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Hours after his 6-year-old daughter was gunned down at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., a grief-stricken Robbie Parker braved the cold and the cameras to speak about the gift that little Emilie had been to his family. "I'm so blessed to be her dad," he said, choking back tears.
Gift-giving is central to Christmas and the holidays of many spiritual and secular traditions. This year's shootings at the Connecticut school, a Colorado theater, an Oregon mall, a Wisconsin Sikh temple and a Minnesota business -- to name a few -- remind us that people, not material things, are the most precious gifts of all.
While holidays are typically times of merriment and indulgence, this year we're especially mindful of the celebrations tempered by grief. With that in mind, we wish to call attention to a few people the world lost in 2012, whose lives were a gift to many:
Ultimate sacrifice: All U.S. military troops killed lost their lives while serving their country. Among them were at least three native Minnesotans who died in Afghanistan: Army Sgt. Nicholas Dickhut, 23, of Rochester; Marine Cpl. Taylor Baune, 21, of Andover, and Marine Lance Cpl. Dale Means, 23, of New Prague.
Public safety: More than 120 of the nation's police officers died in the line of duty this year. Minnesotans are mourning Cold Spring's Tom Decker, 31, a father of four young children, who was ambushed and fatally shot while checking on a citizen's well-being.
Inspired goodness: While some people argue that the answer to gun violence is to arm more people with guns, actor Andy Griffith, 86, portrayed a small-town sheriff who never wore a gun. Violence is glorified on TV today, but Griffith's humorous 1960s sitcom championed healthier ways to resolve differences.
Service to others: Dorii Gbolo, 56, devoted her life to improving health care for the poor in Liberia and in St. Paul's inner city. At age 20, a time when many young people are still figuring out their futures, she traveled overseas to manage a health clinic. That was just the beginning of her selfless outreach.
The storytellers: Many famous writers and poets faced their last chapters this year -- Ray Bradbury, Carlos Fuentes, Wislawa Szymborska, Gore Vidal -- but our hearts go to Grace Keillor, 97, of Brooklyn Park, who gave Minnesota one of its most treasured storytellers, a humorous son she named Garrison.
The gift of time: Stephen Covey, 79, became famous for the best-seller "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," which detailed a time-management system popularized by the Franklin Planner, a personal calendar system that helped many Americans better organize their days and plan for the future.
Fought injustice: Key figures in the civil-rights Movement -- Robert Carter, Lawrence Guyot and Christopher Mercer -- died this year, as did Wesley Brown, 85, who suffered horrific racial hazing while becoming the first black graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in 1949.
Championed the underdog: Ann Smalley Jordan, 97, of Fergus Falls and Marine on St. Croix, Minn., was a force in elevating the state's care standards for children with Down syndrome through pioneer programs and outreach. The Perham, Minn., native earned a Bronze Star for her work as a nurse during World War II and spent her retirement as a historical society volunteer.
Music to our ears: Dick Clark, 82, gave us "American Bandstand," and Don Cornelius, 75, brought us "Soul Train." We lost many other music giants this year, too: Dave Brubeck, Etta James, Marvin Hamlisch, Whitney Houston, Jenni Rivera, Earl Scruggs, Ravi Shankar, Andy Williams and others. Let's not forget Frank Polkey, 96, of Minneapolis, a master accordionist who brightened many lives over the years.
The inventors: They changed the way we live: Psychiatrist William Lamers Jr., 80, pioneered palliative care; Norman Joseph Woodland, 91, cocreated the bar code; Dr. Joseph Murray, 93, was on the forefront of organ transplants, and Nobel Prize-winning chemist William Knowles, 95, helped with a drug for treating Parkinson's disease. Veterinarian Robert K. Anderson, 90, a retired University of Minnesota professor coinvented the Easy Walk harness and Gentle Leader halter for dogs, and profoundly impacted animal-behavior medicine.
The characters: A bright star features prominently in some Christmas traditions, but for many Minnesotan sports fans, Dark Star was a shining figure who brought delight during his 25 years at WCCO sports radio. He was born George Chapple, but the adopted moniker suited his offbeat style and larger-than-life personality.
Nothin' says lovin': George Pillsbury, 91, grew up in a famous Minnesota family, attended the best schools, served as an executive with the Pillsbury Company, then devoted his life to public service as a Republican state senator who, among other things, advocated for a unicameral Legislature and government reform. His stewardship was exemplary.
Butter to our bread: Many famous actors, movie producers and Hollywood bigshots died this year, but none more endearing or funny than writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron, 71, whose films featured strong female characters and narratives told from a woman's vantage: "Silkwood," "Heartburn," "When Harry Met Sally," "Julie & Julia," etc.
The astronauts: Neil Armstrong, 82, the first man on the moon, and Sally Ride, 61, the first American woman and youngest American ever in space, put their lives on the line to help our nation explore new possibilities.
Reporting the news: Dozens of other journalists lost their lives in the line of duty, often in war-torn countries and, closer to home, our bias is for John Cowles Jr., 82, longtime publisher of the Star Tribune who later, as a philanthropist, championed the Guthrie Theater, the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, and other causes.
School workers: Many unsung teachers and other school workers give of themselves in extraordinary ways, but none more than the six heroes at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, some of whom did everything possible to protect their young students from a madman's gunfire. They were Rachel D'Avino, 29; Dawn Hochsprung, 47; Anne Marie Murphy, 52; Lauren Rousseau, 30; Mary Sherlach, 56; and Victoria Soto, 27.
These are but a few of the people whose lives were a gift to others in 2012. May your holidays be a time of treasuring the people who are gifts in yours.