Local Obituaries

Passages: Honoring South Florida notables who died in 2014

PIN-UP ICON: Playboy photographer Bunny Yeager, a pioneer in the field of photography, was a celebrated model herself, as seen here in this self-portrait. Yeager died at 85 in May.
PIN-UP ICON: Playboy photographer Bunny Yeager, a pioneer in the field of photography, was a celebrated model herself, as seen here in this self-portrait. Yeager died at 85 in May.

South Florida’s weather, the arts and culture, and the sports teams are all attractions. But the region’s heart lies in its people.

From one of the first-known Cuban rafters to a man who helped reshape the county through a surtax program that helped poor working families find homes; from the entertainer turned businesswoman who survived the deadliest nightclub fire in history to a 111-year-old woman who chronicled life from the porch of her Roads home for 75 years, our community is better for having known them.

As 2014 comes to a close, we take a look back at some of the names we lost in the calendar year.


Jan. 12: Armando Rodriguez, 96. One of the first Cuban rafters in Florida, rescued in 1961 with six others by men aboard the freighter Gulf Panther from Wilmington, Delaware. Rodriguez opened a grocery store in Hialeah, near the race track, Best Food Market, and Kiko’s, a wholesale business in the Jackson Memorial business district, followed.

Jan. 13: Sandy Miot, 75. Real estate magnate, president of the Florida Homebuilders Association, developed the community of Weston as a “Hometown of the Future” in the 1980s.

Jan. 23: Martin Fine, 86. Lawyer, business leader and civic booster. Fine helped reshape Miami-Dade County. His work with state Sen. Carrie Meek in 1988 on the Documentary Benevolent Aid (DBA) surtax program that helped provide zero-interest home loans to poor working families was his greatest professional achievement, he said.


Feb. 23: Maxine Amelia Thurston-Fischer, 74. An executive in the Urban League’s Miami Chapter who founded The Thurston Group in 1986 to serve as a consulting and management firm for research, program evaluation, and organizational development for human-service agencies.

Feb. 28: Dr. Catherine Poole, 80. The first female chair of the University of Miami’s Department of Radiology in 1978, she led the department for 15 years and lectured throughout North and South America.


March 18: Joe Lala, 66. A master percussionist who helped give the Bee Gees, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Chicago, Jackson Browne and Stephen Stills their grooves, Lala appears in the credits of more than 60 gold or platinum albums, many of which were cut at North Miami’s famed Criteria Studios in its 1970s heyday.

March 26: Francien Ruwitch, 86. Arts patron and philanthropist founded, with her late husband, the Francien and Lee Ruwitch Education Endowment Fund at the Lowe Art Museum and the Francien and Lee Ruwitch Charitable Foundation to support art museums at the University of Miami and Florida International University and several charities.

March 31: Walter Ferguson, 90. A fiercely proud, self-proclaimed “River Rat,” the Miami River businessman made his name with his Southern Diesel Engine Repair company whose clients included the tugboat operators who pulled freighters along the Miami River and Jacques Cousteau’s famed Calypso.


April 18: Robert Keith Gray, 92. After advising President Dwight Eisenhower as his appointments secretary in the 1950s, Robert Gray helped with Richard Nixon’s successful campaign for the 1968 presidency, steered President Gerald Ford in the 1970s and headed communications for President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

April 29: Sky Farrell, 28. Mixed-media collage artist, photographer, painter and daughter of songwriter Wes Farrell (Hang on Sloopy, C’mon Get Happy) created an installation for Spin magazine’s 25th anniversary and Interview magazine for its 40th. The Wynwood artist died of bacterial meningitis.


May 6: Ricardo Nuñez-Portuondo, 80. A voice of the Cuban exile community, he was named by President Gerald Ford as the National Director of the Cuban Refugee Assistance Program in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which made him the first Cuban-American to receive a presidential appointment.

May 14: Anita Schuck, 111. A Woman of Valor honoree by St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Coconut Grove, Schuck wrote a line in her diary every day until she was 108. She served witness to Miami from the porch of her home in Miami’s Roads neighborhood, a home she moved into in 1939 and lived in for the rest of her life.

May 25: Bunny Yeager, 85. Yeager’s photographs of Miami actress-model Bettie Page in a Santa hat and nothing else ushered in the pop culture status of the Playmate of the Month in a January 1955 Playboy centerfold pictorial. The statuesque Yeager, a model herself, became one of the country’s most famous and influential photographers.

May 25: Dr. Charles Virgin, 75. Sports medicine orthopedic surgeon helped keep members of the Miami Dolphins intact for nearly 20 years, including the perfect season of 1972. Virgin was also team physician for the Lipton International Tennis Tournament at Key Biscayne, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and Miami Jai-Alai.

28: Gustavo Lezcano, 59. Musician and music teacher at Gratigny Elementary School in North Miami, a member of the Miami Sound Machine in its formative years (Dr. Beat). He played harmonica on the 1993 Bee Gees ballad, Blue Island, and that year played with the trio at a charity concert for diabetes research.


June 11: Melisa Campos, 96. For more than 50 years, Campos owned and ran the Cowboy Center gear store in Northwest Miami. But the former singer who, with her late husband Carlos, performed on Miami Beach’s hotel row into the 1960s, was also noteworthy for surviving the 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire, the deadliest nightclub fire in history that claimed the lives of 492 people.

June 13: Sybil Cleare Johnson, 93. Hairstylist, civic activist and “keeper of secrets,” a precursor to the kind of character Queen Latifah played in the hit 2005 comedy Beauty Shop, Johnson spent half a century as a quasi-therapist, advisor, friend, mother figure and confidante to hundreds of regulars at her Maison de Butè beauty salon in the Bunche Park neighborhood of Opa-locka.

