Air Men

According to his obituary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Tim Kehoe “blew more than 10,000 bubbles before he perfected Zubbles, the nearly opaque orbs with the disappearing color.”

It took him over a decade to achieve this feat – a feat especially notable for an amateur inventor with no background in chemistry. Popular Mechanics awarded him 2005’s Grand Prize for General Innovation.

As that magazine’s former editor said:

What I loved most about the bubble story wasn’t just that he worked on it for 11 years, but that he wasn’t just an obsessive genius or crank … In that 11 years, he raised kids, bought a house, got real jobs, learned new skills. So even when it seemed like he had abandoned his dream, he hadn’t — it was just on hiatus while he did the practical work of living. That was what always inspired me, and I think drove such interest in that story when we published it, because it was something everybody could relate to. Being a little Tim Kehoe seemed possible for anyone.



George Perryman was also an amateur. Excerpts from his obituary by Kay Powell in the Atlanta Journal Constitution describe his achievements:

As a country boy growing up in Kentucky, George Perryman made his own toys. As an adult, while he designed airplanes for Lockheed Martin Corp., he made it possible for thousands of people to build his toys – model airplanes.

Mr. Perryman, with a 9th-grade mechanical drawing class as his only engineering training, was hired by Lockheed in 1951. The man who had studied at Emory University to become a geologist instead became a wind tunnel expert and helped design highly classified aircraft.

Four of Mr. Perryman’s model kits are found in hobby shops around the word, including the Mini-Maxer, which has sold 60,000 and is the biggest selling kit of all time.

“He had a special wing tip on his models, and NASA told him seven or eight years ago his design was more efficient than the triplets being used on airplanes.”

His balsa wood and paper model airplanes would fly for miles. Mr. Perryman would do anything to recover a model.  He once climbed a 12-foot fence topped with barbed wire to follow one of his planes, dashed past a man with a shotgun, then cleared a second fence before tracking down his model. “I found out later I had been through the middle of a convict work camp,” he said.


The Patron


“Mrs. Chase fed most of the civil rights movement’s leaders, as well as African-American entertainers who couldn’t eat in any other New Orleans restaurant during the Jim Crow years. President George W. Bush ate there, as did U.S. Sen. Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, when Mrs. Chase stopped him from adding hot sauce to her gumbo.”


Leah Chase’s Times-Picayune obituary records her contributions to the cuisine, culture, and improvement of New Orleans.

She and her husband, Dooky Chase, created a fine dining restaurant that was to become iconic:

Her clientele included such notable black entertainers as Lena Horne, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan … The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., known universally as “Daddy King,” was particularly fond of the spareribs, Mrs. Chase said, and the writer James Baldwin loved her gumbo.

She served on the boards of local museums and foundations, and served her own dishes for fundraisers, refusing payment.

She was also known for her support of the arts:

Mrs. Chase started catering the openings of fledgling artists so they could offer hospitality to people who had come to admire – and, perhaps, buy – their creations. She helped them pay their bills, and she hung their works in the restaurant.

Ray Charles sang about her restaurant in “Early in the Morning,” and she was the inspiration for Tiana in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.


The Founders


Walnut High School opened in the fall of 1968. Jim Polite taught there for the next thirty-nine years – and coached there for over half a century. According to his San Gabriel Valley Tribune obituary, “He was the driving force behind the rise to prominence by Walnut’s cross country and track and field programs.” And, as one of his track colleagues observed, “he always had a stopwatch around his neck.”



After serving in the Marines and working in a factory, Pete Moss went to college. He began teaching at Benzie Central High School at age 33, and over the next half-century transformed the school into “a running powerhouse.” As his obituary in the Traverse City Record-Eagle notes, Mr. Moss was known for his toughness. But, as one of his runners – who later became his physician – said, “we knew that behind all of that fire was love.”



After excelling in track during high school and college, Fred Thompson became a lawyer in Brooklyn, where worked on child negligence cases. As his New York Times obituary recounts:

Mr. Thompson founded the Atoms Track Club … mostly out of frustration with New York City public schools that, for budgetary and other reasons, limited the participation of girls, but not necessarily of boys, in physical education and high school sports.

This track club for girls was independent of any school, and largely financed by Mr. Thompson himself. He produced many successes over the next fifty years, both on the track and beyond:

Many of the Atoms’ victories could not be clocked by stopwatches. In its first 15 years, the club produced 50 college graduates, a remarkable record given the economic status of their families. 



The Drivers



One lived in Illinois, and the other in the Congo, but they shared an occupation: they were lifelines.



“Driver Susie Burns was shrink and chauffeur to the carless and the careworn,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Her obituary describes the daily kindnesses she’d perform for her passengers.

Ms. Burns’ humanity extended far beyond her professional duties: she adopted three children – one was handicapped, the other two had suffered abuse – and she took in foster children.



Pierre Mambele didn’t just drive journalists around Congo’s capital, he drove the news: “[T]he news would often have gone unheard without him,” his Reuters obituary declares.

He always kept an ear out for breaking news and for nuggets of truth in Kinshasa’s endless rumors. Mambele never hesitated to suggest ideas for stories he thought needed telling and the best people to speak to.

As his Economist obituary notes, his devotion also went beyond the requirements of his profession:

[H]e was a driver first … But he and the car, as its bashes showed, would drive through anything. He had to get his journalists, first, to where they wanted to go and, second, safely back again. If bad stuff happened, and they ended up hauled from the car or in jail, he would stay until he had rescued them … He became their protector and friend.


The Shop Keepers

A place ain’t a place without a bookstore. Gabrielle Zevin


There aren’t many bookstores dedicated solely to poetry, but Massachusetts still has one, thanks to a Nigerian philosophy professor. His Boston Globe obituary tells the story:

Ifeanyi Menkiti became, in April 2006, the man who saved poetry — or at the very least, he rescued one of its most revered institutions in this country by purchasing the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, which then was sorely in need of a buyer.


The American Booksellers Association’s obituary for Lilla Weinberger explains how she brought Yankee flair to California:

She was walking around the Plaza with her sister-in-law and noticed there was no New England-style literary bookstore in town. Her sister-in-law said there used to be one and people were really sad when it closed.


Vickie Williams also saw that her community had no bookstore, so she opened one. It did more than sell books, as her Seattle Times obituary recounts:

It became a community hub, where kids came by after school to page through books, do homework, and seek Williams’ counsel … Small African churches held services at the store. A recovery group started weekly meetings, as did a group of former inmates working on job development skills.