By Mike Hoban
“Leave the world a better place.” Emerson is purported to have said that and I’ve always found it to be both an inspirational and aspirational principle. In the year 2010, a number of talented people departed the earth who indeed left it a better place because of who they were or what they did. What follows is my own short list- in no special order - of mostly well-known people with talent who passed on this year and who made the world and my world specifically a better place and why.
They’re inspirations for the rest of us as we think about what we contribute as employees, bosses, entrepreneurs and citizens of the world.
Stewart Udall – Udall did as much as anyone in the past 75 years to spearhead both environmental consciousness and subsequent concrete action. As Secretary of the Interior for two different presidents (Kennedy and Johnson), he oversaw the addition of four national parks, 8 national seashores and many other national monuments, historical sites and wildlife refuges. As a tireless champion of the environment, he helped pass some of the original environmental legislation which we now take for granted and in his lifetime wrote 9 books on environmental and historical topics. An interesting - and heroic - side note about Udall. He forced the integration of the Washington Redskins football team in 1962, because the stadium was federally owned. For me, he was always an interesting, prescient and thoughtful man and we are a greener planet because of him. Udall was 90 years old.
John Wooden – Easily the most famous college basketball coach in history, Wooden led his UCLA teams to 10 national championships in 12 years, 1964-1975, including 7 years in a row, an unthinkable achievement these days. But Wooden was more than a great coach who had great teams. He was decent; likeable; honorable. It’s tempting for sports fans to dislike teams who seem to win too much and need some comeuppance (think the Yankees), but Wooden was such a classy and humble individual that I and so many others had nothing but admiration for him and routinely rooted for his powerful UCLA teams. He also created a series of lectures called “The Pyramid of Success” which was his motivational view of how to succeed not only in basketball but in life itself.
The write-up in Wikipedia provides a touching story about what kind of man he was.
Wooden was just four months shy of being 100 years young.
Leslie Nielsen – His special talent? He made us laugh. I know he made me laugh. Who could forget the now classic line Nielsen deadpanned in the 1980 movie Airplane: Rumack (Nielsen): “Can you fly this plane, and land it?” Ted Striker: “Surely you can't be serious.” Rumack: “I am serious... and don't call me Shirley.” Creating laughs and mirth surely (oops) qualifies in my book as making the world a better place. After Airplane established him as a comic actor, he starred in several “Naked Gun” movies, always as a very clueless Lieutenant Frank Drebin who innocently stumbled his way through improbable situations and LOL-quality puns.
And while his characters spoke clever lines written by others, Nielsen had his own home-grown funny lines as well. One I like best is “Doing nothing is very hard to do...you never know when you're finished.” His talents will be missed. He was 84.
Ted Sorenson – Whatever one’s political leanings, I think it’s hard for anyone to not be impressed and inspired by Ted Sorenson’s famous words written for JFK’s inaugural address in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” It set a tone. It set a standard. It established a new voice for America. As a young boy, I remember hearing those words as the youthful president spoke them on that cold January day for all the world to hear. Sorenson was 32 years old when he penned those words – pretty heady stuff.
Sorenson was 82 when he passed on October 31.
Fred Morrison – Fred who? Many other talented people passed away in 2010 who made their mark on both the world at large and on my world and it was difficult to whittle it down to five. But the final slot belongs to Fred Morrison: the inventor of the Frisbee. It is hard to imagine a world without Frisbees and it was Morrison who designed the first ones made out of plastic in the late 1940s. It went by the name of “Flyin-Saucer” and in the early 1950s was improved and rechristened the “Pluto Platter.”
However, it wasn’t until he sold the rights to toy maker Wham-O in 1957, who improved it further (incremental innovation), put marketing dollars behind it and re-named it “Frisbee” that the product, um, took off. Morrison went on to become a millionaire, and parks, beaches and college campuses have not been the same since. This innovator was 90 when he died earlier this year.
So yes, there were quite a few withdrawals from the world’s talent bank this past year. We all can’t be presidential speech writers or environmental statesmen or “made-ya-laugh” headliners. But we all can strive to do our parts in our everyday lives so that when others talk about us when we are gone there are indeed positive legacies that people appreciate us for. Talent is not just about intrinsic gifts, it is also about what we do about the gifts we have, no matter how modest we think they are.