Zoomer newsmakers of 2011

What a difference a year makes! This year the only thing that trumped the fast pace at which things changed was how quickly news spread around the world. Sometimes the news seemed almost a joke — like the Twitter antics of (the now former) Senator Anthony Weiner and Charlie Sheen’s public meltdown. The rapture didn’t happen on May 21 or October 21, as 90-year-old Harold Camping predicted, and many eyes were on lavish royal weddings amidst continuing economic doom and gloom.

Sometimes the news was more troublesome — like continuing worries about Europe’s debt crisis and  unrest in the Middle East. This year also saw the downfall of some major players on the world stage like Osama Bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi and Kim Jong-il — leaving many experts to question what will happen in their wake.

And sometimes people simply changed how we see the world. Here are some of this year’s Zoomer newsmakers who have left a lasting legacy.

Jack Layton

It’s hardly surprising that we hear almost daily news about politicians like Stephen Harper and Barack Obama — but one leader’s accomplishments stood out amongst the rest this year. Agree or disagree with his policies, but NDP leader Jack Layton left his mark on Canadian politics. With every election, he increased his party’s support — but his greatest triumph came in the 2011 federal election which saw his party win a record 103 seats, making the NDP the official opposition.

Unfortunately, Layton wouldn’t live to see just how much of an impact he had. Just two months after being sworn in as the Leader of the Opposition, Layton announced he was stepping down after being diagnosed with a second form of cancer. An August 22, Canadians woke up to the sad news he had passed away. Following a tremendous outpouring of tributes from coast to coast, Layton was laid to rest with a state funeral.

However, it is Layton’s legacy that still has Canadians talking. His parting words to Canadians were a message of hope and optimism, saying that with them “We’ll change the world.” (Read his Letter to Canadians.)

Dr. Ralph Steinman

Nobel Prizes aren’t usually awarded posthumously, but the committee made an exception for Canadian immunologist Dr. Ralph Steinman — who passed away just three days before the award presentation. Steinman, along with American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on adaptive immunity, particularly his discovery of the dendritic cell. His work aimed to help treat pancreatic cancer — the disease that ultimately took his life.

Receiving the award in his place, Dr. Steinman’s family decided to “pay it forward.” According to news reports, at least part of the $1.5 million USD prize was donated to a fund to support aspiring scientists — a cause Dr. Steinman supported during his life. (See the story on CBCNews for more information.)


Fauja Singh

Nicknamed the “The Turbaned Tornado”, 100-year-old Singh has garnered worldwide recognition for a hobby many of us have never attempted: running marathons. To beat homesickness and stay in good health, Singh took up running at age 80 when he moved to the United Kingdom. Nine years later, he ran in his first marathon — the London Marathon — and has since conquered several more. Most recently, he became the oldest person to complete a 42.1 km race during Toronto’s Waterfront Marathon this October.

Unfortunately, the accolade is in name only. Without a birth certificate, officials from the Guinness World Records wouldn’t ratify this world record or any of the other world records he has broken. Singh continues to make headlines abroad for his accomplishments, and we’ll soon see him in the news again — as an Olympic Torchbearer for this year’s Summer Games. (For more details, see Impossible is nothing and BBC News.)

The heroes of Japan’s nuclear crisis

Not much is known about the “Fukushima 50” — the many workers who put other people’s safety ahead of their own lives when disaster struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The “50” — whose ranks could have been as high as 200 or 300 people — included plant workers who stayed behind when others were evacuated as well as firefighters, engineers and other workers who prevented an even worse disaster. The workers accepted death as a possibility, and worked to prevent further damage to their country and beyond.

While experts speculated that older workers were among the Fukushima 50, another notable group stepped forward to help: The Skilled Veterans Corps. Founded by 72-year-old Yasuteru Yamada, the group now numbers over 500 retired workers ready to take the place of younger employers at the Fukushima plant.

Their argument is as brutal as it is altruistic: they’ve lived their lives, raised their families and are ready to spare younger workers whose lives would be cut short. While they can’t take on hard physical labour, they’re ready to risk radiation exposure in dangerous areas. Officials haven’t taken them up on their offer yet, but the group continues to draw volunteers as old as 90, and has raised over $100,000 in donations. (For more information, see the article on NPR.)

