Notable deaths in 2019: Politics, business, history


MUSIC: [Music from 1992 Karl Lagerfeld fashion show]

KATIE GAULTNEY, REPORTER: We begin with fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who led French luxury brand Chanel from 1983 until his death. He died in February after battling pancreatic cancer. He was 85.

Many regarded Lagerfeld as one of the most influential tastemakers of the 20th century. And he found as much beauty in a well-constructed pair of jeans as he did in a formal evening gown. Perhaps ironically, given his career of choice, Lagerfeld said chicness isn’t so much about what you wear, but who you are.

LAGERFELD: You know, if you come and ask me, “I want to be chic,” there is little hope to become chic. Because there are peasants in countries who are beyond chic in their poor rags, and there are very rich women who are not chic in the most expensive dress… 

From the catwalks of Paris to the halls of the Federal Reserve Building in Washington, D.C. Former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker died earlier this month. He was 92.

In his eight years as chairman under Presidents Carter and Reagan, Volcker famously raised interest rates to 20 percent to attack inflation.

VOLCKER: You cannot build economic growth, you cannot build prosperity, you can’t build full employment on a currency that is inflating, that people don’t have full confidence in.

During the Obama administration, Volcker led the Economic Recovery Board, shaping banking reforms. His policy under Obama was called the Volcker Rule. It set safeguards in place to prevent banks from making speculative bets that put the institutions and taxpayers at risk.

Volcker may have worked to “balance the books” on a federal level, but the world lost another kind of bookkeeper this year.

COMMERCIAL: We stand behind our work and guarantee your satisfaction. [jingle: America’s tax team, standing up for you!]

That’s H&R Block founder, Henry Bloch. He died in April at the age of 96.

Bloch was born into a Jewish family in 1922, and with his brother started H&R Block in 1955. For the next 12 years, they charged just $5 to do a tax return. Bloch said his business took off when the IRS stopped offering free tax preparation help.

BLOCH: The IRS decided to get out. And they used Kansas City to test it. So people would go to the IRS office and remember our ads and come see us. We had a lot of lucky breaks.

The entrepreneur is considered an early pioneer of franchising. Today, H&R Block maintains about 12,000 tax offices around the world.

But Henry Bloch kept his roots in Kansas City, Missouri, where he philanthropically invested much of his fortune back into the community where he grew up.

On to another familiar name in business: artist, author, fashion designer, and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt.

She was famous from birth because of her family name. As an adult, she became one of the first to market designer blue jeans, along with a line of perfumes, household goods, and other clothing.

COMMERCIAL: Our Gloria Vanderbilt denims are carefully designed to give you the hug without the squeeze. Our denims fit right, but not too tight. It’s a wonderful way to be hugged! Gloria Vanderbilt denims by Murjani…

Vanderbilt married four times, with three of those resulting in divorce. She bore four sons, including media personality Anderson Cooper. Cooper’s older brother and father both died unexpectedly.

In an interview in 1996, she reflected on the role that pain played in her life:

VANDERBILT: I think that without pain that we can’t know what joy is and that is very sustaining for me, because that is what life is, and if we don’t have pain, we don’t have joy, and if we don’t have pain, we don’t know that we’re alive.

Vanderbilt died in New York City in June. She was 95.

MUSIC: [Oklahoma State fight song]

That’s the fight song of Oklahoma State University—a school near and dear to benefactor T. Boone Pickens’ heart.

The legendary entrepreneur and philanthropist made his fortune in the oil business. Over the course of 91 years, he donated more than a billion dollars to charity. He also put a great deal of money and effort toward ending U.S. dependence on overseas oil, a strategy he called “the Pickens plan.”

Pickens was known for his optimism and his sense of humor. He addressed a group at Oklahoma State a few years ago with his signature wit.

PICKENS: When I was 84 years old, I realized that half my life was over. [laugher] They told me at Southwestern Medical, they said, “Boone, we’ve got good news for you and bad news.” And I said, “Okay, good news first.” And they said, “Boone, you’re gonna live to be 114. Bad news, you will not be able to hear or see.” [laughter]

Pickens died in Dallas in September. He was 91.

