The Defenders

 

In March, a terrorist group in Nigeria captured two midwives, Hauwa Mohammed Liman and Saifura Hussaini Ahmed Khorsa. Both are now dead.

Midwives help pregnant women have healthy births. The murders of Ms. Liman and Ms. Khorsa are devastating in a country that has, as National Public Radio reports, “one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world as well as one of the highest infant mortality rates.”

Violence against health workers in conflict zones is a terrible problem; according to a report NPR cites, there were 701 attacks last year. But violence against health workers extends beyond war zones. In the United States, it can be more dangerous to be a nurse than a police officer.

Even without their violence, keeping people healthy is risky. The obituary page of The Economist pays tribute to Lini Puthussery, a nurse in India dedicated to patient care:

For the virus to spread between humans, contact had to be intensive and direct. That was exactly what Lini, with her tireless nursing, had provided. On May 16th she felt feverish, but insisted to [her husband] that she would go to work because “lots of patients are there”, as always.

 

The Amateur

 

 

In 1949, Zhou Youguang left his Wall Street job and came back to China to teach economics. His academic career would take a turn, however:

[T]he Communist government was seeking to make Mandarin Chinese the national language and to boost literacy throughout the country. In 1955, it convened a committee to create an alphabetic system, based on Mandarin, that would be easier to use than existing Romanization systems.

Knowing that linguistics was a hobby of Mr. Zhou’s, [foreign minister] Zhou Enlai drafted him to come to Beijing and lead the committee. Mr. Zhou’s protests that he was a mere amateur were to no avail.

“Everyone is an amateur,” he was told.

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“Amateur” is a French word that means lover. But not in the romantic sense: it means someone who loves a pursuit, like a game or a hobby.

 

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Most of China’s population – then, as still, the world’s largest – was illiterate. So Mr. Zhou’s team created Pinyin, which uses the Roman alphabet, to write Chinese characters.

As his New York Times obituary puts it, “Pinyin was designed not to replace the tens of thousands of traditional characters with which Chinese is written, but as an orthographic pry bar to afford passage into the labyrinthine world of those characters.”

For an amateur, Zhou Youguang was pretty good:

Today, Pinyin is used by hundreds of millions of people in China alone. Schoolchildren there first learn to read by means of the system before graduating to the study of characters. As a result, the country’s illiteracy rate today is about 5 percent.

 

The Americans

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When Rusty Staub joined the brand new Montreal Expos in 1969, something bothered him. “I couldn’t talk to a child,” he told the Montreal Gazette.

I took about 24 French classes after the first season, and the next year I took longer classes… There’s not a question that my making the effort is part of the reason that whatever Le Grand Orange represented to Montreal and all those fans, they knew I cared and tried. I tried to be part of their community and I always tried to do that wherever I went – it’s what you should do. 

Le Grand Orange carried that spirit with him to New York, where the Rusty Staub Foundation raised millions for the hungry and homeless, as well as for the families of fallen police officers and firefighters. As he explained in the New York Daily News, it was personal:

My mother’s brother was a policeman killed in the line of duty in New Orleans. I was just a little kid, sitting on my bed with my mom and my brother saying the rosary, and I never got over that.

 

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While Rusty Staub was learning French, halfway around the world Sachio Kinugasa was learning English.

Kinugasa’s father, a US soldier stationed in Japan, was African-American. As his New York Times obituary recounts, Kinugasa’s mixed race had made him the object of torment as a child, and remained “a sensitive subject that was not mentioned in two unauthorized biographies and that his teammates did not discuss.”

For him, it was personal:

Years later, a Carp teammate told a Japanese newspaper that he once asked Kinugasa why he stayed up late studying English. Kinugasa replied that he wanted to go to America to search for his father, whom he had never met. “If you become the No. 1 player in Japan,” the teammate said, “he’ll come to see you.” Kinugasa nodded, with tears in his eyes.

According to his Japan Times obituary, that reunion never occurred. But Kinugasa did become a top player, legendary for his endurance. The Iron Man – as he was known – eventually broke the consecutive game record of the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig.

Nine years later Kinugasa traveled to America to personally congratulate – as one Iron Man to another – the new record holder.

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The Modelers

 

Maryam Mirzakhani was the first woman to win the Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for math.

