Tyrus Wong and Ming Cho Lee were immigrants from China, and both used the artistic traditions of their homeland to change American entertainment.


Ming Cho Lee “radically and almost single-handedly transformed the American approach to stage design,” per his New York Times obituary. Drawing upon his training in Chinese watercolor painting, Lee created sets for hundreds of plays, dance works, and operas. His mastery, alas, did not always guarantee success:

“The most distinguished aspect of ‘Here’s Where I Belong,’ the new musical that opened at the Billy Rose Theater last night, is the scenery by Ming Cho Lee,” Clive Barnes wrote in reviewing that one-day wonder for The Times in 1968. “But no one ever walked out of a theater humming the scenery.”



Tyrus Wong was a low-level illustrator at Walt Disney’s studio when his colleagues ran into trouble.

Disney’s animators were struggling to bring “Bambi” to the screen. The wide-eyed fawn and his feathered and furry friends were literally lost in the forest, overwhelmed by leaves, twigs, branches and other realistic touches in the ornately drawn backgrounds.

“Too much detail,” Wong thought when he saw the sketches.

On his own time, he made a series of tiny drawings and watercolors and showed them to his superiors. Dreamy and impressionistic, like a Chinese landscape, Wong’s approach was to “create the atmosphere, the feeling of the forest.” It turned out to be just what “Bambi” needed.

Wong had studied the landscape paintings of the Song Dynasty, and his knowledge was the catalyst for the creation of a classic.

His Los Angeles Times obituary recounts his arduous and improbable journey to becoming an artist, as well as the racial discrimination he encountered. It also notes that in retirement, he became known for the beautiful homemade kites he flew on the beach.


The Originators

A metaphor is when you describe something by saying it’s something else. This may sound confusing, but we use these figures of speech all the time. When you say your vacation was heaven, or you describe the cafeteria as a zoo, the meaning is probably very clear.

Metaphors from sports – e.g. hit a home run, fumble the ball, throw in the towel – are part of everyday English. Below are obituaries of three sportsmen who changed not only their games, but our language.



“We don’t need to spike the football, and I think that, given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk,” Obama said.

After US commandos killed Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama declined to release photographs of the terrorist’s corpse. He did so using a football metaphor that expresses victorious celebration.

Professional football’s first spike was performed in 1965 by Homer Jones, on the occasion of catching his first touchdown pass. His joy did not last. According to his New York Times obituary:

…he said that he had watched the end-zone demonstrations over the years with disapproval, and that if he had known what would result from his act, he would have thought twice. “It caused so many things — obscene things and confusing things,” he said. “I wish I hadn’t started it.”


Tenet, a basketball fan… leaned forward and threw his arms up again. “Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk!”

George Tenet, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, convinced President George Bush to go to war in Iraq by using a basketball metaphor. He sought to convey the certainty that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction by using a term that means, colloquially, a sure thing. No such weapons were ever found.

It’s not certain who performed the first slam dunk, but it’s often attributed to Joe Fortenberry, who did so in Berlin in 1936 while leading the US Olympic team to a gold medal. His New York Times obituary notes the game, but not his innovation.


The Los Angeles Times obituary of Glenn Burke, who died at 42, is four paragraphs long. It recounts the prejudice he faced as one of the first openly gay players in a major league sport, as well as his troubled life following professional baseball.

The obituary neglects to mention that he brought us the high five.

The Logophiles


There are an estimated 7,000 languages in the world today, a majority of which originated with Indigenous people. Many of these are only spoken, not written, and they have no dictionaries. Because of forced assimilation, relocation and other factors involving Native people, most of these languages are on the verge of dying out.


Marie Wilcox sought to save one of them, Wukchumni. Her task was all the more urgent because she was the only person on Earth to speak it fluently. She created a dictionary so that the language would live on. As her New York Times obituary recounts:

Within short order, many family members started learning Wukchumni. And other Native American tribes were inspired by her story to revitalize their own disappearing languages.



Madeline Kripke did not, like Ms. Wilcox, create a dictionary. But she kept one of the world’s largest collections of them.

Beginning with the Webster’s Collegiate that her parents gave her in the fifth grade, she accumulated an estimated 20,000 volumes as diverse as a Latin dictionary printed in 1502, Jonathan Swift’s 1722 booklet titled “The Benefits of Farting Explained,” and the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 1980 guide to pickpocket slang.

