In 1989, Liu Xiaobo left a comfortable visiting scholarship at Columbia University to return to his native China and thrust himself into a maelstrom.
Thousands of students had occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing to demand democratic changes and an end to Communist Party corruption, and without hesitation Mr. Liu, a literary scholar with a dissident’s reputation in China, flew home to join them.
In the square he kept vigil, in solidarity with the young. But he also feared for their lives and ultimately implored them to leave, warning that the Chinese troops who had arrived to quell the disturbance might soon open fire. The soldiers did, massacring hundreds.
For Mr. Liu, a mission of political opposition was born. Risking prison, he became one of the Beijing regime’s most outspoken critics, and in 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But he received the honor in absentia. By then he was in prison, where he would remain until his death in July. The cause was liver cancer, apparently in an advanced stage, though few knew: The authorities did not disclose his condition until late June.
Mr. Liu was just one of a remarkable roster of disparate people who died this year having fought, as their eulogists might say, “the good fight” — an expression that rings of cliché but also of truth. They had fought, and fought some more, for causes larger than themselves.
They were rarely famous. Their names may have found their way into obituary headlines, but they were not “headline names,” as we know the term — not like those of the many luminaries who died along with them this year. But they were remembered.
Edith Windsor was one. She etched her name in history in United States v. Windsor, the landmark Supreme Court case that brought same-sex married couples federal recognition and rights that only married heterosexuals had enjoyed.
Betty Dukes, a greeter at a California Walmart, waged a similar campaign. She led a class-action lawsuit against her employer on behalf of 1.5 million women who worked in its stores, accusing it of discriminating against them in pay, promotions and more. She lost in the Supreme Court, but Ms. Dukes, an ordained Baptist minister, had the consolation of knowing that she had given public voice to an army of easily expendable low-wage workers who, as a sister-in-law of hers said, had been “afraid to rock the boat.”
More consequential was the story of Norma McCorvey, who was paradoxically better known in anonymity. Cloaked as Jane Roe, she stood in for millions of women in Roe v. Wade, the case that led to legalized abortion in the United States. She was never the ideal rallying point, however, lifted as she was out of obscurity to participate, reluctantly, in a legal challenge to Texas abortion statutes. And she ultimately switched sides, compelled by religious scruples to oppose the very thing Roe stood for. When she died, each side in the debate pondered her uneasily as its imperfect own.
The cause of racial justice lost champions in 2017, among them Roy Innis, whose Congress of Racial Equality, born in black-power militancy, moved rightward. By contrast, Roger Wilkins, a protégé of Thurgood Marshall, had emerged as a persuasive advocate at the centers of power — in government, academia, philanthropy and journalism.
But both were well known, as was Dennis Banks, who helped lead an impassioned and sometimes violent struggle for Native American rights after centuries of injustices. A more obscure figure on the barricades was Barbara Smith Conrad, a gifted young singer whose black skin precluded her from joining a University of Texas opera production in 1957. The ensuing outcry did not change university minds, but it won the hearts of fair-minded people countrywide, quickening the pace in pursuit of racial justice.
Decades later and half a world away, Rula Quawas took up the cause of feminism in a most inhospitable environment, Jordan, challenging a patriarchy and losing her dean’s job at the University of Jordan because she had helped her female students dare to expose, on video, the sexual harassment they had endured on campus.
Sumiteru Taniguchi survived the atomic destruction of Nagasaki to become a prominent foe of the bomb. In Russia, Arseny Roginsky fought to document and memorialize the persecuted in the Soviet era and beyond.
In the United States, Fred A. Kummerow, a biochemist, devoted 50 years to arguing for a federal ban on the use of trans fatty acids in processed foods. It was approved in 2015, potentially preventing, by one estimate, the premature deaths of 90,000 Americans from heart disease every year.
Health was the cause of many others. After long years, Jerry Canterbury won a court ruling that transformed how doctors deal with patients in evaluating the risks of treatments, though the decision could not erase his 58 years of mostly bed-bound misery thanks to a botched back operation when he was 19.
And Amy Reed, a physician herself, saw a series of victories in her fight against the use of a surgical device that in some patients, like her, could spread, with fatal results, the very cancer it is intended to remove.
If Dr. Reed shunned a medical tool, Oliver Smithies, one of many groundbreaking scientists to die this year, created one. An inveterate tinkerer and Nobel Prize winner, he figured out how to disable a single gene so that its role in disease could be understood and combated.
In another arena of inquiry, Mildred Dresselhaus earned the sobriquet the Queen of Carbon for discoveries that, among other things, pushed the world-changing frontiers of nanotechnology. At the same time, this child of humble beginnings became a champion of women in science and even something of a pop culture figure, appearing as an inspiration to young women in a General Electric commercial that has now outlived her.
