With a little bit of effort, we can learn so much from the lives of people we know and admire as well as from people we’ve never met but who nonetheless touch our lives in some way.
Of course, the life, courage and profound accomplishments of civil rights giant and activist Congressman John Lewis immediately comes to mind. However, today I would like to focus on some lesser known individuals whose contributions deserve noting as well.
In 1968, my hopes and dreams of Robert F. Kennedy forging a newer, better world as president were cut short by an assassin’s bullet. Following his death, a funeral train carrying his body undertook the sad sojourn from New York to Arlington National Cemetery. That train carried two close friends who had worked on his campaign: John Ellis (of Yorktown Heights) and William Arnone (still a very close friend to this day). Also on board was a young photographer, Paul Fusco, who had been dispatched by Look Magazine to take photographs of trackside mourners.
Look published only one of the 1,800 photographs that Fusco took during that heartbreaking train ride. Many years later, the entire collection was encapsulated in a book entitled: “Paul Fusco: RFK.” He went on to win accolades for his work, documenting, among other things, the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident and the funeral and protests following the death of Alberta Spruill in 2003. But in my mind, Paul Fusco will be forever known as the photographer who so skillfully captured the stark and painful images of sorrow and loss chiseled on the faces of the mourners along the Kennedy funeral train’s journey.
Paul Fusco died last week at age 89 from complications related to dementia. In the end, he taught us that, in the images of others, we can sometimes grasp the depths of our own emotions and, by so doing, embrace our true humanity. Unfortunately, Paul Fusco was not the only notable person we recently lost.
When I was studying for the New York bar exam in 1974, I was constantly required to remember rules and exceptions to rules. Oddly, one of the techniques that my bar review course (PLI) promoted was the use of mnemonics. I still vaguely recall the mnemonic MIMIC as describing the exceptions that allowed you, in federal court, to get a defendant’s prior record of misdeeds before a jury. Some days I can’t remember the names of close friends, but I still can remember MOTIVE, INTENT, MISTAKE, IDENTITY, and COMMON SCHEME OR PLAN. God help me.
One of the major promoters of this type of memory technique was a famous memory researcher, Dr. Gordon Bower. He spent over a half-century exploring how we remember things and how we are able to understand simple narratives. His teachings and writings influenced generations of scientists who were lucky enough to be his students or to have been exposed to one of his extraordinary research papers. He is credited with introducing techniques for remembering someone we just met (what was that person’s name again?) as well as his famous claim that he could detect how New Yorkers’ body language and facial expressions changed after the 9/11 attacks.
Dr. Gordon Bower passed away last week at the age of 87 as a result of complications from pulmonary fibrosis. He will be remembered for teaching us how to remember.
You may also fondly recall, as I do, a short-lived comedy show in the 1980’s called “Fridays.” It was ABC’s answer to “Saturday Night Live” and, although it lasted only two years, its hysterically funny skits still resonate with me. The show’s collaborators included Larry David, Michael Richards, Melanie Chartoff and Mark Blankfield. Yet, the person I remember the most was a little-known actress named Brandis Kemp.
If you were a police officer or firefighter way back when, you may have attended one of Brandis’ (then known as Sally) speech classes at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But, as fate would have it, Ms. Kemp ended up making a career of acting, landing guest appearances in shows like “The Golden Girls,” “E.R.,” “The Wonder Years,” “Designing Women,” and “Perfect Strangers.”
What sticks in my mind forever is a skit that I am sure Larry David must have written for the show that featured Brandis playing a deranged psychic. She would take one look at the palm of her client and loudly exclaim what I submit is an apt description of our present state of affairs: “Things don’t look good, man. Not at all. Man, am I bummed.”
Brandis Kemp never failed to entertain. She was funny, vibrant, and always able to project vulnerability in the absurd characters she played. She taught us how to laugh and to never take ourselves too seriously. Ms. Kemp’s death, at the age of 77, was announced last week due to a brain tumor and complications from COVID-19. She may now be gone, but I’m so grateful to her for making me smile all those Friday nights.
Finally, there is Constance Curry, whom I also never met, though I wish I had. She was a white Southern woman who worked her whole life to end racial segregation. She was never featured in magazine articles or on television, but she was there. She was never arrested or thrown in jail, but she was there. She was a field organizer, a behind-the-scenes coordinator for many groups whose sole mission was to end racism throughout the South. She was a tireless worker who never asked for anything in return; not fame, not fortune, and certainly not comfort.
The world, outside of those involved in the Civil Rights movement, first learned of Constance Curry when she published “Silver Bells” in 1995. Her well-received book was based on her experiences growing up in a segregated Mississippi. It details a Black family’s struggle after enrolling their children in a previously all-white school.
Constance Curry passed away last week at age 86 from complications resulting from sepsis. Outgoing and determined, she taught us the importance of standing up for what is right. She fought racism her whole life and wouldn’t back away from a fight.
Reflecting on her life makes me promise myself to never give up my own lifelong fight against injustices of all types. I’m grateful to Constance Curry for setting an inspirational example for us all.
Although I never met any of these extraordinary people, each has taught me, in their own way, significant life lessons. For all of their groundbreaking hard work and determination, sometimes in the face of incredible adversity, I am extremely grateful. May each of them be remembered and emulated in some important way.