Editor’s note: This op-ed is by award-winning journalist Telly Halkias. It first appeared in the Bennington Banner.
Last week, in the same 24-hour period, two American originals, variety show personality Dick Clark and University of Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt left our grasp, though in different ways.
I heard the reports on the radio within five minutes of each other, while driving out of town for a long trip and flipping the dial to stay awake. At first I thought about writing a single retrospective tribute, until hearing the second dispatch. It was then I considered the way we take public figures for granted, as if they will always be part of our backdrop.
Mr. Clark, 82, died after a massive heart attack. He had suffered a stroke last year and, while in the public eye, worked hard to make a comeback this past January at his now iconic “Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” TV special in Times Square.
Ms. Summitt, 59, the winningest coach in college basketball history — that includes surpassing the mythical John Wooden of UCLA — ended months of speculation regarding her future by stepping down from her position as a result of her diagnosis of early onset dementia.
Music and sports are as diverse as two forums can be. So it’s rare for such upheaval in popular culture to go down on the same day. The absence of both figures is a milestone in modern American history.
Mr. Clark, famously known as “America’s oldest teenager” for his bottomless fountain of youth and appearance, made us often wonder where he found the energy to keep up with the teenyboppers and the hip swingers he made part of the national consciousness in his now revered “American Bandstand.”
No rock ’n’ roll lightweight, Mr. Clark was a business tycoon who gave generously to many causes, and always presented himself as a man of goodwill and with the optimism for youth that is a cornerstone of American life.
For her part, Ms. Summitt was a fierce recruiter off the court and equal competitor on the hardwood. Over the years, the pushing, screaming, intense workouts she put her players through were more than about hoops. Instead, they were capstone classes on life.
Many of her players were minorities from disadvantaged backgrounds, and Ms. Summitt was the first authority figure in their lives to offer grounding and direction. A review of the leadership positions her Lady Vol alumni now hold through all segments of society should be a lesson to all: Old-school Yankee work ethic and self-reliance remains a recipe for success, regardless of generation.
But admittedly, all the achievement in the world can’t hold back time or disease. How many times have we pondered the death or demise of someone so promising: Why did this have to happen to them?
For Mr. Clark, it was clear time wasn’t on his side. For Ms. Summitt — a person whose personality and intellect were both sharp as a meat cleaver — trying to fathom her road ahead is frightening.
As I kept driving, though, I wanted to believe Mr. Clark would offer this up: Kids, dance the night away and keep smiling, because a good attitude will always pay off in the end. He not only left behind a major entertainment landmark, but also a can-do spirit for the industry whose ripple effects are felt to this day.
Ms. Summitt will now enter the fight of her life, and like everything else, she seems unlikely to flinch. But in order to make a difference in the advocacy for dementia treatment and cure, she is in a race with time. Just like Clark was after his stroke.
And time, even in one day, can carry away two icons, whether from the dance floor’s limelight, or center court.