to solve problems in the consumer and small-business space.

After his death, his family published Crisis 2038, his thrilling novel about the impact of technology on society in 20 years.  The story forces readers think about the society our children and our children’s children will live in—and how we can shape it. The novel–reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s best work–is the culmination of a 5-year journey, and its publication was the focus of his final days. Gerald is survived by his wife, Judy, and his two children, Paul and Jane.  You can buy the book here.

When Bernice Sandler was a schoolgirl in the 1930s and ’40s, she was annoyed that she was not allowed to do things that boys could do, like be a crossing guard, fill the inkwells or operate the slide projector.  That’s the lead sentence of Dr. Sandler’s obituary in The New York Times.

Bernice “Bunny” Sandler is widely acknowledged to have been the driving force behind Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972, sometimes called ‘that damned sports law’ by people opposed to equal rights and opportunities for women.  To be completely forthright, I remember that I created as many opportunities as I could to interview Bunny for my weekly NPR radio program, ‘Options in Education,’ which ran from 1974 to 1982.  She was always engaging, honest, relevant, challenging, and provocative; at the time I had two infant daughters, and Bunny was teaching me what their futures could and should be.

(Bunny passed away at the age of 90 early in January of this year, and so her story technically belongs in next year’s New York Times Sunday Magazine, but I am not willing  to wait till then to celebrate her life of consequence.)

The Times obituary continues:  When she was older, teaching part-time at the University of Maryland, she was told that she wasn’t being hired for a full-time job because “you come on too strong for a woman.” Another interviewer complained that women stayed home when their children were sick. Another rejected her by saying that she was “just a housewife who went back to school.”

By that time, which was 1969, Dr. Sandler was more than annoyed. She was good and mad. And that led her to become the driving force behind the creation of Title IX, the sweeping civil rights law of 1972 that barred sex discrimination by educational institutions that received federal funding.

Bunny’s obit ends this way:  In a 2007 article, she concluded that Title IX had precipitated a social revolution comparable to the Industrial Revolution. Women and men, she said, “are far closer to equal than they have ever been in the history of the world.”

But, Dr. Sandler added, “We have only taken the very first steps of what will be a very long journey.”

Brian Dowley was one of the best cameramen I ever worked with in my 33 years in television.  He was hard-working, intelligent, focused, and positive. Television is a team sport, and Brian was the ultimate team player.  Even though he was taking the video, Brian knew that sound was at least as important as his pictures;  some call TV ‘sound with pictures,’ and that’s not far from the truth.  So Brian always listened carefully to what was being recorded and took care to capture images and events that worked with the sound.  Some cameramen think they’re driving the train, and they pull the sound recordist away from what he or she is focusing on. Brian never did that, and, as a result, we often came away with riveting material.

Brian was only 67 when he died of leukemia this past August on Martha’s Vineyard, the island where he had grown up.  I visited Brian a few months earlier in Cambridge, where he and his wife, Mimi Michaelson, were living.  He had been battling the disease for years and was living in as sterile an environment as humanly possible.  I donned a mask and all sorts of other sterile clothing and sat as far away from Brian as possible.  Sick as he was, Brian was positive and upbeat, and he and I laughed about memorable shoots we had been on, including several remarkable days in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Here’s more about this wonderful man, from his obituary in The Boston Globe:

Brian was well known in Boston film circles as a Director of Photography for over 35 years working on dozens of documentaries and narratives films for NOVA, American Experience, Frontline as well as independent documentaries. He was a life long hockey player and a highly respected coach for Cambridge Youth Hockey where a scholarship for young hockey players was established in his name: Brian graduated from the Darrow School and received his BFA and MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. 

And finally, Michael H. Bowler, another good friend from education reporting.  Mike was 77 when he died–also of cancer.

He spent most of his career at The Baltimore Sun, which reported his death.  After leaving reporting to become an editor, Mike served on his local school board.  He was a true fan and supporter of public education.  Here’s one graf from the obit:

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who has been president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County since 1992, also was a friend for decades.  “When I think of Mike Bowler, I think of the best of journalism and humanity. The man cared so much about education, people, teachers and children,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “He taught us to tell the truth on all occasions and to live authentically. I think of his great sense of humor, smile and laughter, and we will never forget that which reflected a very serious and generous spirit.”

Dr. Hrabowski got it right.  Mike’s big and boisterous–and ever-present–laugh made everyone around him feel better, and I have no doubt that his genuine good humor and positivity also helped even the most cantankerous people work for the common good.

Dr. Hrabowski delivered the eulogy at Mike’s memorial service, which was–fittingly–held in a public school and was–also fittingly–packed with friends and admirers from education, politics, journalism, and his church.  I worked closely with Mike for many years, and it was he who provided the driving energy that saved the Education Writers Association when it came close to folding nearly 40 years ago.  Although I knew Mike for well over 40 years, I only learned about his fascinating back story when I visited him last summer–including this:  His father, Clyde Hendrix Phillips, who was a newspaperman on the Helena Daily Independent, died of leukemia when his wife, Edeen Elizabeth Carlson, a homemaker and musician, was pregnant with their son.  His father’s newsroom colleague, Duane Wilson “Doc” Bowler, later married his friend’s widow and adopted Mr. Bowler. 

So, there you have it.  My version of “The Lives They Lived,” five stories of people I know made the world around them a better place.   Please remember Peter Kaufman, Gerald Huff, Bunny Sandler, Brian Dowley, and Mike Bowler, and perhaps write your own version of “The Lives They Lived” about others The New York Times missed…and share it with others.  Above all, let’s resolve to live lives of consequence.

2 thoughts on “My Personal Edition of “The Lives They Lived”

  1. John:

    Very nice piece. I too was fond of Bunny and Mike. If I have it correctly CBS Sunday Morning did a piece a few weeks ago on Bunny just after she died. They showed a picture of her with Sam. Boy, did that bring back memories.

    Hope all is well with you.

    All the best




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