Dispatch December 2009

How They Lived

A gallery of eminent Americans who died in 2009
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Rock ’n’ roll would never have rocked without Les Paul (b. 1915). He invented the solid-body electric guitar, building his first in 1940. It’s hard to imagine where Buddy Holly, Bruce Springsteen, or Jimmy Page would be without the Fender Strat, the Fender Tele, and the Gibson Les Paul, all first built in the ’50s. Paul also invented multi-track recording, which transformed the record industry. Either contribution alone would have been enough to cement his legend, but the two together, well, they simply

Walter Cronkite (b. 1916) defined the role of the network anchor. But he may have done his job too well. Rather than breaking the mold, he became the mold, and his achievement today seems far less extraordinary than it did a few decades ago. Anchors like Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Ted Koppel all performed their duties with such dignity and style that it’s easy to forget that they modeled themselves after “the most trusted man in America.”

The American scientist Norman Borlaug (b. 1914) wasn’t satisfied with Mother Nature . If people around the world were starving, he figured, why not increase their crop yields? So he cross-bred new varieties of wheat and rice, and by the early 1960s the so-called

He was the first African-American to serve as the chairman of a university history department, but that’s not what makes

It’s no small thing to change the way a generation eats, but Sheila Lukins (b. 1942), co-author of the Silver Palate Cookbook and its many sequels, is in the same league as culinary upstarts like Irma Rombauer and Julia Child. The Silver Palate Cookbook, co-written with Julee Rosso and published in 1982, was the first cookbook designed for a truly feminist generation: working women who wanted to serve sophisticated food but didn’t have hours to spend preparing it. It’s still a brisk seller, and countless guests, served the easy-to-make

The postwar suburban boom was the product of new highways, cheap cars, and the G. I. Bill. But once you had the two-car garage, you needed to drive somewhere. That’s where Melvin Simon (b. 1926) came in. The Bronx-born, Indianapolis-based real estate developer built the first strip mall in 1960, then used the profits to build another. As the country expanded, he did, too, building grander, enclosed shopping malls, including the

Was Robert McNamara a hero or villain? One of JFK’s best and brightest, he managed to get the lion’s share of the blame for Vietnam. Unlike many of his colleagues, though, he eventually came to blame himself. Can his arrogance and lies ever be excused? Not really. But those final years of relentless truth-telling made him an unusual figure in American life.

From an early age, Stanley Kaplan (b. 1919) suspected that the SAT had built-in biases, favoring affluent students over immigrants and the poor. His inexpensive courses leveled the playing field, and Stanley H. Kaplan Inc. became known as “the poor man’s private school.” As his empire grew, fees steepened, and ironically, Kaplan courses are now out of reach for many of the students who could benefit from them most. Still, through his methodical approach to standardized tests, Kaplan forever upended the notion that test-taking excellence cannot be taught.

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