June 17: Laura May Petrello, 89. Circus aerialist tumbled into the hearts of George VI, the Duke of Windsor; Gustaf V, the king of Sweden; Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope, and can be seen in the 1952 film The Greatest Show on Earth with actor Charlton Heston, who played a character loosely based on her husband and fellow Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performer.


July 16: Dr. Robin Parker, 50. Professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale developed touch-technology apps to help in the treatment and study of autism.

July 29: Jay Maeder, 67. Miami Herald’s People columnist in the 1970s, Maeder later wrote a revamped Little Orphan Annie comic strip, was a Daily News columnist and editor in New York and once played a zombie from the bowels of the Everglades swamps in a grade-Z, low-budget film so he could write about the experience in his column.


Aug. 8: Gary Poliakoff, 69. A pioneering partner of condo association law firm Becker & Poliakoff, which formed in 1973. Poliakoff and his law partner Alan Becker practiced condominium law at a time when most of the laws governing shared communities were yet to be written or clearly understood.

Aug. 8: Henry Stone, 93. Record distributor and founder of TK Records recorded pre-fame Ray Charles in Miami in 1948 and is credited with breaking a slew of “Miami Sound” No. 1 hits by KC & the Sunshine Band, George McRae and Anita Ward internationally in the 1970s.


Sept. 4: David Kennedy, 80. Miami mayor from 1970 to 1973 envisioned Bicentennial Park and the Coconut Grove park that now bears his name, the David T. Kennedy Park.

Sept. 18: Bill Diaz, 89. University of Miami Swimming Hall of Fame coach trained Olympians Jesse Vassallo, David Wilkie and the late Matt Gribble from the 50-meter pool at the Coral Gables campus. Diaz built the college team after similar success at Miami Jackson Senior High School, Miami Springs Senior High and his formation of the UM’s age-group Hurricanes Swim Team.

Sept. 20: Walter Cronise, 90. Navy meteorologist’s famed “Fearless Forecasts” for WPLG-Channel 10 made the bow-tie wearing weatherman a friendly, folksy presence for decades. “Toad strangling” storms? That was Uncle Walt’s way for South Florida audiences.


Oct. 3: Bernard Mandler, 87: Attorney who co-founded the firm Smith and Mandler in Miami Beach and brought a lawsuit against the Miami-Dade County School Board to challenge religious prayers in schools. He achieved a controversial victory. “The Bible Trial” was a hot ticket in town in 1960.

Oct. 4: Dr. Warren Jay Lieberman, 84: Co-founded the Center for Excellence in Eye Care at Baptist Hospital in 1995.

Oct. 21: Klara Farkas, 103. Photographer whose images of Miami dignitaries, commerce leaders and civic activists led arts and culture experts to dub her work “the last word on the origins of Miami’s cultural life from the 1940s to the near present.”

Oct. 25: James Haney, 67. Retired Navy Commander who served on the Underwater Demolition Team and as an intelligence officer; later, he became a fire chief with Miami-Dade County.


Nov. 5: Jack Nelson, 82. The International Swimming Hall of Fame calls Nelson, founder of the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team, the only man to compete in an Olympic finals, in the 1956 Melbourne Games, and later be named a head Olympic coach, for guiding the 1976 American women’s team to gold at the Montreal Games.

Nov. 10: Nikki Beare, 86. A Women’s Page reporter for the Miami News, Beare left journalism in 1968 to help form the local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and was named to the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994 by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Nov. 27: Jean Karaty, 97. The artist worked as a cartoonist for Miami's Fleischer Studios from 1938 to 1943, the studio that produced Popeye, Betty Boop and Superman cartoons.

Nov. 29: John ‘Hans’ Huseby, 64. Runner who, along with wife Laurie, created the most successful road race in South Florida’s history — the Mercedes-Benz Miami Corporate Run. The couple’s FootWorks running store in South Miami is a fixture for fitness enthusiasts.


Dec. 2: Edna Shalala, 103. Became the first female attorney of Syrian-Lebanese heritage to practice law in Cleveland, Ohio, after she passed the bar in 1952. She practiced for 50 years, was a life-long avid athlete and tennis champ, as well as mother of University of Miami President Donna Shalala.

Dec. 11: Michel du Cille, 58. Photojournalist won two Pulitzer Prizes for the Miami Herald. The first, a shared award, for spot news photography in 1986 for coverage of a Colombian volcano and, in 1988, in feature photography, for images inside a Miami crack house. His third Pulitzer came in 2008 with two fellow Washington Post reporters for an investigative series on the mistreatment of an Iraq war veteran at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Dec. 12: Hindi Diamond, 90. Writer and foreign correspondent covered the first Summit of the Americas in 1956 in Panama as the only female reporter for The Panama America, an English-language daily. Among her interviews: President Dwight Eisenhower, Helen Keller, Leonard Bernstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, John Wayne and an exclusive with Argentine dictator Juan Perón.

Dec. 15: Robert Simms, 87. University of Miami Trustee served 15 years as executive director of the Metro-Dade Community Relations Board through some of the city’s toughest times, helped create M.A.S.T. Academy and was the first black member of the Orange Bowl Committee.

Dec. 17: China Valles, 89. If jazz had royalty in South Florida, it was this pioneering radio DJ, who had a 50-year career that honored the American art form. Jazz icon Duke Ellington dubbed Valles “The Maharajah, Purveyor of Swirls.”

Dec. 23: Robert McCabe, 86. Miami Dade College’s third president presided over the school’s expansion from one campus to today’s seven, championed remedial education and won numerous honors. His reforms, considered radical at the time, changed the way teachers were evaluated and how students graduated.

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