Farewell: Americans We Lost in 2017

By Lauren Monsen

Over the past year, Americans said goodbye to many talented people. Here are 10 who died in 2017, all of whom lived remarkable lives.

Music legend Tom Petty, a prolific writer of chart-topping songs since the late 1970s, led his band the Heartbreakers for decades and co-founded the 1980s supergroup Traveling Wilburys. His hits spin tales of rebels and outcasts and include “American Girl,” “Refugee,” “I Won’t Back Down” and “Free Fallin’.” He died October 2 at age 66.

Actress Mary Tyler Moore starred in two hit television series, The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–1966) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show(1970–1977). In her self-titled series, Moore played the character Mary Richards, a single woman working as a news producer at a Minneapolis TV station. That portrayal pushed gender norms and promoted acceptance of independent career women. She died January 25 at age 80.

Singer/guitarist Chuck Berry reconfigured rhythm-and-blues elements to help create the new genre of rock music in the 1950s. His now-classic songs include “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Johnny B. Goode.” Berry’s showmanship and songwriting ensured his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its creation in 1986. He died March 18 at age 90.

In 1984, NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless became the first person to make an untethered spacewalk, using a jet-powered backpack that he helped design. McCandless, who died December 21 at age 80, hoped his work would inspire the next generation of explorers.

Automotive engineer Roy Lunn — the visionary behind the Ford Mustang, Ford GT40, Aston Martin DB2, Jeep Cherokee and other classic cars — was British born and became a U.S. citizen in 1962. Credited as the “father of the modern SUV,” he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2016. He stayed active in retirement by mentoring engineering students at California’s University of Santa Barbara. Lunn died August 5 at age 92.

Athlete Mamie Johnson broke barriers by becoming one of only three women (and the first female pitcher) to play in the Negro Leagues, a showcase for African-American baseball talent before Major League Baseball was fully integrated. Johnson, who stood 5’3″ tall, was known as “Peanut.” She was signed by Indianapolis in 1953 and had a 33-8 win-loss record over three seasons. The book A Strong Right Armdescribes Johnson’s life. She died December 19 at age 82.

Don Hogan Charles, the first black photographer hired by the New York Times, spent more than 40 years documenting celebrities, fashion models and world leaders. He is best known, however, for his images capturing pivotal moments of the American civil-rights era. In 1996, four of his photos were included in an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Charles died December 15 at age 79.

Playwright and movie actor Sam Shepard shot to fame as the author of stage dramas such as Buried Child (which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979), True West and Fool for Love. His plays, featuring rootless characters at the margins of U.S. society, inspired New York magazine to call him “the greatest American playwright of his generation.” As an actor, Shepard had a laconic style reminiscent of Hollywood giant Gary Cooper. In 1984, Shepard was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of a pilot in The Right Stuff. He died July 27 at age 73.

Classically trained singer Barbara Smith Conrad — a mezzo-soprano — was cast at age 19 to sing in a student opera but was forced to withdraw because of public opposition to a racially integrated production. The situation made her a symbol of the American civil-rights movement. She eventually sang on the world’s most illustrious stages, from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to the Vienna State Opera. Conrad died May 22 at age 79.

Astronaut Eugene Cernan, commander of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission, was the last person to walk on the moon. “The sky is no longer the limit,” he said. “The word ‘impossible’ no longer belongs in our vocabulary.” Landing December 14, 1972, he climbed down the ladder of the module and traced his 9-year-old daughter’s initials in the dust. (More than 40 years later, his lunar footprints remain visible.) Passionate about space exploration, Cernan urged young people to pick up where he left off. He died January 16 at age 82.

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