Duckler: To these five who died in 2016, you won’t be forgotten

  • Molly Banzhoff, 13, had her final show in one of her favorite places in Concord. The marquis at Concord’s Capitol Center for the Arts glowed pink in May: ‘Molly B – the Musical.’ GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/31/2016 8:10:57 PM

If you parachuted into downtown on May 23 with no knowledge of recent local events, then ventured into the Capitol Center for the Arts, you never would have guessed that an undercurrent of sadness existed in the theater that night.

Because that night, the term “The Show Must Go On” came to life in the form of a tribute to Molly Banzhoff, the 13-year-year Concord girl who died  after doctors discovered a tumor in her brain.

The diagnosis came on May 1, the tumor was removed the next day and Banzhoff died on May 7. Then, just 16 days later, after the city had lost a singer and a dancer and a shining light, Concord pulled together the greatest show on Earth.

Following a speech on stage by Barbara Higgins, Banzhoff’s mother and a well-known teacher, track star, coach and school board member, “Molly B – The Musical” had the packed house tapping its feet and singing along to a series of numbers that reminded everyone what sort of impact Banzhoff had around here.

The Rundlett Middle School seventh-grader, known for her independent spirit, kindness and intellect, was a member of local institutions like the Concord Dance Academy and Flipz Gymnastics. She was the fuel that drove everyone involved that night, symbolically serving as the director, producer, choreographer and head of public relations.

The two-hour plus presentation featured Molly’s older sister, 15-year-old Gracie Banzhoff, whose smile and dance moves gave no hint of the pain she was feeling at the time.

Higgins, too, reflected the spirit of the night during her pre-show speech, saying, “I brought Molly (to the Capitol Center) for one of her many rehearsals in the last year at some point, and we sat down. Molly looked at me and she goes, ‘Mom, I love this place. I love it backstage, I love the dressing room, I love watching. I just love it here.’ ”

And on this night, more than 1,000 people did, too.

Van McLeod

The arts took another hit when Van McLeod of Concord died on July 17 at the age of 70.

McLeod served as the commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Cultural Resources from 1992 until his death.

The fancy title meant McLeod was the face of the arts in Concord and beyond for decades. He spent years in Boston working as a lighting technician for rock concerts, which led to a ticket aboard the Festival Express train for the 1970 tour, along with the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and other legends from that era.

He booked Boston-area native Jay Leno before anyone knew the legendary talk-show host, and founded the Theater 369 in Somerville. He wrote a book called No Stars, about the importance of all those involved, not just the on-stage players, in any sort of production. He founded the Kearsarge Theater Company and the North Country Center for the Arts, and he wrote the grant to start theater programs in Concord elementary schools.

McLeod also gained international fame when he was one of four American Fellows selected for the Salzburg Global Seminars, a gathering of writers, directors and producers from 51 countries. In addition, President Obama appointed him to his National Arts Policy Committee.

Through it all, McLeod fought for funding as budget cutters often looked to the arts when money became tight. After his death, New Hampshire resident Ken Burns, one of the top filmmakers in the world, said, “He did more for the culture and the arts than anybody in this state, and I don’t know how you fill that void.”

A standing-room-only crowd attended a memorial service for McLeod on July 22 at St. Paul’s Church. State leaders like Maggie Hansen, Paul Hodes, and Steve Duprey got up and spoke.

No one, however, moved the crowd more than McLeod’s daughter, Chelsea, who had no idea that her father was dying from a genetic condition that affected his lungs and liver.

“He never told anyone,” said Chelsea, a grade-school teacher. “The only people who knew were my mom and the doctors. He put me first so I could live my life and not rush home every weekend to make sure he was okay.”

Martin Gross

Martin Gross, a three-term former mayor of Concord, died on Jan. 26 after suffering a stroke on a cruise ship bound for Antarctica. He was 77.

