“I do not want to achieve immortality through my work,” Woody Allen once wrote. “I want to achieve immortality by not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live on in my apartment.”
While Allen is quite unlikely to get his wish, many other Americans should live on through their good works, inspiring their countrymen. Here are six of them, some better known than others, who died in 2023.
A champion of better treatment for “mentally and emotionally handicapped” people, Rosalynn Carter volunteered at a hospital in Atlanta to learn about current practices when her husband was governor of Georgia, and then helped establish 134 daycare centers for them. As First Lady in the White House, she served as honorary chair of President Carter’s Mental Health Commission, endorsed insurance coverage for mental as well as physical illnesses and played a pivotal role in passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980.
When the Carters returned to Georgia in 1981 and cofounded the Carter Center, Rosalynn traveled the world supporting human rights, free and fair elections, and universal health care. She helped build over 4,000 homes for Habitat for Humanity. In 1987, the Carters wrote “Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life.”
A staff writer at the New Yorker, Paul Brodeur was a crusader for a safer environment. In the 1970s and ’80s, he presented evidence, covered up by manufacturers and company doctors, that asbestos causes cancer. His exposes helped persuade Congress to remove asbestos from schools and government buildings. Brodeur also documented the role of chlorofluorocarbons in aerosol sprays and air conditioners in depleting the ozone layer. An international treaty subsequently phased them out. Less compelling, and still controversial, were Brodeur’s warnings about the adverse effects of radiation emitted by microwaves, power lines and electrical appliances. Dismissed as a scaremonger and environmental terrorist, Brodeur maintained he simply “believed public health issues should be written about at length and in depth.”
Harvard University Law School Professor Charles Ogletree challenged conventional wisdom about school desegregation, criminal justice and racial reparations. Ogletree’s high-profile clients included Mafia boss John Gotti, Anita Hill and rapper Tupac Shakur. A mentor to scores of students, including Barack Obama, Ogletree focused on law as “a tool to empower the dispossessed and disenfranchised.” He expanded clinical training of law students representing indigent defendants. He demanded financial compensation for victims of the 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma. And Ogletree helped overturn the conviction of a man in Georgia who had been sentenced to death after prosecutors turned down virtually all of the Black men and women in the jury pool.
Charles Feeney, the cofounder of Duty Free Shoppers, came close to fulfilling his promise of giving away his accumulated wealth — some $8 billion — while he was alive. Often quoting the proverb “shrouds have no pockets,” Feeney donated to Cornell University (where I teach); the medical campus of the University of California, San Francisco; public health facilities in Vietnam; AIDS clinics in South Africa; surgeries performed by Operation Smile; and earthquake relief in Haiti. He provided financial support to Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and the Ulster Defense Association, a Protestant paramilitary group, and helped broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought them together. For decades, Feeney remained anonymous, refusing to allow his name to appear on buildings and programs he funded. He lived in a two-bedroom apartment, took buses instead of taxis or limousines and wore a $10 wristwatch. Warren Buffett called Feeney “my hero” who “should be everybody’s hero.”
A Marine Corps veteran with a Ph.D. in Economics, Daniel Ellsberg served as a military analyst for the Department of Defense, the Rand Corporation and the State Department. Upset that government officials had hidden information about the Vietnam War from the public, Ellsberg tried to release a top-secret history of the conflict through official channels, including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Rebuffed, he leaked the documents to the New York Times and became the most famous whistleblower in U.S. history. Efforts by the Nixon administration to block publication of the Pentagon Papers resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision addressing freedom of the press and “the heavy presumption” against prior restraints.
Charged with theft, perjury and violation of the Espionage Act, Ellsberg said he would “gladly” accept life in prison if his actions ended the war. But he went free (and the Watergate investigation gained credibility) when Judge William Byrne Jr., citing government actions “so severe as to offend the sense of justice,” including illegal wiretapping and a break-in of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, declared a mistrial.
In subsequent decades, Ellsberg opposed U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In “The Doomsday Machine,” he provided an eye-opening account of America’s Cold War strategy of “mutually assured destruction.” In 2018, Sweden awarded Ellsberg the Olaf Palme Prize for “profound humanitarianism and exceptional moral courage.”
Ranked third in her class at Stanford University Law School in 1952, Sandra Day O’Connor was offered only secretarial jobs at major law firms. Elected to Arizona’s State Senate some years later, she became the first woman to serve as majority leader of that body before leaving politics for the judiciary. Elevated to the Supreme Court by President Reagan in 1981, O’Connor, who did not regard herself as a feminist, recognized that her appointment, another first, “opened many doors to young women.”
A pragmatic conservative who abhorred ideological rigidity, O’Connor believed that sound court decisions are usually “byproducts of a social consensus.” She cast the decisive vote affirming some restrictions on abortion, but set aside her personal beliefs to uphold Roe v. Wade, in part because “an entire generation has come of age” depending on it. O’Connor also concluded colleges could use “race-conscious admissions policies” because their benefits “are not theoretical, but real,” but hoped within twenty-five years affirmative action would no longer be necessary.
These men and women were, of course, flawed. And people of goodwill, including me, have criticized some of their policies and priorities. Nonetheless, remembering their compassion, convictions and courage reminds us that self-absorbed, self-interested cynics need not dominate our public life. May it move us to make — and keep — a New Year’s resolution to ensure they don’t.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”
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