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Remembering Who We Lost in 2019 

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Erna Grbic and her daughter Ayla in 2014. - FACEBOOK
  • Erna Grbic and her daughter Ayla in 2014.

Erna Grbic, restaurateur

October 17, 1982 - February 25, 2019

In the summer of 2017, Erna Grbic was optimistic. She and her two younger siblings, Ermin and Senada, had just opened their restaurant Lemmons by Grbic, little more than a mile from the popular Bosnian eatery their parents opened two decades before. The trio had given the traditional cuisine a twist, blending the dishes their mother cooked with their American favorites.

"It's been going over quite well," Erna told the RFT that summer. "I think it's more people don't know what to expect."

Erna had grown up helping her parents as they fed and welcomed the Bosnian refugees who in the 1990s had fled genocide in their home country and landed in St. Louis. Patrick McCarthy, associate dean of libraries at Saint Louis University and longtime ally of the Bosnian newcomers, later wrote in the RFT that the experience led first to the opening of Grbics but also influenced Erna and the other Grbic children, who grew up with a dedication to serving their community. The close-knit family was challenged in 2015 when Erna was diagnosed with melanoma. But she battled through the surgery and recovery. The opening of Lemmons seemed the beginning of a new era for the young mother. She handled the marketing while her brother managed the front of house and her sister served as the chef. And then the cancer returned. Erna fought again, but it had spread to her vital organs. The disease finally overtook her this spring. She was 36.

Hundreds attended her funeral. Refugees who first met a ten-year-old Erna in the warmth of her family's home had seen her grow up and become a success. And they were there to mourn the end.

— Doyle Murphy

Lil Bub, internet celebrity

April 2011 - December 1, 2019

It's been a bad year for viral cats. Not only did Grumpy Cat, perhaps the most commercial of all the internet animal celebs, die in May, but just as we finished putting this article together, the inimitable Lil Bub passed away in her sleep, victim of a persistent bone infection.

Lil Bub's "dude," Mike Bridavsky, found her in an Indiana barn in 2011, the runt of a litter expected to die quickly due to her dwarfism and other genetic anomalies. Enchanted by her bulging eyes and stubby legs, Bridavsky took in the toothless, droopy-tongued "permakitten" and gave her a life beyond feline imagining, full of hand-fed fishy yogurt and specialized medical attention — and she returned his attentive care tenfold in grit, spunkiness and adorable cheeps, snorks and chirrs. (Truly, Bub seemed to speak a language all her own, related to but not the same as regular housecats' meows.)

Not only did Bridavsky's many Bub-centric bits of merch — socks, T-shirts, plush toys, fridge magnets — prove catnip to her internet fans, the monies raised were donated to various animal shelters and rescues for special-needs cats. And not only did Bub's oddball mug feature on consumer goods, she starred in a Vice documentary (Lil Bub & Friendz), hosted fourteen episodes of a talk show (Lil Bub's Big Show, with guests including Michelle Obama and Steve Albini), recorded her own album (Science and Magic, with a cover illustration by Orlando artist Johannah O'Donnell) and guested on Run the Jewels' feline remix album, Meow the Jewels. Bridavsky always claimed Lil Bub was a "magical space being," and whether she came from outer space or not, she certainly seems to be magic — she raised $700,000 for animal charities in her short life, and brought immeasurable joy to millions.

Good job, Bub.

—Jessica Young

Andre Williams, R&B singer

November 1, 1936 - March 17, 2019

Not many people get a big break in the music business. Andre Williams got two.

Born in Bessemer, Alabama, Zephire "Andre" Williams first hit it big as an R&B singer when he moved to Detroit in the early 1950s and won an amateur night competition. He soon signed to Fortune Records, becoming lead vocalist in the Five Dollars, then rechristened Andre Williams and the Don Juans. A prolific writer, he also scored solo hits, including "Jail Bait," "The Greasy Chicken" and "Bacon Fat," which cracked the top 10 on the Billboard R&B chart. He also wrote Five Du-Tones' "Shake a Tail Feather," later performed by Ike & Tina Turner (and much later, featured in The Blues Brothers and Hairspray), and even served a brief stint as a songwriter for Motown, co-writing Stevie Wonder's first song, "Thank You for Loving Me."

