The Designers


First US patent release of LEGO figures by Interlego AG. Photo credit: Wikipedia


Legos were created by a Danish carpenter in the 1930s. The name comes from the combination of the Danish words for “play well,” leg godt.

It wasn’t until 1978, however, that the boxes included humanity. That year the company’s chief designer, Jens Nygaard Knudsen, introduced the Lego minifigure.

Early minifigures included a police officer, a firefighter, a doctor, a gas station attendant, a knight and an astronaut. The line proved so popular that it grew over the years to include 8,000 characters, among them figures from the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises. Lego-loving children who grow into Lego-loving adults have been known to place bride-and-groom minifigures atop wedding cakes.

As of today, there are around 7.8 billion humans on the planet. It took the Homo sapiens 200,000 years to reach this number. As Mr. Knudsen’s Washington Post obituary notes, his creation took a little over forty years to catch up.


Matchbox from 1971. Photo Credit: Auge=mit, Wikimedia Commons

It was Jack Odell’s daughter who gave him the idea: she wanted a toy that could fit into a matchbox. After making her a miniature steamroller, he “realized he had stumbled upon a product that the company he co-owned, struggling Lesney Products, could sell.”

His Wall Street Journal obituary describes what happened next:

Matchbox toys, packaged in realistic “matchboxes,” went on to become wildly popular both in England and the U.S. (Some British reports compared it to the 1790s craze over yo-yos.) While Mr. Odell designed many of the cars, partner Leslie Smith took care of marketing and sales.

His eye for detail and abilities as a die-cutter led to realistic dashboard dials and hoods and trunks that opened…. Clad in a white apron and sporting a close-trimmed mustache, Mr. Odell could be found checking on quality on the factory floor.

Just as the Lego minifigure soon matched its human counterpart, Odell’s creations quickly overtook their larger relations. As he said in 1963: “We produce more Rolls-Royces in a single day than the Rolls-Royce company has made in its entire history.”

Today there are over 3 billion Matchbox cars – more than twice the number of actual automobiles.


The Traditionalists



Taps is a short musical piece played at a military funeral. It is usually played by a solo bugler or trumpeter.

David Hurley was dismayed to learn that veterans were sometimes buried to recordings from a portable cassette player. So, being an amateur trumpet player, Mr. Hurley – a veteran himself – would travel, at his own expense, to veterans’ funerals to perform taps.

As well as paying his own way, Mr. Hurley also, as his SFGATE obituary explains, refused payment.

His son heard a story about a captain’s widow showing surprise that there was no charge. Mr. Hurley reportedly replied: “We can talk about it after you hear me play. Then you’ll probably understand.”

Mr. Hurley was not alone in volunteering his services. This AP story notes, however, that demand continues to exceed supply.



Tekuo. Rabbi, wearing prayer shawl, blowing from a small shofar, a ram’s horn. 1901, New York. Library of Congress


Jennie Litvack was an amateur trumpeter, and, in her childhood, even befriended Dizzy Gillespie. As her Economist obituary recounts, it was while pursuing a career in economic policy that she had a change of heart:

She played the trumpet some more when working as an economist for the World Bank, in northern Cameroon, Vietnam and Morocco. And then, at 43, having just had her last son, she decided to follow what she called her still, quiet voice and be part of a movement to revitalise Jewish spiritual life in America.

A shofar is an instrument used in Jewish religious ceremonies. It’s traditionally made from a ram’s horn. Ms. Litvack had one made specially for her, and would play it at her local synagogue.

Along with the birth of her sons, she liked to say that blowing the shofar brought her closer to God than anything else in her life. Even after her metastasing cancer meant the removal of a large part of both her lungs, she would take up her instrument with kavanah, “intention”, close her eyes, shut out the world and concentrate on her breath, her shofar, her soul.


This 2009 NPR interview ends with Ms. Litvack playing taps on her shofar.


Advances in Obituary Writing

An obituary is published after its subject’s death. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that it’s written after that death. Obituary writers are known to give themselves head starts.

“Advances” are obituaries written beforehand. Then, when the inevitable occurs, all that remains is some quick updating. Margalit Fox, a former New York Times obituarist, explains that this is not without difficulty:

One of the most stressful aspects of reporting an advance entails, when feasible, telephoning its pre-dead subject for an interview. This is one of the stranger social predicaments in human experience and, trust me, there is nothing in Emily Post to cover it. The midcentury Timesman Alden Whitman, an obituary writer famous for sitting down with his subjects in advance, favored tender circumlocutions on the order of, “We’re updating your biographical file” and “This is for possible future use.” I have used both with a fair margin of success.


Fate being what it is, subjects of advances can outlive their authors. The New York Times has some acquaintance with this phenomenon:

Mel Gussow, a longtime critic and cultural reporter at The Times, had been dead for six years when his obituary of Ms. Taylor was published in 2011. Ms. Ross outlived the author of her obituary, Michael T. Kaufman, a distinguished foreign correspondent and editor, by more than seven years. And the obituary for James A. Van Allen, who discovered the radiation belts that bear his name, was published more than 10 years after the death of its writer, Walter Sullivan.


