People who died

Dec 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

Michael Jackson was only 50 when he died on June 25. Claude Lévi-Strauss was 100 when he passed on Oct. 30. Jackson was undoubtedly the more famous of the two, a household name all over the planet, and the ludicrous hype of his later career and his tabloid notoriety don't dim the appeal of the millions of records he sold, even now. Anthropologist Lévi-Strauss's name is known to a small fraction of the planet's better-educated citizens, but few 20th-century thinkers have as profoundly influenced the way we understand ourselves as a species. Can it be said that one or the other's influence was greater, or that his life mattered more?

Maybe it could, but we're not gonna start that argument here. The point is: Fame does not necessarily equal influence in the grand scheme of things. Plenty of people who were famous in one way or another died over the course of 2009 with all the fanfare befitting their Q ratings: TV-news clips, prominent print obituaries, various OMGs and RIPs on Twitter, etc. Ted Kennedy, Farrah Fawcett, John Updike, Merce Cunningham, David Carradine, Steve McNair, Robert S. McNamara, Walter Cronkite, John Hughes, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Les Paul — the list goes on. But we're taking a moment to remember a few of the less celebrated citizens of the world who helped shape it in a way disproportionate to their renown. They each deserve a public RIP in some way, and here it is.

Donald Westlake

The truth is, most writers would gladly settle for one great book. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it'd be great to have a long and prosperous career, cranking out celebrated genre works that get adapted into movies — and maybe even write a movie yourself. But if you get right down to it, what writer wouldn't mind creating one novel featuring one character who becomes unforgettable from the first page?

Donald Westlake had the audacity to have both those careers. Westlake — who passed Dec. 31, 2008, in Mexico en route to a New Year's Eve dinner at the age of 75 — cranked out crime stories at a pace that should make most writers hate him. From 1960, when his debut, The Mercenaries, was published, through to his death, Westlake cranked out more than 90 novels and untold short stories, some under his own name, others under various pen names. Most of these were crime and mystery stories — for which he was eventually awarded three Edgar awards — although, like many genre writers, he also dabbled in other forms, such as sci-fi. One of his most accessible serial creations, the comically bumbling criminal planner John Dortmunder, became the source of seven screen adaptations. Westlake himself even got a chance to write a screenplay, adapting Jim Thompson's The Grifters for director Stephen Frears' 1990 movie — earning an Oscar nomination in the process.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Westlake spent most of his life in upstate New York. The Dortmunder series became known among mystery writers and readers as one of the funniest series in a genre better known for cold-bloodedness. Marrying wisecracking humor with meticulous plotting, Westlake finely honed the idea of screwball noir. And in the many interviews over the course of his career, the man comes off as instantly likable and gregarious.

All of which makes Westlake's most indelible creation so fascinating. In 1962, Westlake, under the pseudonym Richard Stark, created one of the most compellingly repugnant characters in contemporary fiction. In The Hunter, an amoral criminal, known only as Parker, gets left for dead by his double-crossing partner Mal. The entire novel is Parker's methodical, almost stoically self-righteous and bloody path through the ranks of a New York crime outfit to get back the $45,000 he feels he's owed. Parker isn't verbally gifted or especially likable, but he knows what he wants, feels he deserves it, and will stop at nothing to get it back.

Parker became the recurring character in a Stark series, but none of the subsequent novels pack the first's brutal precision, ingenious structure and circuitous moral clarity. It's so well plotted it's been the source of two entertaining screen adaptations — John Boorman's 1967 Point Blank with Lee Marvin, and 1999's Payback with Mel Gibson. Parker is the sort of character that brands the reader's brain, and The Hunter is the sort of single book on which a literary reputation can hang. Westlake, bless him, had five careers' worth of output still in his tank. —Bret McCabe

Rashied Ali

Backing up a legend is a sure-fire road to obscurity. Hardcore football fans may recognize the names Gary Cuozzo, Earl Morrall, George Shaw and Tommy Tuckerton, but nearly everybody has heard of Johnny Unitas, the quarterback who all the aforementioned snap-callers played behind at some point in their careers. That backup position is where drummer Rashied Ali found himself in the mid-1960, when he started playing with John Coltrane. In the mid-1960s, Ali took over the drum stool previously occupied by Elvin Jones, who since 1960 had merely anchored one of the most innovative and celebrated quartets in jazz history.

