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Remembering Who We Lost in 2019


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Nancy Novak, center, kept things interesting at Novak’s Bar. - THEO WELLING
  • Nancy Novak, center, kept things interesting at Novak‚Äôs Bar.

John Witherspoon, actor and comedian

January 27, 1942 - October 29, 2019

"John Witherspoon is black history," Twitter's Rembert Browne tweeted after the comic actor died of a heart attack at his Los Angeles home in October at age 77. It was a fair assessment: Witherspoon's filmography spanned decades, including appearances on The Richard Pryor Show, the Friday franchise, Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Wayans Bros. and The Boondocks, as well as Jay-Z and Goodie Mob music videos, among others.

Born in Detroit to a family with eleven siblings, Witherspoon got his start taking theater classes in the Motor City in the early '70s. He got into stand-up at the behest of his acting instructor, who thought he'd be funny in a holiday comedy show. Witherspoon soon relocated to Los Angeles, opening for the legendary Richard Pryor at the Comedy Store. Later, Pryor cast him as part of his short-lived NBC variety show in 1977 before it was canceled for being too risqué.

For many, though, Witherspoon will always just be "Pops" — the amusingly cantankerous father to Ice Cube's Craig Jones in the 1995 stoner comedy Friday. Witherspoon would reprise the role in 2000's Next Friday and 2002's Friday After Next and was cast in a similar role as "Granddad" in the comic strip-turned-Adult Swim cartoon The Boondocks, which debuted in 2005. After years of development hell, a fourth Friday film was finally given the green light in 2017 but was only in pre-production at the time of Witherspoon's death. He was also set to appear in a recently announced Boondocks reboot, though that project had not begun production yet either.

In an odd way, Witherspoon got to enjoy a final goodbye. In 2012, when a false report of his death went viral, Witherspoon reacted to the news just as Pops might. "What the hell y'all talkin 'bout on here?!?!?" he tweeted. "I ain't dead, I'm in Ft. Lauderdale."

—Lee DeVito

Nancy Novak, owner of Novak's Bar

November, 7 1955 - November 29, 2019

The end was always near for Nancy Novak. For years, the specter of impending financial, legal and personal disaster — realized just often enough to lend a certain plausibility — was part of the drama and intrigue of the maverick of the St. Louis bar scene.

She ran Novak's Bar, a legendary lesbian spot that managed to include anyone who felt like a wild night. And if countless waves of rumors were to be believed, collapse was always right around the corner: Checks were bouncing, Nancy was partying too hard, lawyers were circling. The fact that it existed at all could seem revelatory, especially to the legions who slipped out of small towns hours away to drink and dance in the first place they felt comfortable to be themselves. All that "Going Out of Business Sale!" energy undoubtedly contributed to the in-the-moment vibe of long afternoons that stretched into 3 a.m. Nancy swirled in the center of the barely controlled chaos, performing acts of generosity that earned fierce loyalty in some while feuding with others. Accused of deceit and petty attacks by rival bars, she reacted with the righteous bafflement of a wounded innocent.

And still Novak's spun on for more than seventeen years. If doomsday really was on the horizon, no one wanted to miss that last party. In 2013, Novak's hosted a final blowout as Nancy "retired," only to reopen after the weekend payday. And when it closed for good shortly after, there were whispers that she would bring it back to life one day. The RFT's sister magazine Out in STL profiled her in September, and she said she wanted to reopen the bar and leave it for everyone. She was dying of cancer then and had returned to St. Louis from California, appearing at a reunion at Just Johns. It was something of a living wake. Even then, critics quietly wondered if it was a bluff, that she was setting us up for one more return. If anyone could have pulled it off, it was Nancy.

—Doyle Murphy

Bernice Sandler,

catalyst of Title IX

March 3, 1928 - January 5, 2019

In 1969, Bernice Sandler was a bright young instructor at the University of Maryland, hoping to land a full-time spot on the faculty.

She knew she was a good teacher, and there were seven open positions. So when she was barely considered, she asked a male faculty member if he had any insight. He conceded she was easily qualified, "but let's be honest, you come on too strong for a woman."

Sandler, who died in January at age 90, probably repeated that quote thousands of times in interviews and speeches in the five decades that followed.

"Sometimes people ask me what inspired me to get involved in women's issues," Sandler said in 2012 after receiving a human rights award. "I have to tell you, I wasn't inspired at all. I was mad."

She began researching sex discrimination and found an executive order barring organizations that received federal money from discriminating based on race, religion, national origin or gender. Armed with that information, Sandler filed complaints against 250 universities, battling the system that routinely discriminated against female teachers and students. She partnered with crusading Congresswoman Edith Green to pass Title IX. The 37-word bill, signed in 1972 by President Richard Nixon, has since become a versatile and powerful tool for fighting sex discrimination. Most famously, it has been applied to collegiate sports, guaranteeing female athletes opportunities unheard of before.

Sandler spent the rest of her life advocating for equal rights. She served as chair of the National Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs under presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and has been cited as a hero by some of this country's top athletes. But she never forgot that line about coming on "too strong for a woman." It turns out, she was too strong to be stopped.

— Doyle Murphy

Scott Walker, musician

January 9, 1943 - March 22, 2019

How could one craft an appropriate epigraph to sum up the singular musical life of Scott Walker? Can you imagine Frank Sinatra in his later years collaborating with a doom metal band? Or Justin Timberlake chucking away stardom for cigarettes, sunglasses, Bertolt Brecht and slabs of raw meat as percussion instruments? Walker did it his way and then some.

Fresh from a stint as a teenage session musician in L.A., Walker (née Noel Scott Engel) became one-third of the Walker Brothers in the mid-1960s; they became immediate sensations in the U.K., mixing beat-combo moves with symphonic grandeur, yielding hits like "Make It Easy on Yourself" and the immortal "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore." Soon enough, Walker found that the screaming fans and the pop life weren't for him, at one point apocryphally retreating to a monastery to get his head together before being ejected by the monks as fans besieged the gates.

Walker struck out on his own and from 1967-1969 crafted four of the most exquisite and heartbreaking albums of all time, the eponymous Scotts 1 through 4. This was Walker at his most iconic: sunglasses, shag haircut and a soaring, unbelievably gorgeous voice offering no hope whatsoever. Latterly hailed as the gospel by artists from David Bowie to Thom Yorke, these albums had the net effect of destroying his career, eventually forcing him back into the arms of the Walker Brothers for a reunion in 1975, but Scott couldn't even do a cynical cash-grab right, penning the sinister "Nite Flights" and "The Electrician," two gleaming hits of dystopian electro-pop that still sound state-of-the-art, pointing the way to possible sonic futures even now.

From there, Walker began his gradual disappearing act, retreating to a life based around the simple pleasures of going to the pub and watching regulars play darts, bicycling and seeing movies. He'd emerge every few years with ever-more ambitious and mind-bending solo work — Climate of Hunter, Tilt and The Drift — but by the time Walker was given the hagiography treatment in the 2006 documentary 30 Century Man, it was clear he wasn't going to give fans a triumphant return to the stage. Instead of the nostalgia circuit, he gave them strange and beautiful work like the instrumental piece for dance And Who Shall Go to the Ball? And What Shall Go to the Ball?, collaborations with Sunn O))) and Bat for Lashes, a final solo album, Bish Bosch and two film scores for Brady Corbet. Walker passed quietly this year due to complications from cancer, enigma fully intact.

—Matthew Moyer


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