Russell Baker and Other Recent Losses

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Time magazine, June 4, 1979.

Writer, memoirist, essayist, reporter and columnist Russell Baker — a man who had a way with words, chosen with care, without waste, with thought aforethought, with humor and the kind of respect and tenderness that words deserve — died Jan. 21 in Leesburg, Virginia, at the age of 93.

Baker was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, for two distinctly different kinds of work: the autobiography “Growing Up,” about his Depression-era childhood, and his Observer column in the New York Times. He always seemed to effortlessly bring a patina of class, self-awareness and a keen, laser focus to the written task at hand.

He wrote a kind of personal social history — about daily life, his and ours — in a way that gave the readers credit for their intelligence and sense of humor, caring a lot about the truth of things, if not necessarily their grittiness. He was a wise man who could be serious without taking himself seriously.

Others — his peers, his bosses (if he actually could be said to have a boss), his forerunners and those who came after — took note and appreciated his better qualities. He was even chosen to host the tony PBS series “Masterpiece Theatre,” previously hosted by the inimitable Alistair Cooke. Baker was skeptical and a little reluctant, according to the Washington Post obituary, which quoted him as saying: “I don’t want to be the man who follows Alistair Cooke, I want to be the man who follows the man who follows Alistair Cooke.”

Just by the plainly evident fact that he was a cut above the many gifted journalists of his day who practiced the art of a more personal journalism, in addition to the objective kind, he was their most stellar example. Among his compliments from mere mortals was the title “humorist,” mainly because he could be funny, as well as wise, introspective and self-deprecating, as in: “The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work and that writing didn’t require any.”

If Baker was one of the more prominent losses suffered by the rest of us this month, it was not as if death was taking a holiday. All kinds of people (a novelist who wrote a story about a rat who read “Finnegans Wake,” a French resistance writer, a Belfast poet, the Captain from the Captain & Tennille) and some noted animals (including a horse named Evening Attire and a dog named Boo, who had acquired millions of likes on Facebook) died, resulting in obituaries, death notices, memorial services, a permanent place in the Wikipedia death lists and a lingering sorrow among many.

A guitarist named Reggie Young died at the age of 82 in his home in Leiper’s Fork in Tennessee. His death was announced by his wife, cellist Jennifer Young. In a photograph, he looks like the classic rock guitar player, the curved guitar held in his hand, the handsome rocker face, apparently listening. Many of us have probably heard pieces or a version of something he wrote. He was known as a genius of the “hook,” that guitar figure that gets you into the song like an irresistible push through the door, backing up stars from Elvis to Willie Nelson.

You remember the songs he had a guitar hand in: the unavoidable “Sweet Caroline,” “Drift Away,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “I Can Help” and so on and so on, in a good way.

Kaye Ballard, the all-around performer, actress, comedienne and wholly original live wire, passed away. In many ways, she bore quite a bit of resemblance to Carol Channing, another glamorous star who was not known for her glamour, who died a few days before Ballard. They shared a neighborhood, Rancho Mirage in the better-lit skies of California. Ballard and Channing were multi-talented, not shy at all, lit up the stage, the small and big screens, nightclubs and wherever more than two people were gathered, or so it seemed.

Woody Allen said Ballard was the first comedian who could properly tell a joke. She sang, she danced, she got to Broadway and everywhere you could get. She and Channing shared a kind of courage to be totally different from anybody and shake up the world around them. The only difference is one of degree; Ballard didn’t have a “Hello, Dolly” on her resume and Channing did, for all of her life.

On a personal note, they shared something else. This writer interviewed both in the latter decades of the last century. Channing was doing “Legends” at the National Theatre here and Ballard was doing a one-woman show at the Kennedy Center at some other time. The occasions remain among my fondest memories of being in the presence of originals.

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