Like many jazz musicians of his generation, Ali — born Robert Patterson in Philadelphia in 1935 to a musical family — Ali honed his chops while playing through his Army stint. Back home, he worked with early R&B and blues acts such as Big Maybelle before hooking up with other with fellow Philly-based jazzmen such as trumpeter Lee Morgan and organist Don Patterson.

By the early 1960s, Ali started forging his own vocabulary, an open and propulsive sound, and, after moving to New York in 1963, he spent the decade gigging with players who would open up jazz idioms into freer forms: Albert Ayler, Gary Bartz, Paul Bley, Marion Brown, Don Cherry, Bill Dixon, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and James Blood Ulmer.

It was with Coltrane, though, that Ali's approach fully bloomed. Ali only played with Coltrane during the last two years of the saxophonist's life, 1965-67, but those were arguably two of the most prolific and probing years of any 20th century artist's: A flabbergasting 23 albums date from this period, though not all were released during Coltrane's lifetime. Ali only played on nine, but albums such as Meditations and the epic Live in Japan document a consistently progressing artist at his most experimental. Ali didn't swing like Jones — to be fair, nobody could — but his multidirectional drive and responsive ear made him a sympathetic partner to Coltrane.

Interstellar Space, a 1967 Ali-Coltrane duo recording that wasn't released until 1974, mines an imaginative territory of breathtaking emotional ambition. It was this torch, jazz as spiritual exercise, that Ali carried until a heart attack claimed his life at the age of 74 on Aug. 12. Not for nothing was Ali often tapped by reedsmen for their heavyweight odysseys — see: Charles Gayle's 1991 Touchin' on Trane or David Murray's 1993 Body and Soul — and Ali's skillful presence powered such exploratory groups as Phalanx, By Any Means, Prima Materia and, most recently, his own Rashied Ali Quintet. He never tired of giving himself to the music, and his exploratory sound continues to open third eyes. —BM

Sheldon Dorf

Except for the most engaged fans of comics, few noticed the death this November of Sheldon Dorf. Born in Detroit on July 5, 1933, Dorf died Nov. 3, from complications related to diabetes, at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego. But despite his lack of fame, Dorf's effect on pop culture has been profound. As a lifelong crusader to make people respect comics, Dorf founded the Comic-Con International in San Diego, and, along with a slew of talented folks, helped convince people to see comics the way they're seen today: as art.

In an age when graphic novels are platforms for multimillion-dollar films, lucrative video game franchises and priceless collectors' markets, it's stunning to think just how different things once were. In the 1940s and '50s, "the funny papers" were mostly regarded as juvenile trash. The medium's weirder elements, such as crime and horror tales, alarmed parents; the intelligentsia greeted comics with suspicion or contempt.

But the 1950s brought a new sort of fan, the hardcore geek who'd bombard comics companies with suggestions and caveats. A network of such fans effectively started in November 1960 when assistant Wayne State University professor Jerry Bails learned of Roy Thomas, another hardcore fan in Missouri, spawning a correspondence that bloomed into the first modern fanzine, Alter Ego. Such publications would lay the foundation for the appreciation of comics as serious works and set the stage for meetings, festivals and awards.

Also among this new breed was "Shel" Dorf. As a boy growing up in Detroit, he would rush to the drugstore with his brother the day new comics arrived. As he matured, he would pepper such cartoonists as Chester Gould of Dick Tracy and Milton Caniff of Terry and the Pirates with fan mail, eventually knocking on their doors and visiting with them. As an adult, he studied at Chicago's Art Institute and moved to New York to begin a career as a commercial designer, eventually becoming a comic-strip letterer and artist. But under it all was the fan, making Dorf, with his approachable manner, a potent combination of geek and insider.

Dorf and Bails crossed paths in Detroit, which had already had its first comics convention in 1964. In 1965, the duo took over the festival, dubbing it the Detroit Triple Fan Fair, running it for a few years before Dorf moved to San Diego in 1969. There he rallied comics fans for a dry run at a comics fest, 1970's Golden State Comic-Con, which would mushroom into the Comic-Con International.

But Dorf did more than simply rally the geeks: He put on a show, wooing influential cartoonists to appear and connect with talented newcomers. As early as 1969, Dorf led groups of comics fans, some as young as 12, on pilgrimages to meet the "king of comics," Jack Kirby. Even Kirby himself said the meetings produced good ideas.