Her New York Times obituary pays homage to her pursuit:

One question that none of Ms. Kripke’s reference books answers is what will happen to her collection. After avoiding eviction in the mid-1990s by agreeing to remove the volumes stacked in the hallway, she had hoped to transfer the whole enchilada [slang for the entirety] from her apartment and three warehouses to a university or, if she had her druthers [n., preference], to install it in her own dictionary library, which she never got to build.

Happily, the matter has been resolved, and the whole enchilada lives on as the Kripke Collection.

Hard Landings


The violence was immediate. Ms. Derickson took a kick to the chest from one of the hijackers and was kicked again while on the floor. The terrorists spoke no English, but one spoke German just as she did. This put her at the center of the drama for the next 55 hours…

In June of 1985, Uli Derickson was a flight attendant on a hijacked passenger jet. By the time her flight was over, she had negotiated the release of children and elderly women, shielded the identities of Jewish passengers, and halted a murderous beating. She also used her personal credit card to buy jet fuel.

Aftermath is an old agricultural word for growth that occurs after mowing. It now generally means, according to Merriam-Webster, “the period immediately following a usually ruinous event.”

In the aftermath of the hijacking, Ms. Derickson was feted as a hero. NBC made a movie about her, The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story.

But then false rumors claimed that she had not protected, but instead identified, Jewish passengers. She received death threats. Ms. Derickson had to move her family out of her house.

Despite her extraordinary heroism, Uli Derickson remained modest. According to her Los Angeles Times obituary:

She didn’t see herself as a hero. “They threw me a hot potato, and I had to handle it.”


(Photo credit: Vapor trails in the blue sky, Friedrich Haag, Wikimedia Commons)

Vesna Vulovic was a flight attendant for Yugoslav Airlines. Due to a staffing mixup, she was assigned to fly one January afternoon in 1972. An hour into the journey, the plane exploded six miles above earth. Her Telegraph obituary describes what happened next:

Vesna Vulović fell in the central piece of fuselage, her body pinned into place by a food trolley. Pine trees and snow cushioned the final impact. Her screams were heard by a woodsman who had served as a German Army medic in the war and knew how to treat her bleeding. None of the other 27 people aboard survived.

Doctors found that she had a fractured skull, three crushed or broken vertebrae and two broken legs. The three-inch heels had been torn off her stilettos. She was temporarily paralysed and in a coma for a month. The first thing she did on coming round was to ask for a cigarette.

In the aftermath, “Paul McCartney presented her with an award from the Guinness Book of Records and Tito, the Yugoslav dictator, turned her into a national heroine.”

She returned to her employer, but, unable to resume work as a flight attendant, she was assigned to a desk. She lost her job in 1990 after criticizing Serbia’s genocidal ruler, Slobodan Milosevic.

According to her New York Times obituary, “She seems not to have lived the life of a celebrity at all and to have kept mostly to herself.” Nor did she credit fortune, arguing that if she were lucky, she wouldn’t have been in an exploding airplane in the first place.

Ms. Vulovic did acknowledge some benefit, however. Her Telegraph obituary closes with this quote:

‘It made me an optimist,” she said of her experience. “If you can survive what I survived, you can survive anything.”

September 7th

(Obituaries of three men who share a birthday.)



But it was in the fight on smallpox — perhaps the most lethal disease in history and one that killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century alone — that he became known around the world.

D.A. Henderson led the effort to end smallpox. He began in 1966 and accomplished the goal within fifteen years. As his Washington Post obituary notes, its eradication is “the only such vanquishment in history of a human disease and an achievement… credited with saving tens of millions of lives.”



Starting in the 1980s, after decades of working in relative obscurity, Mr. Yuan became nationally celebrated as a Chinese scientist making world-class advances.

The first sentence of Yuan Longping’s New York Times obituary describes him as “a Chinese plant scientist whose breakthroughs in developing high-yield hybrid strains of rice helped to alleviate famine and poverty across much of Asia and Africa.”

His efforts contributed to the spectacular success of the Green Revolution, a series of agricultural developments in the 1950s and 1960s that hugely increased the amount of food crops grown worldwide.

As one countryman put it: “He saved a lot – a lot – of lives.”



Petrov spent his retirement alone in virtual obscurity… unrewarded by his country’s authorities. His death went unannounced for four months…

Early one morning in 1983, Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov prevented a nuclear war. While on duty at a command center, he received an alert that the US had launched nuclear missiles. His Guardian obituary explains what happened next:

He decided to report the alert as a system malfunction. “I had a funny feeling in my gut… I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”

His misgivings proved well founded… The false alarm was apparently caused by the satellite mistaking the sun’s reflection off the tops of high-altitude clouds for a missile launch.