People Who Died

2010 Obituaries

Published: Jan 5, 2011

Illustrations by Joel Kimmel

Teddy Pendergrass

The Soul Singer

It's a fitting testament to the legacy of Theodore DeReese Pendergrass that an entire generation begins its critique of any male vocalist with, "Well, he's no Teddy Pendergrass ... "

They're right, of course. "If You Don't Know Me By Now" has been covered countless times, and in many cases by very talented performers, yet none have ever approached the elegant majesty of the original.

While the Census Department claims it doesn't collect data on "those sorts of things," the odds are better than average that, if you were born after 1980, you were conceived to the strains of Teddy's signature song, "Love TKO." If you were lucky enough to have had your first slow dance to "Close the Door," you've had a smile on your face ever since. And until scientists figure out a way to reproduce "Turn Off the Lights" in pill form, the world will have to make do with Viagra.

But the most remarkable thing about Teddy Pendergrass was that despite having been confined to a wheelchair for nearly three decades — almost half of his life — Teddy's story isn't a tragedy, but a uniquely inspirational lesson in perseverance. It was just three years after the 1982 car accident in which he was paralyzed that Teddy returned to the stage, and he did it at Live Aid in front of a TV audience of 2 billion. Teddy went on to form the Teddy Pendergrass Alliance, which helps people who've suffered spinal cord injuries, and in 2007 he took to the stage at the Kimmel Center for Teddy 25, which celebrated his triumph over his injuries.

It's hard to imagine any other entertainer bouncing back the way Teddy did. Then again, everybody else is no Teddy Pendergrass. —Rodney Anonymous

George Britton

The Godfather of Folk

Would there be a folk scene in Philly without George Britton? Until not long before his death at 99, the man who co-founded the Philadelphia Folksong Society more than 50 years ago was still a towering, energy-radiating fixture at folk events. "He was very nurturing to the young, emerging artists who came to him for advice and counsel," recalls DJ Gene Shay; countless kids learned guitar and traditional songs at the Folk Studio in Lafayette Hill. The legacy lives on with the Britton kids: Ellen, a Nashville songsmith; Wendy, in a duo with husband, Peter Young; and Tim, a legendary player and builder of Irish bagpipes. —Mary Armstrong

Virginia Elizabeth "Betty" Persons

The Avid Gardener

If there's an afterlife, the gardens there probably got a tune-up when Betty Persons passed away Nov. 27 at the age of 88. The former Bala Cynwyd Garden Club president was praised for her floral landscaping abilities — a skill that earned her ribbons from the Philadelphia International Flower Show — but it's her work to create the Fairmount Park holiday house tours that will go down as her lasting legacy. She began the tours in 1972 to attract winter tourism in the area, and to involve local garden clubs that would adorn the homes with period décor. Funds from this still-thriving event benefit the preservation of these historic landmarks. —Josh Middleton

Mary E. Hanssens

The Advocate

It wasn't enough for Mary E. Hanssens to spend 16 years in a convent, dedicated to helping the poor and advocating for the imprisoned. A passionate opponent of the death penalty who died of cancer at age 58 on Nov. 4, Hanssens believed she could do more within the court system than the Church. She attended Villanova and Temple, and spent years working with the Pennsylvania Prison Society and Pennsylvania public defender. She finished her second career with a decade as an attorney in the Federal Defenders Habeas Unit, not only sparing her clients the death penalty, but even securing for some their release from prison. —Char Vandermeer

Orlando Cole

The Maestro

Orlando Cole, who died this year at the age of 101, was, indeed, a very fine cellist: The ensemble that he founded while still a student in the 1920s, the Curtis String Quartet, was the first American string quartet to achieve international prominence. But more than anything else, "Landy" will be remembered as an inspiring teacher, with former students filling out major symphony orchestras throughout the world, and many more pursuing solo careers, most notably the great Lynn Harrell. His association with the Curtis Institute goes back to the very beginning; Cole, a native Philadelphian, began studying with its first graduating class in 1924. He took a brief hiatus to found the New School of Music in 1942 (which later became part of the Temple University music department), then returned to Curtis in 1953, where he remained until the end of his life. It was a life very well lived, and Cole knew it. In a 2004 interview, he reflected, "If I were granted a second 'go-around,' I would want to continue sharing my love of music and the cello with students and audiences. No other choice could be better than doing it all over again." —Peter Burwasser