Ironically, the success of the conventions, complete with glitzy ad blitzes and marketing tie-ins, wound up chasing away the early fans who spawned it all, Dorf included. But without those early stalwarts, there wouldn't have been the foundation for appreciating the medium as art — and not as just greasy kids' stuff. —Michael Jackman

Marilyn Chambers

Long before Paris Hilton or Pamela Anderson gave their first video blow jobs, there was Marilyn Chambers. Before trash culture was normalized and piped into homes via cable and broadband, she scandalized America. We will remember her as porn's first and arguably best-known mainstreamer.

Born Marilyn Ann Briggs in 1952, Chambers aspired to be a model and actress during her Connecticut childhood, a dream her parents neither supported nor encouraged. She scored her first big gig posing as a young mother for the packaging of Ivory Snow detergent. After bit parts in the forgettable 1970 Barbra Streisand vehicle The Owl and the Pussycat and the indie nudie Together, her parents still were not impressed. Artie and Jim Mitchell, however, were apparently impressed enough to offer a non-sexual role in their ambitious 1972 art-porn film Behind the Green Door. As filming progressed, Chambers was enticed to take her clothes off and change her life forever for $25,000 and a promised 1 percent of earnings.

Chambers' appeal wasn't so much her all-American or girl-next-door look; it's more like she was the first in the industry to not look like she belonged there. Today, it's difficult to imagine what it must have been like seeing a face found in every grocery store in the country — wholesome, holding an infant — suddenly appear on adult-theater screens doing full-on, rape-fantasy, interracial porno. But Behind the Green Door was a smash, as men (and women) were drawn to check out the new wave of artistic porn. The film eventually earned a reported $50 million, and by 1981 it was playing in VCRs across the land. (Predictably, Chambers saw little or none of her cut.)

Chambers was also among the first actresses to attempt — and fail at — the transition out of porn. In 1977, filmmaker David Cronenberg, unable to get his first choice, Sissy Spacek, tapped Chambers for the lead in his second low-budget feature. Her performance in Rabid, a body-transformation zombie thriller, earned some good reviews and the respect of her director, but it didn't win more straight-film parts.

In the early '80s, between filming hardcore, softcore, and the occasional non-sex role, Chambers was harassed while performing her nude act at the Mitchells' O'Farrell Theater by then-San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein, who was on a bender to rid the city of strippers. That run-in may have inspired her 1999 comeback, Still Insatiable, in which she plays an anti-porn senator who is sucked into the world she's crusading against.

Though angry that her straight career never took off and out of hardcore by 2001, she would still attend adult-film awards events. But when asked in 2004 if she would recommend working in porn she said, "Absolutely not! It's heartbreaking ... it leaves you kind of empty." She died April 12 of a heart-disease-related aneurysm, 10 days before her 57th birthday. —Joe Tropea

Helio Gracie

In 1951, while American fight fans argued about whether Ezzard Charles or Rocky Marciano was the greatest, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound Brazilian named Helio Gracie made fight history by losing badly to a Japanese judo champion named Masahiko Kimura, who weighed about 180.

Kimura had told all of Brazil that if Gracie could withstand even three minutes in the ring with him, Gracie should be considered the winner. And, as Gracie admitted more than 40 years later, Kimura did render him unconscious almost immediately. "If Kimura had continued to choke me, I would have died for sure," Gracie told a 1994 interviewer. "But since I didn't give up, Kimura let go of the choke and went into the next technique. Being released from the choke and the pain from the next technique revived me and I continued to fight. Kimura went to his grave without ever knowing the fact that I was finished."

Gracie went 13 minutes and got his arm broken, but it was his older brother, Carlos, who stopped the fight. 

As a slight, thin boy, growing up in his older brother's shadow in Rio de Janeiro, Helio Gracie adapted Carlos' jujitsu techniques to require the least amount of power, in a bid to allow the weak to beat the strong. His techniques, combined with an indomitable spirit, distilled into a fighting system now known worldwide as Brazilian jujitsu. From the start he aimed for fame, deploying both technique and temper. In 1932, at age 19, he brutalized a famous wrestler who insulted him; he was imprisoned for assault, only to be pardoned by the president of Brazil. Gracie's challenge matches against practitioners of other fighting styles, begun in the 1950s, birthed the modern sport of mixed martial arts and the billion-dollar brand name we call Ultimate Fighting Championships, launched by Helio's son Rorion and an ad man named Art Davie in 1993; they sold the franchise in 1995.

