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ETHERIDGE: People we lost in 2021 keep inspiring
Denise Etheridge
Denise Etheridge

Many of the influential people who died in 2021 spent their lives in service to others and offered shining examples of how just one person can contribute to society.

I can only list a few, because the world lost a great many extraordinary folks this past year. I think most of them remained hopeful no matter how difficult their struggles.

Bishop Desmond Tutu was instrumental in ending years of Apartheid in South Africa. Tutu said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was both a warrior and a peacemaker. Powell once said, “Today I can declare my hope and declare it from the bottom of my heart that we will eventually see the time when that number of nuclear weapons is down to zero and the world is a much better place.”

I had the privilege of interviewing Sen. Johnny Isakson about a dozen times over a decade. Isakson was always gracious. When you spoke he listened. He was also committed to supporting the military, both active duty and veterans, and their families. Your political party, or anything else that set you apart, was of no consequence as long as you, too, were respectful. I wish there were more representatives like him in Congress today.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported Isakson saying upon his retirement in 2019, “I just hope what everybody will do is look beyond the pettiness of today’s politics . . . to try and bring us back to some even keel, where we can disagree amicably and agree aptly and solve problems rather than create them.”

I also had the pleasure to meet another great Georgian, former Senator Max Cleland. He exuded exuberance and had a gift for making one forget the severe disabilities he sustained in the line of duty.

“Someone once said, ‘Adversity introduces a man to himself.’ For some reason, that’s scary, but most people discover that adversity does make them stronger,” Cleland said.

Beverly Cleary, the well-known children’s author, delighted generations of kids with her books. I introduced my kids to Ramona and Beatrice “Beezus” Quimby and Henry Huggins, and will also read these stories to my granddaughter when she gets to the age she can enjoy them.

Like me, Cleary struggled with reading until the third grade. Once she connected to books as a child, she began a lifelong love of reading. Cleary was a librarian before she became a writer.

Cleary once said, “I hope children will be happy with the books I’ve written, and go on to be readers all of their lives.”

I’m not a sports fan, but growing up in Atlanta in the 1970s, Hank Aaron helped put the city on the national map. Aaron would have been so proud of his beloved Braves this past year, winning the World Series. The record setting ball player never gave up.

“My motto was always to keep swinging,” Aaron said. “Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”

I remember watching, amazed, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969. As an adult I felt more of a kinship with astronaut Michael Collins. He didn’t walk on the moon, but his role was just as essential.

“I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say 100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed,” Collins said. “The all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced.”

Cicely Tyson was a trailblazer and many of the people she portrayed, like Harriet Tubman, were themselves dignified personages. Tyson advised us not to waste precious time.

“We don’t have long here, children,” Tyson said. “Our hopes and aspirations may feel limitless, but our days are finite, our experiences fading in the twinkling of an eye.”

Actor Michael Constantine played one of my favorite characters from one of my favorite movies, Gus Portokalos in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Constantine’s character is quoted as saying: “Here tonight, we have, ah, apple and orange. We all different, but in the end, we all fruit.”

Ed Asner played Mary Tyler Moore’s curmudgeonly boss, T.V. newsman Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” My interest in journalism was, in part, sparked by the show.

Asner once said, “Never stand still. Only stand still enough to learn, and once you stop learning in that stance, move off.”

And who can forget Betty White, who proved that women can grow bolder, even as they grow older. White died on Dec. 31, 2021. White was known for her role as Sue Ann Nivens on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and for her role as Rose on “The Golden Girls.”

White worked with Asner, and with talented actors Cloris Leachman and Gavin MacLeod, all Mary Tyler Moore alums who died this past year.

People who knew White said she had no patience for complainers. She said in recorded interviews how lucky she felt to be working in show business as an older person. Her joie de vivre is something to be emulated.

“Everybody needs a passion,” White said. “That’s what keeps life interesting. If you live without passion, you can go through life without leaving any footprints.”

So here’s to leaving a trail starting in 2022.

Denise Etheridge is a staff writer for The Walton Tribune in Monroe and a resident of Newton County. Her email address is