The extraordinary lives of ordinary people who died in 2018

With the calendar’s impending turnover to 2019, it’s that time of year when the notable deaths of 2018 are aggregated and slideshowed for quick consumption on whatever mobile device is at hand. You will read about Anthony Bourdain and Stephen Hillenburg and Aretha Franklin and Stan Lee and William Goldman and Penny Marshall and Mac Miller and other luminaries whose deaths were of general and widespread interest.

This is different. We’ve gathered the stories of a handful of people who also died in 2018, but their deaths largely didn’t vault onto the national scene. Their endings may not have merited a CNN chyron or Twitter Moment, but that they were lesser known doesn’t mean they aren’t worth remembering.

You probably don’t know their names. But their inventions, actions and journeys touched all of our lives. From the man who invented Pong to the woman who invented the green bean casserole, the writer who smashed gender as an absolute to the immunologist who tried to liberate the boy in the bubble, these people changed the world in vivid and vital ways, even if they lived quiet lives.

When we learned of the death of Charles Harrison, who redesigned the View-Master in 1958, it was too late to assign a full entry on him for this feature. But he’s the perfect exemplar of this list. With his hands, he created something that’s been held by all of ours. Yet despite that universality, almost close enough to touch, it’s highly unlikely you’ve heard of him, nor even stopped to consider who it was that gave us all that universal delight. He transformed a clunky beige instrument into a bright tomato-red passport into a thousand other worlds.

That view into other worlds is akin to what we’ve tried to do here – open your eyes to lives you may never have considered. Unlike a lot of end-of-the-year obit lists, this feature is no empty celebrity encomium. What we think about when we think about the death of others, to be frank, ourselves. Now is the time to ask: Have we served our fellow humans? Have we risen above confusion to elevate the truth? What have we added to the world? Perhaps these people will inspire your search to find meaning in a chaotic year.

Emily "Mount Fiji" Dole, pioneer of female professional wrestling
Sept. 28, 1957–Jan. 2, 2018

In the late 1980s, to reach the peak of women's professional wrestling was to be among the cast members on the hit sports show GLOW: The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Hitting the airwaves in 1986, the all-female wrestling program consisted of women assigned flamboyantly cartoonish alter egos that couldn't have been further from political correctness, like Matilda the Hun, Babe the Farmer's Daughter, and the tag team Hollywood & Vine.

Considering the stress they put on their bodies, the female wrestling pioneers practically worked for free, making between $300 and $700 a week. There were no dental benefits, just the risk of losing teeth in the ring; no medical insurance for the inevitable broken collarbones and concussions. Their only guarantee at the end of the day was pain and exasperation – and, when the bright lights dimmed and the roar subsided, the glory.

But among the many talented ladies who initially scratched the surface of women in professional wrestling, none of them are remembered quite like the one they dubbed "Mountain Fiji." Legend has it Emily "Mount Fiji" Dole never lost a match, which makes sense when you consider that she stood 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighed in at 350 pounds.

A proud Samoan American woman, an actress by any fair definition, an accomplished athlete, Dole was by far the most recognizable character on GLOW, with her tree trunk-like arms and shoulders as wide as a volcano's outer rim. Prior to her time as a professional wrestler, Dole was remembered for her ability to toss a shotput more than 50 feet as a teenager at Buena Park High School in California – a feat that's been repeated just twice by other California high school girls since. Later on, Dole qualified for two Olympic track and field trials, where she finished fifth in 1976 and seventh in 1980. Netflix's current fictionalized tribute to the pioneering wrestling league features a Samoan American wrestler named Carmen "Machu Picchu" Wade, played by Britney Young, a clear tribute to Dole's legacy.

In her final years, Dole dealt with a number of health problems, many of which were born out of her career in wrestling, and had been staying in an assisted living facility. By 2008, her weight had begun to get the best of her as she climbed up to 425 pounds, although she would later cut it back down to 235 pounds.

But like all volcanoes, though it had erupted hundreds of times within the wrestling ring the fire inside her would inevitably lay dormant. On Jan. 2, 2018, Dole passed away from unknown complications. She was 60 years old. — Xander Peters


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