Szabolcs Prém and Dora Schwendtner

The Hungarians

On a blast-furnace July day, police near Penn's Landing sprung to action as news broke that a Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle, disabled in the Delaware, had been struck by a mammoth sludge barge. Though most of the passengers swam to safety, a macabre flotilla patrolled for the capsized craft — and the two passengers who remained unaccounted for. Sixteen-year-old Dóra Schwendtner and 20-year-old Szabolcs Prém, both Hungarian students here through the Atlantic Bridge exchange program, never made it back to their hometown of Mosonmagyarovar, their bodies pulled from the river in the ensuing days, bringing to a grisly end a story that had morbidly transfixed the city. —Brian Howard

Solomon Burke

The Preacher Man

The Philadelphia-born preacher had God in his DNA. He sang of the sacred and the secular with a nice-and-rough voice steeped in the power of the Holy Spirit and the melodies of gospel, pop, soul and country. "Cry to Me" and "Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)" were but a few of his cascading '60s classics. He balanced ministry and swampy R&B; in the '70s and '80s and a revival in the 2000s courtesy of a series of raw and sonically sympathetic albums such as Don't Give Up on Me, Make Do with What You Got, Nashville and Nothing's Impossible. When I unintentionally offended the growling, goodly Burke in an interview during a tour for the first of those rootsy albums, we got into a verbal tussle which rained down both his fire and brimstone. He wept. He hollered. He hung up on me. Then he called back to finish the chat with woolly tales about growing up at the "Black Bottom, 38th and Mount Vernon," and being a boy wonder sermonizer on WDAS. He shared his rule of recording: Never stop doing your gospel music. Amen. —A.D. Amorosi

Robert C. Donatucci

The Incumbent

It's a bitter pill to swallow sometimes, but death trumps democracy. State Rep. Robert C. Donatucci (Delaware and Philadelphia counties) was elected by a majority of voters every two years since 1980, including this November, when he received 84 percent of his district's vote. The people chose Donatucci — but their vote was overturned when the representative died suddenly in his sleep on Nov. 9, at just 58, apparently from problems related to sleep apnea. A collector of vintage cars, the longtime head of the House liquor committee, and a bipartisan politician, according to his colleagues, Donatucci left behind two children, a wife, and several brothers and sisters.—Isaiah Thompson

Manute Bol

The Swat Team

The 7-foot, 7-inch Sudanese shot-blocking machine played for the 76ers only for parts of four seasons, and the last couple saw that big, long body of his finally start to break down. During his last stint in Sixer red, he served primarily as mentor to the team's No. 1 draft pick, 7-foot, 6-inch Shawn "Tiny" Bradley. Though Bol's legendary giraffe-like grace made the good-natured outlier the butt of jokes (he once fought and defeated William "Refrigerator" Perry in a celebrity boxing match), he spent his retirement as an activist in and for his war-ravaged homeland. —Brian Howard


Irvin Kershner

Empire's Emperor

In case anyone is still confused, the reason the latter-day Star Wars sequels/prequels/toy catalogs weren't any good is simple: George Lucas was never much of a filmmaker. Though he's fated to an afterlife as a trivia question designed to trip up insufficiently studied fanboys, Philadelphia-born Irvin Kershner was, in fact, responsible for the only entry in the series that works as film and not just as spectacle. But The Empire Strikes Back is by no means the Temple grad's only accomplishment (or his only sequel: He also slotted entries in the James Bond and Robocop series, along with The Return of a Man Called Horse), as his varied early career is a minor but representative sampling of the richness of '70s independent cinema. —Shaun Brady

Billy Carlin

The Constant

There's a saying that a bartender is a temporary pharmacist with a limited inventory. For anyone who wandered into the Westbury during the last 25 years, chances are Billy Carlin was generously doling out prescriptions. Manager of the watering hole throughout much of the '80s and '90s, while the AIDS epidemic began leaving its grim imprimatur on the gay community, Carlin, who passed in late June at 60, offered a sense of consistency. On Oct. 2, friends organized a special event honoring Carlin, where longtime partner Harry Nixon was in attendance, old-time drag queens pulled out their stockings and had a go on stage, and a silent auction raised money for Carlin's charity of choice, MANNA. According to John Boback (known around town as "Hedda"), who worked with Carlin for more than 14 years, "He loved roller coasters" and planned trips to Dorney Park every summer. In many ways, Carlin's life at the Westbury mirrored his childlike fascination with amusement parks. Through its ups and downs, "he was a major force in the industry," says Boback, "and is missed." —Natalie Hope McDonald

