This year, as they always do, the obituary pages of the world’s newspapers and magazines shared thousands of stories about how people lived. Earlier this week we took a look at some of TIME’s best remembrances of the year—for leaders and thinkers, and artists and athletes—but here we explore some of the most unusual and interesting non-celebrity obituaries we read this year. These were people who lived without great fame, but with great vigor. Their undersung stories will surprise, delight, inspire and humble.
Here are nine of the most fascinating lives lost in 2015:
Gene Amdahl: The original designer of IBM mainframe computers, he grew up on farm in South Dakota. He was rejected when he tried to enlist in the U.S. military in 1941, as that farm experience was deemed too valuable, though he did manage to join the Navy in 1944. The System/360 mainframe he created transformed computers by making them compatible with each other. (Joseph Engelberger‘s work also underlies our modern life. The ‘father of robotics,’ he created the first industrial robot for General Motors in 1961 and continued to develop new kinds of robots throughout his life.)
Read Amdahl’s full obituary from the Guardian
Kenji Ekuan: He was the industrial designer behind the tabletop Kikkoman soy sauce bottle. After his father and sister died as a result of the bombing of Hiroshima, Ekuan became a monk. He also studied design in the 1950s, motivated by the wreckage he saw in the aftermath of Hiroshima to find a career that would create rather than destroy. His other creations included seats for Japan Airlines, the bullet train and the Yamaha VMAX motorcycle. Other inventors who died this year include Daniel Thompson, whose automated bagel-making machine took bagels from a city phenomenon to one enjoyed across the U.S.; Gary Dahl, creator of the Pet Rock; and Hermann Zapf, type designer who created Optima and Zapf Dingbats.
Read Ekuan’s full obituary from NPR
Tibor Rubin: Born in Hungary, he attempted to escape to Switzerland in 1944 before the German invasion. He was caught and brought to a concentration camp in Austria, where he managed to survive until Americans liberated the camp 14 months later. He came to the U.S. in 1948 and worked as a butcher while he improved his English so he could join the U.S. Army. During the Korean War his anti-Semitic superior left him alone to defend a hill, and for 24 hours Rubin held off North Korean soldiers, allowing the rest of his company to retreat safely. Later he spent 30 months as a North Korean prisoner of war.
Nancy Sandars: She worked as a motorcycle dispatch rider and at Bletchley Park during WWII, before going on to study ancient and prehistoric Europe and the Middle East as an archaeologist and translate the Epic of Gilgamesh. If you’re interested in the Second World War, this year also saw the passing of numerous others whose lives highlight the diversity of the era’s stories: Japanese-American pilot Ben Kuroki overcame prejudice and flew in WWII bombing raids for the U.S.; Nicholas Winton organized trains to take 669 children out of Prague, rescuing them from the Holocaust; George Sakato, another Japanese-American soldier, won a Medal of Honor in 2000 for his bravery fighting in France in 1944; Dorothy Furness was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park; and Mary Doyle Keefe was the model for Norman Rockwell’s famous image of Rosie the Riveter.
Read Sandars’ full obituary from the Telegraph
John Trudell: He was a poet and influential activist for Native American rights, who served as the chairman of the American Indian Movement for most of the 1970s. Trudell, a Santee Dakota, helped lead a number of occupations to demand fair treatment for Native Americans. Other activists who fought for equality and died this year included: Grace Lee Boggs, whose efforts to defend human rights spanned 70 years and whose causes included civil rights, feminism, labor and access to food; Levi Watkins, who was Johns Hopkins Hospital’s first black chief resident of cardiac surgery, pioneered open-heart surgery techniques and was a civil rights advocate; Walter Leonard, who helped build Harvard’s influential approach to affirmative action; and Fatima Mernissi, who was a founder of Islamic feminism.
Read Trudell’s full obituary from Indian Country Today
Alice Turner: As Playboy’s fiction editor for 20 years, she made the magazine a destination for great literature, as well as great physiques. Turner convinced literary authors including Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike to write for the magazine, while also publishing short stories from science fiction and fantasy writers, including Ursula K. Le Guin, and encouraging young authors like David Foster Wallace. (Other women of words who died this year included Bernice Gordon, who created crosswords for the New York Times, and Harriet Klausner, whose 31,014 book reviews made her Amazon’s most prolific reviewer)
June Wilkerson: A nun, she taught Catholic high school, but had an abiding interest in civil rights. She was best known for starting a free tattoo-removal program in Los Angeles in the 1990s. Wilkerson organized doctors and nurses, funding and equipment for the project. The program allowed former gang-members, whose visible affiliations made it difficult to change their lives, to perform community service or enroll in school in exchange for tattoo removal.
Janet Wolfe: The executive director of the New York City Housing Authority Symphony, Wolfe was a consummate New Yorker. A bold, avid supporter of arts, she evoked many of the city’s best features: it’s creativity, interconnectedness and propensity for making a crazy story. The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section regularly featured stories about her between 1969 and 1996, telling vibrant tales of the usual minor disasters, eccentric tendencies and funny aspects of regular life. In 1971 she started the Housing Authority’s Symphony orchestra, bringing together residents of the agency’s buildings and its staff to play concerts in New York.
Tama-chan: Yes, she was a cat—but she put her nine lives to good use. In 2006, as ridership dwindled on the line serving the Kishi train station in Japan, Wakayama Electric Railway laid off the station’s last employee, leaving the grocer located next door—whose store was frequented by Tama-chan—to watch over things. By 2007 Tama had been named stationmaster. Within a year of her appointment the number of passengers on the line increased 10%. In the years that followed she, wearing her stationmaster’s cap, became a popular tourist attraction and was promoted until she was a vice president of the WER.
Read Tama’s full obituary from the Economist