Turning now from business to politics.

Li Peng served as Premier of the People’s Republic of China from 1987 to 1998. He remained active in Chinese politics through the mid-2000s. Li died in July at the age of 90.

He became known as the “Butcher of Beijing” following the massacres in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989. Students had gathered to protest economic inequality between the citizens of China and the political elite, including—and perhaps especially—Li Peng himself. He ordered martial law and backed the military against students.

BBC NEWSREEL: The approach to Tiananmen Square by troops to the west of Peking last night was typical of everything that has followed since then and completely contradicts the Chinese government’s claim that its target is a handful of hooligans, criminals, and counter-revolutionaries.

Estimates of those killed in Tiananmen Square range from several hundred to several thousand. Li never expressed remorse over his role in the massacre. In fact, he celebrated the crackdown as a historic victory for communism.

Next, the man behind Chrysler’s turnaround in the 1980s, the minivan, and the Ford Mustang: Lee Iacocca.

AUDIO: [Ford Mustang engine sounds]

The charismatic Italian-American businessman led Ford during some of its biggest triumphs. Those included the Mustang and the Continental Mark III, as well as the revival of the Mercury brand in the 1960s. But he also presided over at least one of its big bombs—literally and figuratively—in the Ford Pinto, whose engine tended to burst into flames in a collision.

After leaving Ford in 1978, Iacocca took the top post at Chrysler. The company was hemorrhaging cash after a series of recalls. Under Iacocca’s leadership, Chrysler secured a loan guarantee from the U.S. government. That saved the company from bankruptcy.

COMMERCIAL: Convertibles, they said, nobody wanted but everybody copied. Sports cars and luxury cars. Turbo so powerful, so efficient, you’ll never go back to a V8 again. And a wagon so versatile, so right for America today, we can’t build enough of them. Not bad for a company that had one foot in the grave…

Iacocca died in July. He was 94 years old.

From the roadways to the skyways now. Longtime Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher departed in January. He was 87.

COMMERCIAL: At Southwest Airlines, we want our passengers to spend their time in the air, not on the ground…

Kelleher was working as an attorney when he and several associates drew up the business plan on a hotel napkin. The model was simple: low fares and quick, no-fuss service between major cities in Texas.

The idea proved a success, and the airline flourished and expanded under Kelleher’s leadership. His bold personality set the tone for employees: have fun, and do the job well.

Fortune Magazine called Kelleher perhaps one of the best CEOs in America. And it made him a billionaire.

COMMERCIAL: A younger look is yours with the natural. A beautiful natural is yours with Afro Sheen. Johnson’s Afro Sheen, the largest-selling products in the “natural” world.

Joan Johnson made up half of the husband-wife team that pioneered the black hair care market. She co-founded Johnson Products Company with the flagship product Afro Sheen. It was the first black-owned company to be listed on the American Stock Exchange.

She and her husband, George E. Johnson Sr., started their hair care and cosmetics empire with a $250 investment.

Johnson Products was also the longtime sponsor of the syndicated television dance show Soul Train.

MUSIC: [Music from Soul Train]

Johnson died in September at the age of 89. She was married to her high school sweetheart for 69 years. Together they had four children.

But wait, there’s more! For our final remembrance today, Lester Wundermanthe “Father of Direct Marketing.”

COMMERCIAL: Look what’s coming in your mail! It says, “Get 11 albums for only $1 when you join the Columbia Record and Tape Club.” Terrific? Well, I’m about to tell you how to go this offer one better!

Wunderman created the subscription club model with the Columbia Record Club. He also pioneered marketing innovations like consumer rewards cards, newspaper inserts, and the toll-free 1-800 customer service number.

He won plenty of industry accolades, including election to advertising and marketing halls of fame. He still went into the office daily well into his 90s.

COMMERCIAL: Now, aren’t you glad you saw this commercial? Look for the secret gold box in the Columbia announcement in the new TV Guide!

Wunderman died in January. He was 98 years old.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Katie Gaultney.


(AP Photo/Harvey Georges) Paul Volcker, undersecretary of the Treasury for monetary affairs, gestures during a news conference in Washington, Feb. 10, 1972.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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