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Milestones: Jun. 8, 1981

5 minute read

DIED. Jaime RoldÓs Aguilera, 40, President of Ecuador and youngest elected head of state in South America; in a plane crash that also killed his wife Marta, 39, Defense Minister Marco Subia Martinez, 51, and six others; in the Andes Mountains. A Guayaquil lawyer, Roldos entered the 1978 presidential race as a stand-in populist candidate for his politically prominent uncle-by-marriage (who was ruled ineligible to run) and went on to win a runoff the following year by the largest margin in his nation’s history, ending nine years of dictatorship.

DIED. Roger Wheeler, 55, multimillionaire entrepreneur in oil, minerals, real estate and sporting ventures, also chairman and largest stockholder of the Telex Corp., a Tulsa-based computer and electronics firm with 1980 revenues of $186.5 million; of a gunshot to the head, fired at point-blank range by an unknown assailant, as he got into his car after a regular weekly golf game; in Tulsa. The owner of World Jai Alai in Miami and former owner of Hartford (Conn.) Jai Alai, Wheeler had testified publicly about alleged underworld involvement in the sport.

DIED. Mary Lou Williams, 71, influential jazz pianist, arranger and composer who worked with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Andy Kirk, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie in a career that spanned most of the major eras and styles of jazz; of cancer; in Durham, N.C. Rooted in blues and boogie-woogie, Williams was a consistently adventurous and idiosyncratic performer who played a formative role in the development of bebop in the 1940s and even experimented somewhat in the “free” improvisations of recent years.

DIED. Charles W. Yost, 73, who participated in the San Francisco conference that founded the U.N. in 1945 and then, nearly a quarter of a century later, became the first career diplomat to serve as U.S. ambassador to the organization (1969-71); of cancer; in Washington. Nicknamed “the Gray Ghost” because of his mild, unassuming manner, he was a seasoned troubleshooter whose service over four decades in capitals from Vienna to Vientiane earned him the Foreign Service’s highest honor, the title of Career Ambassador.

DIED. Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, 79, astute, autocratic Archbishop of Gniezno and Warsaw, and Primate of Poland’s Roman Catholic Church; of abdominal cancer; in Warsaw (see WORLD.)

DIED. George Jessel, 83, comedian, singer and showman whose ubiquity as an after-dinner speaker earned him the title of America’s Toastmaster General; of a heart attack; in Los Angeles. The New York City-born Jessel became a vaudeville headliner with a routine in which he held a telephone conversation with his mother. In 1925 he won fame on Broadway in The Jazz Singer, only to lose the film role—and a place in movie history —to Al Jolson. He went on to produce a string of Hollywood movie musicals before hitting his stride as a master of ceremonies and fund raiser. A superpatriot who liked to wear a ribbon-bedecked U.S.O. “uniform” of his own devising, Jessel boasted friendships with five Presidents and took credit for inventing two American institutions: the celebrity “roast” and the Bloody Mary cocktail. A fixture at three decades of Hollywood funerals (he delivered eulogies), he left behind his own epitaph: “I tell you here from the shade, it is all worthwhile.”

DIED. Rosa Ponselle, 84, the “Caruso in petticoats” whose rich, soaring voice and compelling stage presence enabled her to reign from 1918 to 1937 as the first American-born and -trained star of the Metropolitan Opera and established her as one of the great dramatic sopranos in operatic history; of a heart attack; in Stevenson, Md. Celebrated for such roles as Bellini’s Norma, Verdi’s Aïda and Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, Ponselle combined prodigious coloratura technique with a voice that ranged seamlessly from glowing chest tones to a ringing high C. When she appeared in London in 1930 in Montemezzi’s L ‘Amore Dei Tre Re, portraying a wife who loved another man, Critic Ernest Newman wrote that on hearing her first note “any divorce lawyer would have granted the husband a decree nisi.” The daughter of a baker named Ponzillo, who had emigrated from Naples to Meriden, Conn., she teamed with her sister to form a teen-age singing duo in vaudeville, where Tenor Enrico Caruso discovered her. She made her Met debut opposite Caruso in Verdi’s La Forza del Destine. After leaving the Met, she continued to perform for concerts, radio and recordings, and served for a period as artistic director of the Baltimore Civic Opera. She spent her last years in splendid retirement at her home outside Baltimore, Villa Pace, where she held court for visiting singers, students and buffs.

DIED. Soong Ch’ing-ling, 90, a vice chairman of the People’s Republic of China and the widow of Sun Yatsen, who founded the Chinese Republic in 1911; of leukemia; in Peking. Born to an illustrious Chinese family and educated in America, Ch’ing-ling, who married Sun in 1914, was the second of the three legendary Soong sisters (Ailing married the wealthy banker H.H. Kung in 1914; Mei-ling married Chiang Kai-shek in 1927). A staunch revolutionary who condemned the split between Chiang’s Kuomintang forces and the Chinese Communists in 1927, she survived the purges of Mao’s Cultural Revolution but was not granted full-fledged membership in the Communist Party until last month, when it was clear that she did not have long to live.

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