The Gracie family's legend eventually outgrew its deeds. In martial arts circles, stories still circulate claiming that Helio Gracie arrived in the United States in the early 1990s with a $1 million challenge for anyone who could defeat one of his sons. The actual scenario — a $100,000 wager that former kickboxing champion Benny "The Jet" Urquidez could not beat Royce Gracie — never came off. Another challenge from then 80-year-old Helio to "Judo" Gene LaBell was scuttled when LaBell, who was more than 60 years old and 200 pounds, said he could not trim down to Helio's 140-pound weight class.

Braggart, showman, sometime brawler, Gracie polarized opinion first in Brazil, and later in the United States, where his son Royce became the first Ultimate Fighting Champion. Gracie's wife Vera and his nine children carry on the family name and traditions. He died Jan. 29. —Edward Ericson Jr.

Judith Krug

If you've read The Catcher in the Rye or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you might have librarian Judith Krug to thank. Hell, if you've used the dictionary — which has actually been removed from school library shelves for bad language — you should light a candle for Krug, the patron saint of not caving to censorship.

Krug, née Fingeret, grew up in the Pittsburgh area with parents who didn't believe in stifling children's interests. When her mother found a young Krug reading a book about sex with a flashlight in the dark, she simply requested Krug turn on the light so she didn't hurt her eyes. She married in the early 1960s and had two children of her own, to whom her anti-censorship stance also applied. "I didn't care what my kids read as long as they were reading," she told the Chicago Tribune in 2002.

Krug became the director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom at its founding in 1967, and two years later helped create the Freedom to Read Foundation, an independent group that provides funding for legal aid in First Amendment cases. For the next 40 years, Krug fought tirelessly to block censorship at every turn.

It may not seem like such a big deal — who bans books these days, right? It turns out a lot of people try. In 1982, as the evangelical Christian group the Moral Majority came into prominence, there were more than 1,000 attempts to remove books from libraries; the number is currently in the 500 range each year. But it isn't just the Christian Right that wants to take books off the shelves. The Left has complained about the use of the N-word in Huckleberry Finn and the misogyny of American Psycho.

Some of the books that people have tried to ban include the Harry Potter series, Of Mice and Men, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Brave New World. Krug even got a complaint about a sewing pattern book called Making It With Mademoiselle, because the title sounded dirty. In 1982, she founded Banned Books Week to promote awareness and celebrate the fact that these and thousands of other books are still available.

Keeping books on shelves wasn't Krug's only fight. She stood up against a 1996 attempt to censor the Internet in libraries, seeing the medium's importance at a time when only about 20 percent of U.S. households had access. The fight went to the Supreme Court, where a statute prohibiting "indecent" materials online was struck down, though a later battle against filtering objectionable materials on library computers was less successful. And when the Patriot Act was passed in October 2001, Krug and her fellow librarians stood up and said no — and not in a quiet library voice, either — insisting that the government should not have access to library records.

Krug died April 11 from stomach cancer at age 69. Hopefully, others will fight as hard and as successfully as she did, because the right to free speech is underappreciated and frighteningly fragile. As Krug told The Washington Post in 1981, "I hate to say it, but I'm not sure we could pass the First Amendment today in this country." —Anna Ditkoff

Jack Cardiff

Jack Cardiff would be on no one's list of great film directors of the 20th century — the movie for which he is perhaps best known as an auteur is considered a laughable disaster. As a cinematographer, however, Cardiff was one of the foremost technician-poets of the big screen, responsible for many of its most indelible images.

Born in 1914, Cardiff was a showbiz baby who followed his British vaudeville performer parents on stage and made his first film appearance by age 4. His itinerant upbringing made for an erratic education, but the young Cardiff soaked up the vivid colors and light effects of baroque and impressionist paintings in art museums wherever he traveled. He went to work on British film sets as a teen, earning his way up to camera operator. Eventually, he was sent to America to learn about a new film process: Technicolor. Despite his lack of formal training, his art-enhanced eye helped make him a prodigy at the process, which required cumbersome cameras but captured supersaturated hues.

