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The Late Greats: Lives We Lost in 2018 

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click to enlarge Hamiet Bluiett. - ILLUSTRATION BY GREG HOUSTON
  • Hamiet Bluiett.

Hamiet Bluiett
Progressive jazz titan
Sept. 16, 1940–Oct. 4, 2018
Hamiet Bluiett, a master of the unwieldy baritone sax as well as the more nimble clarinet, served as a living bridge between blues-based, pre-bebop traditionalism and progressive improvisational jazz.

Bluiett came into the world in similarly significant liminal territory — he was born in St. Louis, but raised directly across the river in Brooklyn, Illinois, the first town in the United States incorporated by African Americans. At age four he began piano lessons; at nine, clarinet studies; and in college at Southern Illinois University, he took up the baritone saxophone. He left college without graduating, but with an abiding admiration for the bari sax. "I fell in love with the instrument on first sight, even before I knew what it sounded like," he said in a 1991 interview. "But I never thought its mission was to mumble in the back row. I thought it should be a lead voice."

By many accounts, Bluiett was a mass of contradictions: Despite forging new paths in the St. Louis and New York loft jazz scenes, he remained always committed to melody. His idol was not a bebop pioneer like Parker (neither Charlie nor Leo) but Harry Carney, a baritone saxophonist in Duke Ellington's band.

Even while he was a blazing star in the avant-garde loft scene, Bluiett respected popular appeal, saying things like, "We should play more music for women, play stuff that children like, old people, the whole works — what's wrong with all that?

"I was one of the guys, when we went into the loft situation, I told the guys, 'Man, we need to play some ballads. You all playing outside, you running people away. I don't want to run people away.'"

He founded the forward-thinking World Saxophone Quartet and the Black Artists Group, and played with iconic improvisers including Sam Rivers, Babatunde Olatunji and Charles Mingus. His work was influenced not just by the soul and R&B he grew up with, but by West African musics and hocket-style call and response. Yet had he chosen a more commercial path, his diamond-hard, satin-smooth clarinet tone would have fit right into a traditional big band à la Ellington.

The controlled fury of his baritone attack was matched by a crusty demeanor and raspy voice. (Bassist Kent Kessler recalls a set at the Chicago Jazz Fest in which Bluiett was to improvise with the DKV Trio; there was no rehearsal, no discussion. Bluiett simply showed up onstage, stuck out his hand and said "Bluiett" before they began.)

In 2002, Bluiett was diagnosed with prostate cancer. As part of his holistic treatment, he switched to a vegetarian diet, which he claimed changed his music. "Blues came out of pork and alcohol," Bluiett told St. Louis Magazine in 2011. "I can't hang with the meat eaters all the way — I'm not saying it's good or bad; it was just different." 

After a series of strokes and seizures that began in January of this year, Bluiett was taken off respiratory support in October. — Jessica Bryce Young

click to enlarge William Shearer. - ILLUSTRATION BY GREG HOUSTON
  • William Shearer.

William Shearer
Aug. 31, 1937–Oct. 9, 2018
It was 1979 when Dr. William Shearer first met seven-year-old David Vetter, the Texas boy who was born without an immune system and lived in a series of NASA-designed plastic bubbles.

Many years later, Shearer recalled that first meeting on his blog. "He immediately put his arms in the gloves extending from his plastic isolator system to shake my hand and began quizzing me to make sure I understood that he was special and was competent enough to care for him," Shearer wrote.

Theirs would be a brief relationship; David died in 1984 at age twelve after an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant. Despite its brevity, the relationship would have a lasting legacy.

"He was like his father at the hospital, another dad," David's father told the New York Times. "They had a real strong rapport, and David loved him."

Shearer died this October from complications from polymyositis, an inflammatory disease that causes muscle weakness. Born in Detroit in 1937, he earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from University of Detroit and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Wayne State University, and graduated from the Washington University School of Medicine in 1970. He later served a pediatrics and immunology residencies in St. Louis before moving to Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital, where he treated David.

David's was a lonely life. His older brother died from SCID, and his parents knew if they had another boy there was a 50/50 chance he could also have the hereditary disease. As soon as he was born, David was placed into his first plastic bubble. Any objects like toys had to be sterilized and placed through a series of air locks, and he could never touch another human.

Under Shearer's care, the case of David — a handsome boy who loved Star Wars and the Texas Oilers — captivated audiences around the world, with Shearer serving as its face. While Shearer often remarked upon David's resilience, observing David's despair at living in isolation — he reportedly had recurring nightmares about his condition — caused him to debate the ethics of keeping the boy trapped in his plastic cage. At one point, he suggested removing David from the bubble and trying other treatment methods, but David's parents pushed for keeping him in until a suitable bone marrow donor could be found.

In 1984, Shearer performed the long-awaited procedure. It didn't work, and David soon became sick from a lymph node cancer caused by an undetected virus in the marrow. He lived his final fifteen days outside of his bubble in a hospital room, where his mother kissed him for the first time.

Shearer appeared on television to announce David's death, which he would later call one of the most difficult times of his life. But his story with David wasn't over: With samples of David's blood, Shearer determined that David died from an infection from the Epstein-Barr virus, and identified a gene that causes immune deficiencies. His discoveries would help create a test for the condition in newborns. Thanks in part to Shearer's research, children with immune diseases are now able to live without plastic bubbles. Today more than 90 percent can be successfully treated with bone marrow and stem cell transplants within their first 28 days of life.

After David's death, Shearer founded the David Center at Texas Children's, a wing focused on treatment of immune diseases named in honor of his former patient and friend. He later focused his research on HIV and AIDS, participating in studies that led to the treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS in children.

"People often ask what's the measure of someone's life, but very few people stood as tall as David," Dr. Shearer told the Houston Chronicle in 2009. "More than any scientist, he taught us by his life." — Lee DeVito

click to enlarge Dorcas Reilly. - ILLUSTRATION BY GREG HOUSTON
  • Dorcas Reilly.

Dorcas Reilly
Inventor of the green bean casserole
July 22, 1926–Oct. 15, 2018
She may not be a household name, but Dorcas Reilly is a household staple: Her iconic Campbell's Soup green bean casserole is served in more than 20 million American homes each Thanksgiving and, the rest of the year, acts as a quintessential comfort dish that can be popped in and out of the oven in less than 30 minutes.

Reilly, a 1947 graduate of Drexel University's Home Economics program, was one of the first two full-time employees at Campbell's Camden, New Jersey, home economics department, working in the test kitchen to develop new recipes.

Originally invented in 1955 as a "green bean bake" for an Associated Press story asking for a vegetable side dish made with pantry staples, the casserole calls for just six ingredients: a can of Campbell's condensed cream of mushroom soup, milk, soy sauce, black pepper, green beans and crispy French-fried onions. It was a wholesome home-cooked meal crafted in an Atomic Age that celebrated canned goods and convenience cooking, but its combination of creamy, crunchy and salty has stood the test of time.

Today, more than 60 years later, Campbell's estimates that upward of 40 percent of its condensed mushroom soup sales are used to make Reilly's casserole — the recipe is even printed on the back of the can.

"Dorcas would often share that the first time she made her famous recipe, it did not receive the highest rating in Campbell's internal testing," wrote the company in an October memorial for Reilly's passing. "Yet, it was her persistence and creativity that led to an enduring recipe that will live on for decades to come."

Reilly worked for the company off and on from the 1940s to the 1980s, when she retired as manager of the Campbell's Kitchen in 1988. In addition to her lasting bean legacy, she also invented hundreds of other soup-infused recipes including a tuna noodle casserole, tomato soup cake and tomato soup sloppy Joes.

In 2002, Campbell's donated Reilly's original recipe card to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Virginia, placing her patented legacy alongside the likes of Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Steve Wozniak.

"I'm very proud of this," she said of the recipe in a Campbell's video, "and I was shocked when I realized how popular it had become." — Maija Zummo

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