The December 29, 2019, issue of the New York Times Magazine recounted the lives of people who died during this current year. Most such lists identify the person and an accomplishment, and as name follows name, we become desensitized to the losses—just more people on a list of people. But the Times article uses personal essays to define these lives, to make them more meaningful to the reader.
Many of those names included are familiar to us (Toni Morrison, Elijah Cummings, Doris Day) and some are surprising (Rosie Ruiz, the NASA rover Opportunity). But most of them underscore how little we understand about what we "know."
One of the listed names is Peggy Lipton. In 1968 when television characters were old, white, and male, and the medium had not yet responded to the youth movement, Mod Squad appeared. The premise was simple enough: an old white male cop, disturbed by youths’ lack of respect for authority, decides to show them what law enforcement is like from the inside. He hires three well-scrubbed and atypical hippies: one white, one black, one blonde. That became the Mod Squad tagline. Peggy Lipton was the blonde.
When the show ended five years later, Lipton pretty much disappeared, but before turning up again later in some television series, she had a brief singing career—one album of mixed reviews. (She herself derided her singing—in every song I'm off key, she said.) But these days you can hardly find a Netflix police series that doesn’t have a woman as the protagonist, or at least one that shares equal footing with her male counterpart. Peggy Lipton laid the groundwork for that and maybe much more. The strides women made in the 60s and 70s were varied and uneven, and the ERA still lies dormant, but the contributions of people like Peggy Lipton cannot be overestimated. She died in May. She was 72.
And then there was this about another television star:
“When he had his kids [with him], he used to take them to the 99-cent store to buy every can of soup it had and drive them over to a food pantry — even if it wasn’t Thanksgiving, even if there was no food drive. There was a homeless woman named Celeste who lived in an alley down the street from his house, and he would go and talk to her for hours, giving her sandwiches and blankets and offering her a shower at his place if she wanted one; when his kids went out, he would remind them to stop by and say hello to Celeste.” (Taffy Brodesser-Akne for the New York Times.)
You can stop guessing—Luke Perry did those things. He died in March. He was 52.
Some would argue that no entertainer should head any year-end list, but I always remember what George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch: “..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
I would presume that neither Ms. Lipton nor Mr. Perry rests in an unvisited tomb, and neither of them led hidden lives, but both of them had something to do with the growing good of the world. If something that simple could be said about everyone alive today, that growing good could increase exponentially.
A new year lies ahead—it's worth a try.