After Cardiff returned to Britain, he made the most of his training working as director of photography for a string of films with director Michael Powell. For 1946's A Matter of Life and Death, Cardiff shot wartime England in absurdly vivid greens and violets and heaven in severe black and white as David Niven's love-struck downed pilot pleads with the celestial powers for a second chance. In 1947's Black Narcissus, Cardiff and company re-created a nunnery high in the Himalayas on U.K. soundstages, with Cardiff's deeply dramatic lighting and camera angles telegraphing turmoil beneath the habits. In 1948's The Red Shoes, he and Powell created the Technicolor masterpiece; The central 18-minute ballet sequence remains a jaw-dropper for its imaginative lyricism and daring.

Cardiff won an Oscar for Black Narcissus and worked steadily as a director of photography throughout the '50s on big Hollywood pictures, including The African Queen, The Prince and the Showgirl and War and Peace. He tried his own hand at directing, winning a Best Director Oscar nomination for his 1960 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, but the studio pictures his stately style best suited were going out of fashion. Cardiff took on the '60s youthquake by directing 1968's Girl on a Motorcycle, a cult favorite notable for a nubile, naked Marianne Faithfull in a fur-lined leather jumpsuit and for its cheesy "psychedelic" effects. By the late '70s, he had returned to DP work full-time, shooting everything from 1978's period whodunit Death on the Nile to Sylvester Stallone's 1985 blood 'n' guts blockbuster Rambo.

Cardiff's reputation was secure, regardless, thanks to the generation of post-studio directors who devoured his classic Technicolor imagery. (Click over to the extras menu of many Cardiff-shot DVDs and you'll find Martin Scorsese enthusing about him.) He won an honorary Oscar in 2001 but continued to work behind the camera until just a few years before his death on April 22. —Lee Gardner

Allen Klein

Most of the time, people show up in these year-end obit round-ups because of something they've contributed to the world. Allen Klein is notable in large part for what he took from it. As an accountant and manager for 1960s soul and pop acts, including Sam Cooke, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, he proved himself a tough negotiator on his clients' behalf. At the same time, he sometimes wound up owning the rights to the work they created and often left strife and lawsuits in his wake. He gave the rock era its foremost archetype of the grasping, shady manager in the process.

Born in Newark, N.J., in 1931, Klein spent much of his childhood in an orphanage. After earning a degree in accounting, he set his sights on the entertainment business. His early specialty was combing through record companies' ledgers and finding money owed to artists, which won him grateful clients, such as pop singer Bobby Darin and gospel-turned-soul star Cooke. The latter took on Klein as his manager and was rewarded with an unprecedentedly lucrative Klein-negotiated record deal. (Klein's company, ABKCO, purchased the rights to Cooke's music after the singer's 1964 death.)

Already working with British pop acts, Klein landed the Rolling Stones as management clients in 1965. Impressed by the burly, unpolished Klein's reputation for toughness, and by the fat paydays he'd won for the Stones, John Lennon suggested he take over the Beatles' finances after longtime manager Brian Epstein died in 1967. Paul McCartney was against the idea, but the other two Beatles sided with Lennon, sealing the deal and driving a wedge; people may believe Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles, but blaming Klein makes more sense. The Stones, distrustful of Klein's accounting, eventually tried to extricate themselves and ended up in a lawsuit that won Klein all rights to all of the band's music recorded before 1971. While he wound up with no Beatles rights himself, Klein uncharacteristically failed to secure for Lennon and McCartney the up-for-grab rights to their early songs — the lucrative publishing eventually snapped up by Michael Jackson. After Klein helped ex-Beatle George Harrison organize the charitable Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, questions arose about his handling of the proceeds, leading to a brief prison sentence for tax evasion.

All the legal wrangling cooled Klein's management career, but he remained a formidable force through rights controlled by ABKCO. He kept the music of '60s pop label Cameo-Parkway — artists ranging from Chubby Checker to ? and the Mysterians — out of print for decades. He prevented the release of legendary 1968 concert film The Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus until 1996. After funding Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 cult classic The Holy Mountain, Klein feuded with the director and withdrew all of Jodorowsky's early films from circulation until 2004. A snippet of a Stones tune that wound up in the Verve's 1997 song "Bitter Sweet Symphony" led to a legal battle that won ABKCO 100 percent of the royalties from the hit. ABKCO sued rapper Lil Wayne over a similar Stones bite in 2008.