She liked to do her work on huge pieces of paper on the floor. You can see her in action in this video:

 

As her obituary in The Economist recounts, surfaces and geometric structures weren’t her only challenges:

She belied stereotypes. To Americans, she had to explain that in her native Iran (unlike Saudi Arabia) women’s education and careers were not just tolerated but encouraged: her girls’ high school was run by a national organisation responsible for hothousing young talent. She was not only the first woman to win the Fields medal, but the first Iranian, making her a celebrity there. Some media flinched piously from portraying her without a headscarf, a taboo which frayed after her death. Her marriage to a non-Muslim was not recognised, hampering family visits. Many also bemoaned her emigration, part of a debilitating brain drain. She moved to America for postgraduate study in 1999, a time when today’s anti-Muslim immigration policies were unimaginable.

According to her obituary in The Atlantic:

Both in Iran and and internationally, Mirzakhani became a heroic figure for women in the sciences. Colleagues described her as very modest, and hesitant to take credit. But when she won the Fields Medal in 2014 she acknowledged her impact by saying, “I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians.”

 

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Hidden Figures tells the story of the black female mathematicians who helped the first American astronaut orbit Earth.

The film’s cast and crew relied on Rudy Horne for their math. As his Chicago Sun-Times obituary explains:

The professor did more than check the math. He provided a vintage concept – Euler’s method – that helped solve a problem in a pivotal moment in the movie.

 

Described by friends and colleagues as a “braniac,” “consummate egghead,” and “rock-star teacher,” Mr. Horne was, also, an example:

“Rudy Horne was a direct role model for African-American male students because they could see themselves as hardcore applied mathematicians and have fun while doing it.”

 

 

The Welcomers

 

 

 

When Marjorie Silverman became a concierge, it was unusual.

Back when Marjorie entered our field, most people didn’t know what a concierge was, much less how to pronounce the word… What she did was a big deal. Our international organization was very male and European-dominated, so she single-handedly broke that glass ceiling.

What does a concierge do? Her Chicago Tribune obituary explains:

Silverman’s workdays typically started with a meeting of luggage attendants to advise them of the arrivals and departures, particularly of large groups. She would also check the VIP arrival list and send those guests a note or, when appropriate, a gift. As business travelers left for appointments, she made travel arrangements and arranged baby-sitting services, dinner and theater reservations. Then she began preparing for the next wave of guests.

In short, a concierge upholds one of humanity’s oldest and noblest traditions, hospitality. The details have changed over millennia, but the essence remains the same:

When a stranger came to the house, he was always entertained with a warm bath for his “poor feet” and with food and wine. He was never (vide Homer’s poems) rudely, or even civilly, questioned as to his name, country, and business, until his bodily wants had been attended to. It was not, indeed, until the cloth was removed, the dessert put upon the table, and the wine-cup passed around, that the questions were put: Who are you? Whence come you? What is your city?

– A Few Reflections on the Rights, Duties, Obligations and Advantages of Hospitality, Cornelius Walford, 1885

 

 

 

Toni Mascolo, an Italian immigrant to the UK, opened a hair salon with his brother in London in the 1960s. Over the next half-century, they created an international chain in 48 countries.

As Mascolo’s Financial Times obituary notes, Toni & Guy’s success was in part due to historic good timing:

During the “swinging Sixties” models and pop stars set new style trends. London became a fashion capital. Women began entering the workplace and they spent some of their earnings on haircuts and beauty treatments. More recently men have begun to take more care of their appearance as well.

But the success was also due to listening. As his Wall Street Journal obituary recounts, “Women began asking if the salon could cut their husbands’ or sons’ locks, so the brothers turned their shop into a pioneering unisex establishment.”

Listening wasn’t just good business sense; Mascolo understood it was an obligation – and advantage – of hospitality.

“He had a tremendously strong set of values and passed them on to the staff. He said you had to treat clients as if you are inviting them into your home.”

 

 

Henry Saglio

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In the 1920s, supporters of Herbert Hoover claimed he’d bring about such prosperity that America would have a chicken in every pot.

That would have raised the living standard of the average American family, even in the Roaring Twenties. As this article explains, “a chicken dinner was such a rare treat that the few chickens raised for meat were sold directly to high-end restaurants, first-class dining cars, and luxury caterers.”

Chicken is now the most commonly eaten meat in the United States. This transformation is in large part due to the ingenuity of a man Frank Perdue called “the father of the chicken industry.”

 

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Henry Saglio began breeding chickens as a teenager. His initial motivation was the respite it provided from farming in the open sun. Within decades, as his Boston Globe obituary notes, “three out of four birds sold were descended from Mr. Saglio’s breed stock.”

Mr. Saglio, who had only an eighth-grade education, took his expertise to the developing world as well, and, at the age of 87, founded a company dedicated to antibiotic-free breeding.

“I’ve dedicated my life to making chickens affordable to poor people,” Saglio told Associated Press in 1987. “And that’s what I did. Everybody’s eating chicken now.”

 

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