Steve Jobs

Whenever Apple’s black turtleneck-sporting co-founder and CEO had a new innovation to announce, the media hung on his every word. However, the news wasn’t so good in 2011. In January, Jobs took medical leave from his role as CEO, and later tendered his resignation in August due to his health. The biggest shock came on the evening of October 5 when news of his death quickly spread through the media — via many of the devices he helped pioneer.

Amidst the outpouring of sympathy and admiration for his accomplishments, Jobs was once again front and centre on the world media when his official biography by Walter Isaacson hit the shelves. Suddenly we were discovering things about his life that we never knew before, like how much he hated Google Android and why he regretted not having surgery that could have saved his life. Death was a motivating factor in his life, and most people would agree he packed a lot of life into his 56 years.

Mickey Rooney

When something happens to a celebrity, the people take notice — and Mickey Rooney’s very public battle with elder abuse had the world paying more attention to this important issue. In February, the court granted Rooney a restraining order against his stepson, Chris Aber, and Aber’s wife Christina. Rooney, then age 90, claimed he suffered emotional and financial abuse — that his stepson had taken his money, bullied him and denied him food and medications.

However, it was in March that Rooney’s story really caught the world spotlight when Rooney testified at a U.S. Senate hearing on elder abuse.  Noting that if it could happen to him, “it could happen to anyone.” He warned that coming forward about abuse is difficult not just because of a victim’s own fears, but because of family relationships too.  In the U.S., Rooney’s testimony is helping to form legislation. Around the world, it helped bring much needed awareness to the issue. (For more information, see the AARP Bulletin.)

Warren Buffet

As statistics show an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, popular imagination created a “heroes” versus “villains” dichotomy. First it was “Main Street versus Wall Street”, then “the 99 per cent versus the 1 per cent”. It’s easy to imagine the elite 1 per cent enjoying a life of luxury while the exploited 99 per cent slave away unable to retire and often unable to make ends meet.

…Until someone like Warren Buffet blows the stereotypes out of the water. Buffet wasn’t shy about pointing out that he and his wealthy friends aren’t being asked to do their part to help the U.S. economy.  Buffett made headlines when he argued that America’s millionaires aren’t paying enough taxes — that they’re enjoying far lower tax rates than everyday workers. The wake-up call wasn’t the tax rates so much as “1 per center” speaking up for the 99.

And he’s not the only one: later surveys showed that the majority of people earning more than $1 million/year agree with Buffett’s call for the rich to pay more in taxes. Perhaps next year’s top stories will see the so-called “Buffett Tax” come into effect. (For more information, see Buffett’s editorial in the New York Times and the survey in the Wall Street Journal.)

Oprah Winfrey

Consider it the retirement story that wasn’t: famed TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey had a lavish farewell this year as her syndicated hit, The Oprah Winfrey Show, aired its final episode on May 25. However, the media hype lasted considerably longer than one day.

Despite the showy tributes and thank yous, the celebrity has moved on to bigger and better things — namely her self-titled television network, OWN. If you really miss her, you can still see her on the cover of her magazines on supermarket shelves.

Likewise, Regis Philbin stepped down from Live with Regis and Kelly, but assured his adoring fans that this wasn’t retirement — he’s exploring other opportunities. Andy Rooney also signed off of 60 Minutes at age 92, but unfortunately passed away a month later due to complications following surgery.

Rupert Murdoch

His name has been associated with some of the world’s most famous people like J.K Rowling and — but not in a good way. After the cell phone hacking scandal at News of the World broke, it seemed not a week went by without hearing of another celebrity or politician who was affected. Soon the media mogul was testifying at government inquiries and under the microscope of both the police and the public. The scandal brought many other Zoomers into the news as well, like Piers Morgan.

As you know, Murdoch and his son — along with some of the company’s top executives — still maintain they weren’t aware of any wrong doing on the part of their employees. (But that didn’t stop him from issuing formal apologies, and personally apologizing to the family of Milly Dowler, a murdered girl who’s voicemail was hacked by New Corps. employees.) Dubbed “The Year’s Worst Fall from Grace” by American magazine Newsweek, Murdoch’s story has people questioning journalist ethics — and just who is accountable.

Of course, Murdoch wasn’t the only big name causing scandals this year. Conrad Murray was found guilty of manslaughter in the death of pop superstar Michael Jackson, and Conrad Black was back in court for re-sentencing — then made headlines for yet another autobiography.

Who would you add to this list? Tell us in the comments.