No one death is bigger than another, but some deaths get more attention, and probably no more so than in pop culture, where fame is the coin of the realm. There, a funereal drumbeat sounded all year.
The music world lost fixtures: the rock ’n’ roll pioneers Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, the Southern rockers Gregg Allman and Tom Petty, the Steely Dan genre-bender Walter Becker, a younger generation of frontmen like Chris Cornell (Soundgarden, Audioslave) and Chester Bennington (Linkin Park), and the rap stars Prodigy, Christopher Wong Won (2 Live Crew) and Lil Peep, all leaving the stage with decades ahead of them never to be lived.
There were the stars who helped define the sounds of the 1960s and ’70s (Glen Campbell, David Cassidy, Joni Sledge) and the ’80s (J. Geils). Barbara Cook, Maggie Roche, Della Reese and Al Jarreau, on the other hand, spanned decades, and sometimes musical styles, and Mel Tillis was as steadfast a country crooner as any, notwithstanding his stutter.
Voices that once filled the halls of classical music were stilled: Roberta Peters, Nicolai Gedda and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. And the darkened clubs where jazz and the blues are heard felt emptier with the passings of the harmonica wailer James Cotton, the guitarists Larry Coryell and John Abercrombie, the pianists Geri Allen and Muhal Richard Abrams and the singer and lyricist Jon Hendricks.
On another stage, for dance, the seminal modern choreography of Trisha Brown promised to live on.
Mary Tyler Moore — Mary Richards — gone? And Jerry Lewis too? Indeed, only months apart. But so was Roger Moore, whose suave James Bond seemed always so amused, in oh-so-British a way, by all the spy-game silliness. The French cinema lost a grande dame (Danielle Darrieux) and a femme fatale (Jeanne Moreau). The laconic Harry Dean Stanton, with a craggy face Giacometti might have imagined, had stolen his last scene. The director Jonathan Demme, both a box-office draw and an art-house habitué, left the set far too soon. And let us not forget Haruo Nakajima, the man in the reptilian suit who terrorized Tokyo as Godzilla.
A television land of yesteryear was further depopulated with the passings of Jim Nabors (the indelible Gomer Pyle), Adam West (“Batman”), Rose Marie (after Ms. Moore, the second female star of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” to die this year), Robert Guillaume (“Benson”), Martin Landau (“Mission: Impossible”), Mike Connors (“Mannix”), Erin Moran (“Happy Days”) and Bill Dana (whose name, by the way, was actually not José Jimenéz) — not to mention a pair of game-show perennials: Monty Hall (“Let’s Make a Deal”) and Chuck Barris (“The Newlywed Show,” “The Gong Show”).
No strangers to the television screen were the comics Irwin Corey, that foremost authority on, well, whatever it was; Shelley Berman, who did his stand-up sitting down, on his signature stool, to fret about an anxious age; Don Rickles, who made insults a comedy genre; and Dick Gregory, who for all his barbed wit saw no joke in his campaigns for civil rights.
Pillars of the theater fell: the directors Peter Hall, who towered on both sides of the Atlantic, and Max Ferra, who championed the work of Latinos; the British actors John Hurt, Roy Dotrice and Alec McCowen; and the playwrights A. R. Gurney and Sam Shepard, though “playwright” alone does little justice to the uncontainable Mr. Shepard’s manifold artistry, which branched as well into movies, television, music and fiction.
In death he joined a pride of literary lions, like the poets John Ashbery, whose voice — “by turns playful and elegiac, absurd and exquisite,” his obituary said — remained singular despite his many imitators; Richard Wilbur, the American laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner whose words, by many lights, coalesced into things of beauty; and Derek Walcott, the Nobel winner who filtered his acute observations on colonialism and culturalism through the rustling palms of his native Caribbean.
Fiction lost luminaries like the mystery writer Sue Grafton and Paula Fox, whose books — some for adults, some for the young — recognized that loss and dislocation were subjects that people of any age can understand. William Peter Blatty left us with “The Exorcist,” which still has the power to terrify, in both its dog-eared pages and its movie adaptation. Michael Bond bequeathed Paddington Bear, Denis Johnson a gallery of the down-and-out who, through his revelatory writing, achieved a kind of transcendence.
J. P. Donleavy, the American expat in Ireland, will be remembered for “The Ginger Man,” but his rambunctious literary output knew bounds far wider than that. And at a time when immigration remains as contentious as ever, Bharati Mukherjee, an Indian-born American, gave, through her fiction, voices to people caught up in it.
Other writers fell under that familiar publishing category that settles on describing their work in the negative. But rather than calling it “nonfiction,” one imagines that the feminist author Kate Millett, the Roman Catholic social philosopher Michael Novak and the historian Hugh Thomas, to name a few, would have described their books as their best efforts to discern the truth.