Klein died of complications from Alzheimer's Disease on July 4, but ABKCO, now reportedly run by Klein's son Jody, still controls an enormous chunk of rock-era creativity. And Klein might ultimately be best remembered by the various bits of rock-era creativity that seem to revile him, usually created by artists he represented. "Well your teeth are clean but your mind is capped," John Lennon sang in his song "Steel and Glass." "You leave your smell like an alley cat." —LG

Sylvia Schur

Back in 1966, women wore wide-legs to hostess, recipe books included multiple versions of aspic, and Clamato — a blend of tomato juice and clam juice — was new on grocer's shelves. The latter was just one of the ways Sylvia Schur, the lady mixologist behind Mott's odd savory beverage, influenced the way we eat and think about food. She died Sept. 8 at age 92.

Born in 1917, Schur grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and edited her high school paper before studying at Hunter College in Manhattan. After graduation, she became the food editor for multiple periodicals, including Flair, Look and Woman's Home Companion, integrating food and meal planning into style magazines, which broke the ground for today's inclusion of cooking and eating in women's magazines from Vogue to More. She also wrote cookbooks aimed at busy women for everyone from temp agency Kelly Girl to corporate giant Seagram's. In 1958, she started Creative Food Services, a food marketing and creation company that employed many young women in its test kitchen.

''Food is a very emotional factor in people's lives,'' Schur said in 1981. She knew successfully working on the technological aspect of food — creating recipes that used processed ingredients — included taking the cook's heart into consideration. People wanted homemade taste out of three-ingredient meals, thus her recipes for chuck roast with condensed mushroom soup and dry onion soup mix. Remember the early cookbooks for those huge, first-generation microwave ovens? Home cooks want it warm and fast; Schur delivered. She also consulted on the creation of the '60s diet drink Metrecal, a sort of résumé oddity considering this is the woman who knew the girls who read Seventeen magazine 40 years ago would eat up articles about the effects of a good diet.

Her company was also involved in the invention of food products and consulted prepackaged food companies on how to better market their products. She worked on the menu of New York's hallowed Four Seasons restaurant and invented the sweetly tart Cran-Apple juice drink. After the Duffy-Mott company bought a small clam processor, it hired Schur's CFS for product development, and Clamato, a savory tomato juice with a shot of clam broth, was born. The drink is a bit of a joke for the uninitiated, but those who love it, love it. If that's the way you roll, raise your Bloody Caesar (made with Clamato, natch) or Red Eye (Clamato and beer) to a culinary visionary with good taste who changed the atmosphere of reading about, creating and eating food. —Wendy Ward

Richard Whitcomb

If you've never heard of "the area rule" or admired the counterintuitive lines of the F-106 Delta Dart fighter jet, that's OK. You still have Richard Whitcomb to thank for your ability to fly from New York to Miami for less than $250, round-trip.

Whitcomb was an aeronautical engineer who worked most of his career at NASA and its predecessor, NACA. The area rule is a complex formula for figuring aircraft fuselages into the pointy-tipped paper-airplane shape we now take for granted. Whitcomb came up with the rule while trying to figure out why airplanes that should have been able to fly faster than the speed of sound couldn't do so. The shape solved the problem of wave drag, the tendency of air, at near the speed of sound, to form itself into invisible "pipes" because it can't get out of a plane's way fast enough. When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947, he needed brute force in a rocket-powered experimental plane. By the late 1950s, engineers were designing passenger airliners that could fly as fast, mainly because of Whitcomb's design innovations. In the 1960s, Whitcomb also designed a new wing shape, called the "supercritical airfoil," and in the 1970s, he came up with "winglets," those vertical sails on the ends of airliners' wings, which save fuel by reducing turbulence.

Growing up in Evanston, Ill., Whitcomb was fascinated by aircraft and by the prospect of improving them. His first invention was a method of doubling the power available from the rubber bands that powered his model planes. "There's been a continual drive in me ever since I was a teenager to find a better way to do everything," he told The Washington Post in 1969. After studying at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he went to work in 1943 at Langley Air Force Base, where he became a workaholic, sometimes sleeping on a cot in front of a special wind tunnel. A prototypical nerd, he was said to shower rarely, and he never married. He died Oct. 13 at age 88.

"I think he was the most significant aeronautical engineer operating in the second half of the 20th century," Tom Crouch, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, told The Wall Street Journal after his death. "His fingerprints are on every jet plane flying today." —EE

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