2011 Year in Review: Amazing Stories

As 2011 nears its end, we've been remembering many of the notable people who died over the course of the year. We've spotlighted famous figures from Hollywood, Sports, Television, Music, and a diverse group of luminaries who defy categorization.

For our final day of 2011 remembrance, we're looking at a group of people who may not have been so famous – their names aren't on everybody's lips like those of Liz Taylor or Steve Jobs – but who, we think, are still worthy of recognition. They're the folks who inspired us this year with the stories of their lives: stories of bravery and stories of tragedy; lives that were marvelously long and lives that were sadly short. Today we're remembering some of 2011's amazing stories.

Walter Breuning (Associated Press Photo)We begin with a few of those marvelously long lives. Walter Breuning lived to 114, making him the world's oldest man before his death in April. Just six months before his death, Breuning gave an interview to the Associated Press, remembering a wealth of stories from his life in Great Falls, Montana. Many of those stories are recounted in his fascinating obituary. Mississippi Winn was, before her January death, the oldest-living African American in the U.S. and the seventh-oldest living person in the world. At 113 years old, Winn was alive during three centuries and was most likely one of the two last living people whose parents were born into slavery. And the oldest of the three, Chiyono Hasegawa, was Japan's oldest living person at 115. When she died in early December, she was just a few months younger than the world's oldest living person, Bessie Cooper of Georgia.

Erik Martin (Associated Press Photo)We love hearing a story of a long and rich life, but this year we were just as inspired by a boy who only lived to age 14. Erik Martin suffered from a rare form of cancer that eventually took his life much too soon, but before his death, the comic book fan was able to enjoy one spectacular day as "Electron Boy," savior of Seattle. If you haven't read his obituary yet, we must recommend this heartwarming story of a boy's imagination and the kindness of hundreds of strangers. Martin's wasn't the only interesting story we enjoyed reading this year. We were delighted by Norma "Duffy" Lyon, the "Butter Cow Lady." She carved cows out of butter – plus Elvises, Last Suppers, motorcycles and more – for the Iowa State Fair for decades. She was a true artist, albeit in a strange medium. And we were charmed by Bill Haast, the snake expert who directed Miami Serpentarium Laboratories until his death at age 100. An expert at extracting venom from snakes, Haast injected himself with small doses for many years to boost his immunity to the poison of his charges.

Dick Winters (Associated Press Photo)Bill Haast was certainly a brave man – and if it's tales of bravery you like, 2011 saw many of them. We were especially impressed with the war heroes we remembered over the course of the year. Frank Buckles, at 109 years old, was the last surviving American veteran of World War I. Buckles, 16 when he enlisted, lied about his age in order to fight, and as an older adult he campaigned relentlessly for a national WWI memorial. Many notable veterans of World War II died this year, as well. Lloyd Oliver was one of the last of the Navajo Code Talkers, the elite group of Marines who passed on important U.S. military secrets in a code based on their native language. Albert "Doc" Brown was a survivor of the Bataan Death March who chronicled his experiences in a Japanese POW camp by secretly writing on a scrap of paper with a pencil stub. And Dick Winters and Ed Mauser were both members of the "Band of Brothers," the U.S. Army's Easy Company that was immortalized in an HBO miniseries – though both men were private and humble, preferring not to talk much about their wartime heroism.

Vaclav Havel (Associated Press Photo)We heard stories of other wars as well in this year of revolution. Vaclav Havel was a leader of Czechoslovakia's 1989 "Velvet Revolution," a dissident playwright who wrote calls for human rights and an end to Communism in his homeland. He became Czechoslovakia's first democratically elected president. Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were photojournalists covering the Libyan uprising when they were killed in the crossfire. Both left stunning photos documenting the unrest.

Japanese Earthquake (Associated Press Photo)As we watched the Middle Eastern turmoil, we were also devastated by tragedies at home and abroad. The shootings at a political rally in Arizona stunned a nation. Just months later, a series of deadly tornadoes took hundreds of lives across the Midwest and Southeast. Even more deadly were the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan, killing thousands and leaving the world in fear of a nuclear disaster. In Norway, a killer shot more than 70 people at a youth summer camp. And four Americans were killed by Somali pirates, the first loss of American lives in the years-long wave of pirate attacks.

Sonia Pierre (Associated Press Photo)Through the tragedies of 2011, we were still able to find inspiration from those who fought for a better world. Sonia Pierre was a human rights activist who fought discrimination against poor Dominicans of Haitian descent. Laura Pollan formed the Cuban group Ladies in White, marching with many other women to demand the release of their political-prisoner husbands. And Rev. David Wilkerson hunkered down in a notoriously seedy area of Manhattan and ministered to drug addicts, prostitutes, and troubled teens, bringing light to a dark place.