And then there is this example of journalistic collegiality, offered by the Guardian. Godfrey Hodgson wrote the obituary for John Shirley, who died in 2018. Last month, Mr. Shirley – having done his advance work – returned the favor.


Revolutionary Photographers

This image of Che, noble and defiant, with tilted beret and flowing locks, rapidly spread to T-shirts and album covers, and was soon taken up by advertisers targeting youth…


According to his Guardian obituary, photographer Alberto Korda was living “an expensive playboy lifestyle” in Havana when he found a new calling:

[H]is life was transformed by the Cuban revolution of 1959. On an assignment in the countryside soon after the guerrillas defeated the dictator Batista, he encountered such poverty that he was converted to the revolutionary cause. He began to follow the new Cuban leaders around, offering his photos to the newspaper Revolución, whose offices were close to his studios.

He spent 10 years as Fidel Castro’s official photographer, using his skills to humanise the revolutionary leader’s image in off-duty scenes – sharing moments with Ernest Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre, or confronting a caged tiger at the New York Zoo.

It was while on an assignment for Revolución in 1960 that Korda took the famous photo of Che…

Che Guevara was a Marxist revolutionary who fought in Cuba, the Congo, and Bolivia. One morning Korda snapped his photo at a memorial service. It was to become one of the most reproduced images in history. Korda, who gave the photograph away as a gift, would earn no money from it.


Photo credit: Graffiti in Bergen, Norway, of Che Guevara wearing his iconic ‘Guerrillero Heroico’ photograph. Sveter, January 2009 via Wikimedia Commons


“Almost every major event that shaped our modern world had 10, 15 well-known photographers who documented it. In this massive event in China there was only Li…


In 1966, Mao Zedong began a catastrophic decade known as the Cultural Revolution.  One newspaper photographer in the northeast of China, Li Zhensheng, played a crucial historical role. His Washington Post obituary explains:

The Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao to re-inject proletarian Communist fervor into his flagging national project, sent tens of millions of young zealots onto China’s streets. They staged public show trials, beatings, criticism sessions and “home raids” of bureaucrats and intellectuals. They turned on their teachers, co-workers, friends and parents. The turmoil, which Mao initiated to assert his authority and purge political rivals, is estimated to have caused 1.5 million deaths, many by suicide.

Working during that era as a state newspaper photographer, Mr. Li defied instructions to destroy negatives that contradicted official propaganda. He stored 30,000 negatives under his floorboards, waiting for the right moment to release them.

Li documented these horrors and, like many of his countrymen, was swept up by them: he spent two years in a re-education camp.

The Cultural Revolution ended only after Mao’s death in 1976. It remains a sensitive topic in China, and despite its enormity, there are relatively few publicly available photographs.

Li, after emigrating to the United States, was able to publish his photographs in 2003.

“Terrible things happened. We have a responsibility to speak about them. We must speak about them.”


The Turkey Handlers


Thanksgiving Menu, George Elbert Burr, Smithsonian American Art Museum


Americans eat over two hundred million turkeys a year. Preparing them for purchase is hard, often dangerous, work, and Willie Levi did it for decades. His obituary, in The Economist, describes his labor:

Increasingly he was yelled at, called lazy, and told that he should get off his black butt and lift weights. Punishments came thick and fast: stand in the corner, go to your room, no TV, walk round the gym till supper time. The schoolhouse fell into disrepair and was overrun with mice and roaches, which fell from the ceiling as he ate. Mould grew on his clothes. He broke his kneecap, but had to work on. Two men ran away, and one of them was found frozen dead in a ditch; for a time the building was padlocked.

Mr. Levi, who was mentally disabled, “went on with the work. It was a long way back home, and possibly no one would know him any more.” He worked twelve-hour days and received $65 a month.

It was not until 2009 that a state social worker went into the schoolhouse, found them all in the stinking rubbish, and rescued them… For Willie Levi, rescue was like a holiday. They went to the Super 8 Motel, slept in clean beds and had waffles for breakfast. From now on, he would be protected. He wouldn’t have to work with turkeys any more. He certainly wouldn’t eat them, ever again.

Mr. Levi died in April of the coronavirus.




Americans eat close to fifty million turkeys on Thanksgiving alone. Preparing them for the table, however, doesn’t always go smoothly. Every year, Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line receives over a hundred thousand calls. Phyllis Larson handled many of them:

One caller told her “I followed the directions but the turkey is blue.” Turned out, they left the blue plastic seal on the bird.

On Thanksgiving Day, she would field calls from hosts and hostesses who said they were expecting a big crowd, but they hadn’t gotten around to removing the turkey from the freezer.

Ms. Larson was a home economics teacher and an excellent cook, but, as her Chicago Sun-Times obituary notes, “perhaps her biggest skill was in assuring frazzled callers their guests were going to be happy and the holidays would be fine.”