Trudy Pitts

Jazz's Mother Hen

"Bright moments" was Trudy Pitts' "aloha" — a greeting, a farewell, a joyous salute. But it was also a mantra for the great organist, who embraced jazz, classical and gospel music with equally infectious vigor. Pitts and husband Mr. C were Philly's first couple of jazz, starting ages ago on a bandstand they shared with a young John Coltrane. While she has worked with a host of jazz giants, from Pat Martino to John Medeski, and could be equally adept on the Kimmel's massive pipe organ as on a Hammond B3, Pitts will be most fondly remembered as mother hen to the local scene, always quick with a "Baby" and a burst of laughter. —Shaun Brady

Melissa Lynch

The Starlet

Melissa Lynch was all set to take 2011 by storm. The 27-year-old Philadelphia actor, whose stunning turn as Sonya in Lantern Theater Co.'s Uncle Vanya earned her rave reviews this fall, had garnered upcoming roles in Theatre Exile's The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Inis Nua Theatre Co.'s Dublin by Lamplight, and was engaged to be married this June. Her Dec. 30 death, caused by a car accident, has left an enormous void in the young theater community. "It is a terrible, stupid tragedy," says Corinna Burns, Lynch's good friend and would-be wedding officiant. "We will all miss her joyful, fiery spirit tremendously." —Carolyn Huckabay

Hiroshi Iwasaki

The Scene Maker

On Nov. 23, Philadelphia theater lost a rare gem. Scenic and costume designer Hiroshi Iwasaki, who died at 59, was a lecturer and technical director at Bryn Mawr College. He worked on more than 125 productions with virtually every professional company in the area — and dozens more with visionary Bryn Mawr director Mark Lord, with whom he co-founded Big House (Plays & Spectacles). "He designed whole worlds," says Lord of the man who was especially innovative transforming found spaces into unique performance locations. Iwasaki's work survives him, not only his last design (for InterAct's Lidless, Jan. 21- Feb. 13), but in the memories of all fortunate enough to witness his mind-blowing abstractions. —Mark Cofta

John "Acid Squid" Weir

Stranger than Fiction

It wasn't uncommon to find John "Acid Squid" Weir — already a striking sight with silver-dollar ear gauges and a massive chin spacer — at his kitchen table with dozens of pocket pussies laid out in front of him. Strangely, they shaped him more than he, ahem, shaped them: As sales director at the TLA, he handled heaps of porn and toy orders, which turned him on to such delights as the artistic merits of Japanese bondage photography. It also made him a perfect match to co-found the doomsday cabaret troupe Swellco & Swellco, infamous for fucking with people — biting off dead chickens' heads, throwing bestiality-themed parties, etc. — because, they say, everything is awful already. He was also a photographer and DJ on the verge of publishing a book of strange letters he received at the TLA (such as, "Why don't you have more amputee porn of overweight women having sex with little people?"). But on Sept. 16, the day after City Paper published a cover story about Swellco & Swellco, Weir hung himself. He was 32. The article, and the troupe's legendary trickiness, led some to believe it was a hoax. But it wasn't. Everything really is that awful. —Holly Otterbein

Janet Fleisher

The Curator

Back before galleries lined Old City streets, Janet Fleisher was a pioneer woman for the arts. The founder of what's now known as Fleisher/Ollman Gallery on Walnut Street, the curator — who died Aug. 2 at age 93 — opened up dual galleries in Rittenhouse Square and Paris' Left Bank in the 1950s, not only bringing international art to our shores, but introducing local art to global audiences, as well. —Carolyn Huckabay

Sabina Rose O'Donnell

The Sprite

A well-loved personality in Philly's nightlife scene and a fixture in Northern Liberties, Sabina Rose O'Donnell was just 20 years old when she was raped and killed in the early morning hours of June 3. The shocking crime was the most talked-about murder of 2010 for many reasons, some more difficult to parse than others. O'Donnell was by all accounts a beautiful, popular young woman ("an otherworldly, magical little sprite," according to Tommy Up of P.Y.T., where O'Donnell worked), her open-book reputation amplifying the rage felt by close friends and casual acquaintances alike. The crime reshaped perceptions of Northern Liberties, long a racially contentious neighborhood where gentrification is concerned. Finally, and most crucially, the revelation that O'Donnell's killer was Donte Johnson, an 18-year-old black male from a nearby housing project who was arrested on June 16 and later confessed, sparked fiery debate between those who blamed him squarely for his sins, and those (like The Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, who's spoken publicly on the matter) who lent empathy to the teenager, attributing his nihilism to our city's systemic and sociopolitical shortcomings. In other words, O'Donnell's death has spider-webbed in so many directions, it's easy to lose touch with its profound sadness. May this daughter, sister, friend and Philadelphian rest in peace. —Drew Lazor

