“Ward, We’re Going to Miss Barbara Billingsley.”

20 10 2010
47 years, 3 months and 27 days after Leave It To Beaver went off the air, “America’s Mom” Barbara Billingsley died.  She was 94.

I read People magazine religiously, usually unmoved by the content, but their coverage of Billingsley’s passing last Saturday was striking for the carefulness of Stephen Slilverman’s words and passion in the quotes.

Jerry Mathers, now 62, played June Cleaver’s son Theodore (“The Beaver”) for the duration of the series’ run.

He remembers Billingsley fondly: “Barbara was a patient advisor and teacher. She helped me along this challenging journey through life by showing me the importance of manners and respect for others.”

“She will be missed by all of her family, friends, fans and, most especially, by me,”  Mathers said in a statement.

"Leave It to Beaver" promotional photo

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After I finished the article I thought to myself, what other public figures have been truly mourned by their viewing nation?

Celebrities, big and small, young and old, die all the time.  Directors, composers, and producers, too.  Few garner national attention, save for the minutes-long “In Memoriam” slideshows at some seasonal award shows.

I considered that there are some people, who climb to the top, are sometimes known the world over, and yet they manage to circle back around their own iconism and can be seen as the “next door” type.

I asked my roommates who came to mind when I described such a person— a professional who is trusted in their craft or a sophisticate seemingly detatched from their own status; someone endearing, thought of as a friend.

I thought about the newspaper clippings and magazine covers I have seen my mother carefully save in the plain manilla folder, in the third drawer of our small living room hutch.

I compiled several names:

Tim Russert
JFK Jr.
Johnny Carson
John Lennon

Princess Diana
Walter Cronkite

 

What is it about these people that touched America?
Why do these names still evoke a smile, a thoughtful sigh, or “I remember when” story?

 

Tim Russert on "Meet the Press"

Tim Russert will be remembered as an every-man, a family man, a man who came from modest roots in Buffalo, NY and did something remarkable with himself. 

“I had no idea Tim meant so much to so many people he didn’t even know,” his wife Maureen Orth said.

I remember the day Russert died (June 13, 2008) because my mom and grandmother talked on the phone about the news- their tones tinged with grief, as if he were someone we knew.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr.

The Kennedy’s are the closest thing America has ever had to royalty.  After winning the nation’s heart with his reverse-salute at President Kennedy’s funeral, “John-John,” as he was known in childhood, sort of became  the prince of New York City. The sought after bachelor, who served 4 years as a city Assistant District Attorney, married Carolyn Bessette off the coast of Georgia in 1996.

Though theories of blame swirlled over the tragic 1999 plane crash that claimed the lives of Kennedy, his wife, and Bessette’s sister Lauren- no controversy could overshadow the immense loss felt by the world.

 Ten years after JFK Jr’s death, close friend Sasha Chermayeff spoke exclusively with People magazine. She shared with writer Liz McNeil that although she was never romantic with John, she could acknowledge that he was “stunningly gorgeous.”

“Though he had every right to be, he was not vain. He was just at ease. He was really over it. Maybe everyone else wasn’t, but he was like, ‘Look, this is me.'”

 –

Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show on NBC for 30 years.  Nightly, at 11:30 Carson, announcer Ed McMahon, live band and crew of comedic sketch characters, gleamed into the home of, on average, over 5 million Americans.

President Bush called the TV star a “steady and reassuring presence in homes across America for three decades.”
David Letterman said, “All of us who came after are pretenders. We will not see the likes of him again.” 

During his last show, on May 22, 1992, Carson took a final bow and said carefully, “You people watching, it has been an honor and a privilege coming into your homes and entertaining you. Good night.” 

John Lennon

People magazine’s 10-year anniversary headline- “The Day the Music Died-” says it all.

John Lennon was tragically ripped away from a wife, two sons, and an adoring public on December 8, 1980 outside of the Dakota in New York City.

From interviews with fans turned witnesses, responding officers, and even a member of the ER staff at Roosevelt Hospital- I get a sense that no one believed what had happened could possibly have happened to John Lennon. Wife Yoko Ono, understandably, struggled most with those first moments after Lennon was prounounced. On giving the hospital staff permission to share his death, she said “for a split second, I felt as though John would still be alive if his death was not announced.”

 

Diana, Princess of Wales

Stories have surfaced since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, that she had taken up with a Pakistani doctor, was carrying an illegitamate child, battled an eating disorder, and was less than favored by the Queen.

Still, the staff at People summarized, “If ever a life had seemed destined for greater things, it was Diana’s. In the words of designer Elizabeth Emanuel, who created the princess’s 1981 wedding dress, “She wasn’t meant to go now; she had such an incredible amount to give still.” 

 I can remember overhearing my third-grade teacher say “She was too beautiful to die,”  which I can only now appreciate. Diana was a beautiful person, but not strikingly, overwhelmingly so. There was a common-ness about her that could be appealing to the masses.  (And it was.)

 – 

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite earned the nickname “Uncle Walter” during his tenure at CBS, where he covered Vietnam, the moon landing, and the assassination of President Kennedy.

“He believed in journalism and not opinion,”  says Katie Couric, who now sits at the CBS Evening News desk.   I believe this statement would do well if adopted by all in this industry, as too often bias and emotion creep into reporting- where it has no place.

President Obama said of Cronkite, “Walter was always more than just an anchor. He was someone we could trust to guide us through the most important issues of the day; a voice of certainty in an uncertain world. He was family.”

 

For a certain few, I guess, that’s just the way it is.

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