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Opinion: We’re all suckers for lists

It seems like only yesterday, but 22 years ago, we celebrated a new millennium.

To commemorate the epoch, in December 1999, A&E’s “Biography” aired a two-part special profiling the 100 most influential people of the past 1,000 years.

I’m such a history nut, that I drew up my own list in advance to see how my roster compared to the experts.

Sadly, the producers also opened the polling to internet users, so some figures got on the list based on their popularity at the time and not on historical merit.

For example, Princess Diana, who had died only a couple of years earlier, was ranked at No. 73, ahead of Marconi, