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Astronauts, politicians and arts leaders top roster of 2012 notable deaths

Allan Turne, Houston Chronicle
Updated 10:54 am, Sunday, December 30, 2012

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  • Sen. Mario Gallegos, Jr., D-Galena Park, on Monday, January 24, 2005.    (AP Photo) Photo: DEBORAH CANNON, STR / AP
    Sen. Mario Gallegos, Jr., D-Galena Park, on Monday, January 24, 2005. (AP Photo) Photo: DEBORAH CANNON, STR

 

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From space pioneers to an infamous former Texas madam, death's scythe cut wide and deep in 2012. Among Houstonians - or those with Houston-area connections - who died in the past 12 months were astronauts Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, state Sen. Mario Gallegos and Big Walter Price, a blues pianist who pounded the 88s with such fervor that his admirers are dancing still.

Undoubtedly the naughtiest of 2012's decedents was Edna Chadwell, flamboyant retired madam of the best little whorehouse in Texas. Chadwell, who lived in Arizona, died on Feb. 25 at age 84.

Her La Grange Chicken Ranch, in business for more than 100 years, flew the coop in 1973 after an exposé by Houston television gadfly Marvin Zindler. Chadwell's exploits later were immortalized in journalist Larry King's smash Broadway musical.

King also died in 2012, on Dec. 20 at age 83, in Washington, D.C.

High on the notables list were Armstrong, first to walk on the moon, and Ride, who, as a 1983 space shuttle Challenger crew member, became the first American woman in space.

Ride, later a champion of math and science education, died on July 23 in San Diego. She was 61. Armstrong, commander of the Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed on the moon in July 1969, died Aug. 25 in Ohio after heart surgery. He was 82.

Nine days ago, as Houstonians anticipated a season of "comfort and joy," Christmas Eve gun violence during a traffic stop ended the lives of Bellaire Police Sgt. Jimmie Norman, 53, and Terry Taylor, 66, who stepped from his auto body shop to investigate the disturbance. Twice named "officer of the year," Norman was the first Bellaire policeman to die in the line of duty.

Death also claimed those from the worlds of art, philanthropy, politics and religion.

Barry Walker, 67, a retired curator at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston, died in April after a fall at his Los Angeles home. Walker established an international reputation after joining the museum in 1991 to establish its prints and drawings department. Later, he curated modern and contemporary art.

Maconda O'Connor, daughter of Brown & Root Inc., founder George Brown, died in May at age 82. A lifelong philanthropist, O'Connor obtained a doctorate in social work at age 51. She later headed the family-created Brown Foundation, overseeing the awarding of more than $1.2 billion in grants.

In June, the Rev. Robert Jefferson, founding minister of Cullen Missionary Baptist Church and a leader of Houston's Ministers Against Crime, died at age 70.

Hispanic champion

On Oct. 16, state Sen. Gallegos, a firefighter-turned-champion of Hispanic causes, died at age 62. Gallegos, elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1990, moved to the Senate four years later. He posthumously was re-elected in November.

Barrelhouse pianist Price, a veteran of Houston's fabled Peacock record label, died March 8 at age 97. Over a 50-year career, the musician established a reputation, as late blues guitarist Jerry Lightfoot opined, "a national treasure from the state of Texas."

"You can't classify me as a blues singer exclusively," Price once said. "I play western music. Blues, ballads, country - I'm across the board."

Royal memories

No list of notable 2012 deaths would be complete without mention of Darrell Royal, who, although lacking a clear-cut Houston connection, shines bright in the firmament of Texas sports.

As coach of the University of Texas Longhorns from late 1956 to 1976, Royal took his team to three national championships and 11 Southwest Conference titles. Known for colorful aphorisms, Royal once observed, "You've got to think lucky. If you fall into a mud hole, check your back pocket - you might have caught a fish." Royal died on Nov. 7 at age 88.

Among other 2012 deaths were:

Charlie Stagg, 72, died Feb. 20, a sculptor whose whimsical wooden artworks resembled chains of DNA. Stagg lived near Vidor in a compound constructed of colored bottles, cans, concrete, logs and found objects.

Geraldine Watson, 87, died April 6, a botanist specializing in plant ecology, who was instrumental in creation, in 1974, of East Texas' Big Thicket National Preserve.

Guyla Pirchner, 58, died June 27, special events director, Houston Grand Opera.

Janie Elioseff, 72, died June 29, environmental activist who co-founded Smog Action Task Force and successfully lobbied for a 1995 program to issue smog alerts in Houston.

H. Rudy Teichman, 81, died Aug. 14, a mechanical whiz who transformed a small Galveston shipyard into T&T Marine, an international marine services company.

Ulrich Franzen, 91, died Oct. 6, architect of the Alley Theatre.

Kyle Bennett, 33, died Oct. 14 in a Conroe-area auto accident, 2008 Olympic BMX cyclist and BMX Hall of Fame member.

Howard Horne, 86, died Oct. 25, owner of The Horne Co., a real estate firm that directed leasing of major downtown properties, including Pennzoil Place and Shell Plaza buildings.

Anti-crime advocate

Eloise Smith, 92, died Nov. 6, a Sunnyside resident whose anti-crime advocacy in the early 1970s helped expose a swindle that targeted elderly homeowners. Two men, convicted of forging deeds and selling 25 residences, were sentenced to 10 years probation and ordered to return the stolen properties.

Jeff Millar, 70, died Nov. 30, former Houston Chronicle movie critic and co-creator of "Tank McNamara," a comic strip based on the life of a fictional football player-turned-broadcaster.

Jack Brooks, 89, died Dec. 4, longtime U.S. Congressman from Beaumont fabled for his gruff manner and omnipresent cigar. Brooks was known for his support of civil rights legislation and the ability to bring federal projects to his district.

Hilmar Moore, 92, died Dec. 5, Richmond mayor. Moore, who favored dining on wild hog ribs to rubbing elbows at the country club, was first elected in 1949. He was thought to have been the nation's longest-tenured mayor.