But by the 1980s, Williams hit rock bottom: Addiction found him homeless in Chicago. In the 1990s, however, Williams was rediscovered by the rock & roll revival scene. That led to records like Greasy, released jointly on indie labels Norton and St. George Records in 1996, and Silky, released on In the Red in 1998. More indie rock collaborations followed, with Williams recording tracks with Jack White, Mick Collins of the Dirtbombs, and the country band the Sadies. His proto-hip-hop sing-talking style, penchant for profane lyrics, and sartorial preference for flashy suits and matching hats earned him the nickname by some of "the godfather of rap."

Williams continued to struggle with addiction, but he also continued to make music, releasing I Wanna Go Back to Detroit City in 2016. He died in Chicago at age 82 from cancer, but he never stopped: His manager, Kenn Goodman, told Billboard a week before his death that the singer "was committed to trying to sing and record again."

—Lee DeVito

Dan Robbins, paint-by-numbers inventor

May 26, 1925 - April 1, 2019

Dan Robbins was a little-known commercial artist at a Michigan paint company in the late 1940s when his boss asked him for an idea to help sell paint sets to adults.

Robbins eventually settled on a system that allowed even the most unskilled, inexperienced customer to create paintings that looked professional, if not exactly imbued with an artist's originality. His paint-by-numbers kits were a bona fide sensation by the early 1950s.

The early offerings were faint line drawings, created by Robbins himself, intricately divided into sections that corresponded to pre-mixed paint colors. Soon, an army of artists, working under the Craft Master brand for Detroit-based Palmer Paint Co., were churning out kits based on Robbins' model. Using the slogan "Every man a Rembrandt," 20 million kits were sold in 1955.

Artists and critics were appalled that painting had been turned into a step-by-step instruction guide and mass-marketed, but Robbins didn't seem to mind.

"I remembered hearing that Leonardo used numbered background patterns for his students and apprentices, and I decided to try something like that," he once told the Associated Press.

The paint-by-numbers craze crashed within a decade, and Robbins' boss sold the business. But he made a mark, penetrating an art world that derided his efforts. Andy Warhol riffed on the model, and even the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History displayed an exhibition of paint-by-numbers pieces in 2001 and 2002. Robbins died at 93 knowing he had influenced legions of people who might have never picked up a brush if not for him.

"We like to think dad was one of the most-exhibited artists in the world," his son Larry Robbins told AP. "He enjoyed hearing from everyday people. He had a whole box of fan letters."

— Doyle Murphy

Ken Nordine, performance artist

April 13, 1920 - February 16, 2019

You may not know Ken Nordine's name, but chances are you've heard his voice.

Over the course of a 60-plus-year career, Nordine put the "art" into the concept of a voice-over artist. His silky baritone graced the airwaves of Chicago radio stations, narrating "The World's Great Novels" and other programs. He was also the voice behind several educational films, so if your teacher ever used a woefully out-of-date filmstrip in class, you might recognize his timbre. His most enduring creations, though, were his Word Jazz albums, on which, over backing tracks of cool jazz, Nordine tells stories or acts out scenarios with a particular focus on meter and sound.

Nordine's success with the Word Jazz series earned him a weekly program of the same name on flagship NPR station WBEZ in Chicago, and the show ended up running for more than 40 years. His 1967 Colors album, in which Nordine expounds upon the personalities of various hues, remains a favorite of those interested in offbeat curiosities from yesteryear. (It grew out of his radio commercials for the Fuller Paint Company.)

Lines from his recordings have been sampled in songs by Aesop Rock, Pizzicato Five and the Orb, and in 2007, David Bowie himself asked Nordine to perform at the High Line Festival in New York.

Nordine died at the age of 98, preceded three years earlier by Beryl Vaughn, his wife of 71 years.

—Thaddeus McCollum

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