And while sad, of course, the circumstances surrounding Gross’s death were perfect for a man who lived his life with an adventurous spirit, unafraid to take chances and live outside his comfort zone.

As his obituary read, “As with everything else in life, Martin viewed the practice of law as an adventure.”

Added Concord Mayor Jim Bouley in that same obit, “It always seemed like he really enjoyed everything he did.”

That’s why Gross, a Democratic activist, got along so well with people of all political viewpoints. In fact, his first wife, the late Caroline Lord Gross, was a Republican, the first female majority leader in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

“He never burned any bridges,” college buddy Will Rogers said during a tribute at the Capitol Center for the Arts.

Gross, who worked at the Sulloway and Hollis law firm for more than 50 years, was known as a mentor to young and old attorneys alike, as well as a preservationist for all things historic downtown.

More than anything, though, he was a world traveler. He traveled with his second wife, Deirdre Sheerr-Gross, to South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Central America and all over Europe.

They were on their way to Antarctica on a cruise ship when Gross suffered a stroke. He was transported to a passing northbound vessel, then treated in Ushuaia, Argentina, where he died.

“God, I love Marty,” old friend Lew Feldstein said during the tribute at the Capitol Center. “Even in his death, he makes my days and yours, as I hear the stories.”

Jim Kinhan

Jim Kinhan caught Hillary Clinton off guard, while catching the attention of the entire nation at the same time.

The longtime Concord resident, suffering from terminal colon cancer, was 82 when he died on Oct 6, three days after he stopped eating to speed up his inevitable end.

Eight months prior, Kinhan had asked Clinton, Democratic candidate for president, for her view on “death with dignity” during a televised CNN town hall.

“This may come a little bit from right field ... but it’s very personal to me,” Kinhan said.

“I have to tell you,” Clinton responded, “this is the first time I’ve been asked that question.”

Granite Staters have been forced to address the issue more forcefully ever since.

Kinhan’s story goes back more than three years, to when he learned he was going to die. He told the Monitor last year that he saw it as an opportunity to “walk toward my dying.”

“I have always been known as a joyful spirit, and that’s the way I want to leave,” Kinhan said. “I want that choice, and I want that choice for other people.”

In the end, after lobbying the House of Representatives to study the issue of assisted suicide, Kinhan had no legal choice beyond starving himself.

He’d had enough chemotherapy, which zapped his energy and lost its effectiveness last spring. He took his last walk with his partner, Ginny Mierins, along the Merrimack River in August, and played his final three holes of golf a few days before he stopped eating.

Then, without a law yet on the books, he passed away, on his own terms.

Donald Gross

Donald Gross was burly and gruff, with a head of shock-white hair and a goatee.

To those who knew him, however, the former Andover selectman and Nashua police chief, killed on Jan. 7 in a bizarre accident, was actually a teddy bear in many ways.

Gross died in front of his Andover home after accidentally fueling an already-burning brush fire with “ignitable liquids,” The New Hampshire Department of Safety announced in a press release.

Gross, who had two grown sons and grandchildren, was 65. Reaction from colleagues on the Andover select board was powerful. Gross was a big man, in size and impact.

“There’s a whole bunch of people whose lives were made easier because of all the little things he did every day,” said Jim Danforth, who served with Gross on the board for two years. “This will be really tough. He was the go-to guy. The amount Don had taken on the last four or five years, he just stepped up.”

Added Victoria Mishcon, who served with Gross for three years, “Underneath, he was very concerned with people, and he just wanted to do what was best for the town.”

Gross had captained Nashua’s police force before moving to Andover, where he had previously spent summers and was already well known around town.

His friends said he acted as a moral compass on town matters, never allowing favoritism to cloud his judgment. He was a member of the town’s Lions Club, cleared driveways of snow free of charge, built the shelving for the food pantry, and sorted, bagged and delivered the local newspaper, the Beacon, the last Thursday of each month.

“You could always count on him,” Danforth said.

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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