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Little Deaths 

Obituaries of the Slightly-Less-Than-Famous

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If the people here achieve immortality, it will be as answers to trivia questions. Yet they deserve better journalistic burials than they received. So before they slip into the past, let's celebrate the Almost Famous who crossed the bar in 1997, carrying to the other side some small yet luminous distinctions.

James N. Bay Sr., near north side:

Every time you sink your teeth into an Egg McMuffin, which he helped create in 1972, or a Bays English Muffin, you pay tribute to his memory.

Emmet Blake, Evanston: Curator emeritus of birds for the Field Museum, he was largely responsible for assembling nearly 40,000 stuffed birds, the fourth largest collection in the world. During the Depression he stuffed his life

savings of $3 into his pocket and roller-skated from Charleston, South Carolina, to the University of Pittsburgh, where he pursued graduate studies.

Harold Brill, Highland Park: An innovator in technical procedures, he may have been the first dentist in Chicago to use nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. Next time you pass the Pittsfield Building, where Brill's drill delivered painless dentistry for 43 years, open up and present your widest smile of thanks to Dr. Harold.

Bernie Cannata, Riverwoods: In the 1930s Cannata not only became Chicago's marbles champion, he also took home all the marbles in Chicago's Silver Skates ice-skating derby.

Cart Devoe, Chicago: Best known for founding the estimable Chicago law firm of Devoe, Goldberg, Shadur, Mikva and Plotkin, Devoe was also known by friends and family as a tapdancing devotee. He worked his way through law school by teaching tap. For his 75th birthday party in 1985, he danced in the tap shoes of his idol, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Mr. Devoe, however, chose to be buried in a better fitting pair of tap shoes--his own.

Allan De Witt, Berwyn: Before he formed the Allan De Witt Orchestra, Allan was a vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey Band until he was supplanted by a skinny young singer named Frank Sinatra.

Claro Duany, Evanston: He led a quiet life in Evanston as a self-employed truck driver. But in the 1940s he was celebrated in Cuba as "El Gigante," the huge, power-hitting right fielder who spent his summers playing for the New York Cubans of the Negro League.

Henry Fort, Chicago: Most recognized him as a highly successful real estate executive and founder of Independence Bank. But some knew him as a jazz bassist who joined a local band in 1934 but stayed home a few years later when the bandleader decided to hit the road. Fort continued a lifelong friendship with his former bandleader, Nat "Kling" Cole.

Sidney Allen Heenan, Park Ridge: When you cruise down a freeway dotted by those raised reflectors in the pavement, do you ever wonder whose idea that was? It was Heenan's, named inventor of the year in 1994 by the Intellectual Property Law Association of Chicago.

Irene Hernandez, West Rogers Park: In 1943, when Hispanics were about as active in Chicago politics as they were in polo, Mrs. Hernandez became involved in political life. By 1974 she was appointed, at the request of Mayor Richard J. Daley, to fill a vacancy on the Cook County Board, the first Latina to hold that position.

LeRoy Klowden, West Rogers Park: Every time you find relief from pushy shoe salespeople by shopping at a self-service store, tip your chapeau to Mr. Klowden. As president of field operations for Morton Shoe Stores, he pioneered the development of self-service shoe racks.

Billy Leech, Deerfield: Early on, Leech was a vocalist with the Raymond Scott and Guy Lombardo orchestras as well as a singer and producer for CBS Radio in New York. He later settled in Chicago, where he sang on the Mal Bellairs morning show and his own early TV show, Luncheon With Billy. From 1946 to 1967, he was several times voted Chicago's most popular radio vocalist. Still, Leech earns his pop culture wings as the vocalist who warbled the deathless, "You'll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent"--in nine languages, no less.

Dick Marx, Chicago: He was a dazzling pianist, a widely acclaimed jingle writer, and the father of recording artist Richard Marx. But Marx's most indelible mark on the musical landscape may be, his composing credit for the Chicago Blackhawks' anthem, "Here Come the Hawks." His memory may be largely unsung, but his anthem certainly won't be.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Archer Prewitt.

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