Prince Chunk

The Big Cat

The most famous fat cat this side of Bernie Madoff, the enormous Prince Chunk was discovered in South Jersey in the summer of 2008, and immediately gained national notoriety thanks to his 44-pound, wrecking ball-esque physique and laissez-faire attitude toward domestic shorthair body-image pressures. Adopted by the Damiani family of Blackwood, N.J., Prince Chunk suffered from a litany of health problems due to his incredible size, and sadly succumbed to heart disease in November 2010. The kitty's memory lives on, though, via the Prince Chunk Foundation, a nonprofit that assists pet owners with caring for their animals in times of financial strife. —Drew Lazor

Polly Plummer Mackie

The Diplomat

In the early 1950s, when most women were stuck at home fluffing up their bouffants, Polly Plummer took a more ambitious route. After taking classes at the Institute of International Studies in Geneva, she began a career at the State Department as a U.S. foreign affairs officer. She recruited technical aid to Afghanistan, Ceylon and Nepal, and later utilized her diplomatic expertise to help initiate President Harry Truman's Point Four Program, a plan that shared Western ideals about science, technology and democracy with third-world nations. After getting married in 1953, she closed that chapter and moved to Bryn Mawr to open another: She would spend the rest of her life dividing time between family and volunteer work in her church and community. Throughout the '80s she served as the Women's Committee vice chairwoman at the University Museum, where she had the opportunity to trot across the globe as head of long-range planning and cataloguer of the museum's artifacts collection. A longtime member of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, she traveled to Malawi in her 70s to establish the congregation's African Children's Mission. On Nov. 27, at the age of 83, she succumbed to dementia. —Josh Middleton

Sid Simmons

The Consummate Adviser

Perhaps it's for the best that Ortlieb's Jazzhaus closed its doors back in April. While the city's jazz scene appears more emaciated than ever, it's hard to imagine the NoLibs joint without Sid Simmons at the piano bench. The very definition of a local legend, Simmons' fame outside of Philly never approached the reverence in which he was held here at home. At 63, when he passed away from cardiac arrest on Nov. 5 following a lengthy illness, Simmons was young to be regarded as an elder, yet that was the role he took on as mentor to countless up-and-coming musicians. Pianist Orrin Evans, trumpeter John Swana, saxophonist and bandleader Bobby Zankel — all three are very different musicians, but all are quick to credit Simmons' guidance and encouragement as crucial to their own development. His most important role was as part of the Ortlieb's HausBand, whose long-running jam session kept alive an apprenticeship system once crucial to the music but rapidly fading. He, bassist Mike Boone and drummer Byron Landham became known as the Philly Rhythm Section, an unofficial honorarium that acknowledged not only their cohesiveness but their role as an embodiment of the city's jazz sound. —Shaun Brady

Hitoshi Nakazato

The Observer

Hitoshi Nakazato's last local exhibit, Pageant:Soloveev's somber, serene July 2009 show "Hiroshima Revisited," seems a fitting way to remember a man who valued quiet reflection. The Tokyo-born artist, who retired from Penn in 2007 after having resurrected its printmaking department in the '70s and chaired its Graduate School of Fine Arts in the '90s, died at age 74 on July 17. In his wake: generations of printers with steady hands and thoughtful hearts. —Carolyn Huckabay

Glen Alan Ruzicka

The Relic Protector

Like the artifacts he preserved, Glen Ruzicka left behind a body of work that will outlive us all. For 22 years he worked at Philadelphia's Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, advising numerous organizations about the proper upkeep of historic relics. During his time at CCAHA, he presided over the renovation of the Rare Book Room at Pennsylvania State Library; administered treatment of paper-based artifacts at Ellis Island Immigration Museum; and ensured everything arrived unharmed when the Civil War Museum moved to Gettysburg National Park. Ruzicka passed away Nov. 21 at 61, a testament to the fact that, unlike his books and documents, people aren't built to last forever. —Josh Middleton