The same, no doubt, would have been said by a cadre of journalists. They spent decades taking on the powerful, baring their misdeeds, piercing their pomposities — raking the muck in one way or another. We remember the irrepressible Jimmy Breslin, the dogged Wayne Barrett, the provocateur Nat Hentoff, the inexhaustible TV newsman Gabe Pressman. And Liz Smith, who pulled back the curtains on the social whirl with her tabloid gossip scoops.
Probably few in the history of mass media had as much impact as S. I. Newhouse, at Condé Nast, Roger Ailes, at Fox, and Hugh Hefner, who created a Playboy empire and, for himself, the unabashed persona of an age-defying voluptuary.
They became public figures, much like those the news media scrutinized. One was David Rockefeller, the banker and philanthropist who was received abroad as if he were a head of state. Others had navigated largely inside the Beltway: the Realpolitik White House adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the maverick Republican congressman and wave-making presidential candidate John Anderson, and the Republican congressional leaders Robert Michel, in the House, and Pete Domenici, in the Senate, both of them G.O.P. stalwarts who nevertheless reached across the aisle.
Another Republican, the eminent lawyer William T. Coleman, argued for civil rights in the Supreme Court and became the second African-American to serve as a cabinet secretary (of transportation, under Gerald R. Ford). In another cabinet post, secretary of the interior (under Jimmy Carter), Cecil D. Andrus left a legacy 100 million acres large — the Alaskan wilderness he helped protect.
Abroad there were Helmut Kohl, the transformational leader of Germany; Simone Veil, an inspirational figure in the politics of France; René Préval, who led Haiti out of political turmoil only to be undone by an earthquake; Mario Soares, who shepherded Portugal to democracy; Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator who fell afoul of the United States; and Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had dominated impoverished Yemen, only to be murdered amid a vicious civil war he had fed.
Less consequential but no less intriguing to the public, in Britain and elsewhere, was Antony Armstrong-Jones, the rakish photographer whose tempestuous marriage to Princess Margaret provided red meat for the tabloids and, as it happened, a juicy episode this year on the Netflix series “The Crown.”
And there were villains: Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Muslim cleric and plotter of terror, and Charles Manson, who, in an orgy of blood, made sure that the world would not forget him, though it wished it could.
Manson’s obituary, for one, was on the front page of The New York Times — a proper placement that nevertheless bore out former Chief Justice Earl Warren’s remark about how he read newspapers.
“I always turn to the sports section first,” he said. “The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures.”
But let’s turn Warren’s aphorism on its head and conclude with the men and women he so justly admired, who strive on the playing fields and in the arenas, win or lose. This seems apt, heading as we are into a new year, carrying what every athlete must preserve to be able to get up and try again: hope.
Many in sports who died in 2017 were rightly recalled for their stellar careers — Don Baylor and Bobby Doerr in baseball; Ara Parseghian, as a head coach, at Old Notre Dame. But many were remembered as much for the obstacles they encountered and often overcame.
The quarterback Y. A. Tittle became the image of both defiant resilience and valorous defeat, leading the Giants to three titles after being cast off by the San Francisco 49ers as too old, and then, when age had caught up to him, becoming immortalized in a timeless photograph as a bloodied but unbowed warrior.
Connie Hawkins may have been the epitome of unrealized potential. His best basketball years, when he might have dominated the N.B.A., were stolen by unsubstantiated suspicions of his earlier involvement in a college point-shaving scandal. On his entering the Hall of Fame, an if-only hung in the air.
The golfer Roberto de Vicenzo tasted the bitterest of defeats, one inflicted by his own hand, when a simple scorecard error cost him the Master’s crown at Augusta in 1968 and forever obscured his many moments of victory, including at the British Open.
Jimmy Piersall had an outstanding 17-year career in the major leagues, but it was shadowed by the emotional breakdown he suffered as a rookie, a chapter that will define him as long as its movie portrayal, “Fear Strikes Out,” is shown.
And then there were Margaret Bergmann-Lambert and Adolph Kiefer, both tied in different ways to the now-distant 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The American Kiefer, one of the great swimming champions of all time, won a gold medal there and might have won a chestful more had not World War II intervened, suspending Olympic competition for 12 years, his prime.
Lambert’s story was even more rueful. A world-class German high jumper, she was used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes and then summarily barred from competing because she was Jewish. A gold medal had been within her grasp: In a preliminary meet she had tied the German high-jump record.
The hurt remained with her for the rest of her 103 years. “It was a terrible shock,” she later said, “because I was the best.”
But she and her achievements were not forgotten, either. Not far from her home in Queens, where she died, a high school athletic field — where young men and women continue in her footsteps to run, leap and soar — bears her name.