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.


The Civilian



P.M. Forni was a warrior – as a young man, he served in Italy’s elite mountain corps. Then he became a scholar. But, as Forni’s wife lamented in his Baltimore Sun obituary, “his career in literature is often overlooked.”

That’s because Professor Forni found a new calling.  As he explained in his book Choosing Civility:

For many years literature was my life. I spent most of my time reading, teaching, and writing on Italian fiction and poetry. One day, while lecturing on the Divine Comedy, I looked at my students and realized that I wanted them to be kind human beings more than I wanted them to know about Dante. I told them that if they knew everything about Dante and then they went out and treated an elderly lady on the bus unkindly, I’d feel that I had failed as a teacher.


Forni became an expert on civility, and worked to spread the its practice. What is civility?

Being civil means constantly being aware of others and weaving restraint, respect, and consideration into the very fabric of this awareness. Civility is a form of goodness; it is gracious goodness.


P.S. Beware Professor Forni’s “Terrible Ten.”


The Witch and the Lion


The Rwandan Genocide began 25 years ago today. Three months later, an estimated 800,000 people had been murdered.

For all its scale and speed, this slaughter was intensely personal. Family members, neighbors, and colleagues joined militias in the killing, mostly using machetes.


Rwandan Landscape, Joachim Huber, 2007


The little two-room house in Musamo Village quickly became a safe haven for Tutsis, Burundians and even three Europeans during the genocide. Dozens of people reportedly hid under her bed and in a secret space in the roof. Others say she dug a hole in her fields where people hid.


When the killers would come to Zura Karuhimbi’s home, she frightened them off with threats of evil spells. She was using her wits, however: as she later explained, “the thing of magical power was just an invention and cover I was using to save lives.”

Ms. Karuhimbi – who herself lost a son and a daughter – is thought to have saved dozens of people. Her BBC obituary records that she died in poverty, age unknown.





He shouted, “You cannot kill these people, they are my responsibility. I will not allow you to harm them – you’ll have to kill me first.”


Mbaye Diagne, a captain in the Senegalese army, was an observer with the United Nations force in Rwanda. Once the killings erupted, most of the UN staff and soldiers retreated to safety.

This BBC tribute explains how Captain Diagne, unable to tolerate such inaction, set to work.

“When he was stopped at these roadblocks, the militiamen would say ‘Boss, I’m hungry’ or ‘Boss I’m thirsty’ so he’d give them a cigarette, or if it was one of the militia chiefs he’d give a beer or a whisky … This allowed him to go everywhere without making the militiamen too angry. And that’s how he saved people the militia wanted to kill – five or six people in his car at a time.”

Captain Diagne is believed to have saved hundreds of people. He was killed by a mortar shell at a roadblock, alone in his vehicle.

Senegal posthumously knighted him with the National Order of the Lion. The UN now awards the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage.


The Custodians


“He was a hard worker, but I don’t think anybody had an idea that he was a multi-millionaire.”


Ronald Read was the first in his family to earn a diploma. According to his obituary in the Brattleboro Reformer, he “was so determined to finish high school that he walked and hitchhiked into Brattleboro every day until he graduated in 1940.” It was a two hour walk each way.

After serving in World War II, Mr. Read worked at a gas station, then as a janitor at J.C. Penney. He read the Wall Street Journal every day, and – with frugality and investing acumen – amassed a fortune of over $8 million. He left most of it to a hospital, and to the local library, where he’d been a regular.



Mr. Jones was 47 and working nights as a janitor in a Lacey, Wash., high school when he mailed, unsolicited, a fictionalized Vietnam War story to The New Yorker.


After Thom Jones completed his nightly custodial duties, he’d read in the school library.

He had served in the Marines, where he’d been badly injured during a boxing match. This injury prevented his deployment, but probably saved his life: almost all of the other Marines in his unit were killed.

As his New York Times obituary notes, Mr. Jones brought a boxer’s sensibility to writing:

“For me it was easy: Produce text that was so good, an editor could not reject it,” he said. “If I couldn’t do that, I had no business whining about anything. Show or go. It’s Darwinian and it’s fair.”

The story he sent to the The New Yorker won the 1993 O. Henry Award.


The Imaginers


“Can you imagine?” Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani was fond of saying, her voice rising in delight.


Lamia al-Gailani was the first Iraqi woman to study archaeology abroad. One of her specialties was the ancient cylinder seals used to write in clay. For the National Museum’s opening in 1966, she used them herself to create the display.

According to her National Public Radio obituary, “Gailani even referred to the Sumerians of ancient Iraq as ‘we,’ often before catching herself and laughing.”

During the US invasion in 2003, over 5,000 cylinder seals were looted from the National Museum. Gailani returned to her home country to help rebuild the institution. She found “stunned staff wandering the hallways … Gailani told them to snap of of it and get to work.”

The museum officially reopened to the public in 2015. Most of the stolen artifacts remain unreturned.




Embed from Getty Images

She was working night after night, essentially living in the drawings that flowed from her pen in an apparently unstoppable flood. They conjured up glimpses of a world she had imagined but which did not, as yet, exist.


In addition to writing, the Sumerians developed architecture. The work of Zaha Hadid, who was born in Iraq, reflected a 21st-century vision as well as respect for tradition:

Hadid belonged to the last generation of architects to work with tracing paper and T-squares. She talked about the care with which she would use a Rotring pen and a ruler to draw. The trick, she said, was to ensure that there was no overlap when she joined two lines to make a sharp point at the corner of a rectangle.

Hadid was the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the profession’s equivalent of the Nobel. As her Guardian obituary recounts:

Hadid was able to create one of the world’s most important architectural practices, one that, at the time of her death, was working in China, the Middle East, America and Russia. She built an extraordinary range of buildings: the Olympic Aquatics Centre in London, the Maxxi art museum in Rome … a car factory for BMW in Leipzig, Germany, a skyscraper complex in Beijing, an opera house in Guangzhou, an exhibition centre in the middle of Seoul. She was asked to work on projects from Libya to Saudi Arabia, and even on the Central Bank of Iraq.

Her Wikipedia page has photos of her projects.