Bruce Nichols

The Suds King

Philadelphia's craft beer reputation has ballooned in the past few years, and it seems more quality brewers look to Philly as a showcase for their wares than anywhere else. Much of the recent credit must be given to Philly Beer Week (PBW), which lost one of its founders, Bruce Nichols, Nov. 30. Nichols, who succumbed to leukemia at the age of 62, was instrumental in cementing Philly's reputation as a true beer town. In 1991, he brought legendary English beer writer Michael Jackson to town for the first of many popular beer and food pairing events. In many ways, these tastings laid the groundwork for PBW, which Nichols founded with Tom Peters and Don "Joe Sixpack" Russell in 2008. Easily the premier beer-related event in the region, if not the nation, PBW welcomes an international roster of brewers to Philadelphia each June. Nichols is remembered as a well-reasoned, passionate and energetic man with "an innate ability to bring people together," as Peters wrote in a statement following Nichols' death. —Drew Lazor

Bernie Wilson & Roosevelt Brodie

Blue Note Blues

In addition to Teddy Pendergrass, Philadelphia lost two other members of its esteemed and influential soul/vocal R&B; act The Blue Notes this year. North Philly's Brodie, one of the group's founders in the '50s and second tenor on early hits like "If You Love Me" and "There's Something in Your Eyes, Eloise," passed away at 75. Wilson, who grew up in Strawberry Mansion, was best known as the flashy second baritone when the group was called Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and sang on hits like "If You Don't Know Me By Now" and "Don't Leave Me This Way" that came to define The Sound of Philadelphia in the 1970s. He was 64. —Patrick Rapa

Phil Jasner

He Had the Beat

Phil Jasner started writing for The Daily News in 1972; he took over the Philadelphia 76ers beat in 1981, in time to cover Erving and Cheeks and Malone sweep the Lakers in the 1983 finals. That he kept filing stories up until a month before his death, at 68 on Dec. 3, testifies to his knowledge, expertise and legendary work ethic. His evenhanded sensitivity in writing about players, from champions like Dr. J to those as divisive as Barkley or talking-about-practice Iverson, testifies to his love for the game, played the right way or any other. —Justin Bauer

David Soyer

The Stringer

If the Curtis String Quartet was the first American string quartet to be taken seriously in Europe, then the Guarneri String Quartet, which got started at the Marlboro Music Festival in 1964, was the one to beat them at their own game. Ironically, that great foursome was also founded by a cellist from Philadelphia, David Soyer, who also taught for many years at Curtis, and who also took his ultimate curtain call this year. Soyer, like his colleague Orlando Cole, was an exceptional teacher, but his legacy, via many hundreds of hours of magnificent recordings, is far more accessible to the music-loving public at large. —Peter Burwasser

Randy Flash

The Spinner

DJ Randy Flash, a respected house-music DJ who spun in Philly for more than 20 years and a longtime presence at Center City record store Sound of Market, was gunned down July 14 at a house party in North Philly. Several days later, police arrested West Oak Lane man Kevin White in connection with his murder. —Drew Lazor

Cathy McCoy

Talk of the Town

There was a time when being an area celebrity wasn't just handed to you because you had money. You had to have something, be someone special. Cathy McCoy was legendary for having something: charm. The Miss Pennsylvania runner-up had so much of it, she started an eponymous charm and modeling school where she taught the poise and grace for which she was known around town. For all these things, Philly gossip columnists Jerry Gaghan (Daily News) and Frank Brookhouser (Bulletin) made her their muse. We could do with a dose of dear charm right now. It's sorely lacking. —A.D. Amorosi

Robin Roberts

The Whiz Kid

Hall of Fame hurler Robin Roberts, who passed on May 6 at age 83, will be forever known as the 23-year-old who led the 1950 Phils to the World Series (where they lost to the Yankees) or the 25-year-old who went 28-7 in 1952, or even the horse who didn't miss a start for an entire decade. But perhaps the May 13, 1954, game against Cincinnati best exemplifies the stubborn stopper's true grit: After surrendering a leadoff home run to third sacker Bobby Adams, Roberts mowed down the next 27 Reds in order. Take that to the zoo. —Brian Howard


thank you for mentioning the great Sid Simmons. he is sorely missed.
by Aja Beech on January 7th 2011 9:58 AM

Never forget the Acid Squid
by annette on January 8th 2011 10:14 AM

Acid Squid was not only a name in South Philly- He is my son..
Loved and Missed dearly by his parents and his daughter

by Cheryl Servidio on January 11th 2011 10:27 AM

Did not like the obit on "Acid Squid". As a close friend of his daughters, one who timed the contractions, I think it was a disgusting homage to the person who he was. For the people who knew John as Acid Squid, you had no idea who he was. Everything is really that bad.
by Larsa on January 11th 2011 3:33 PM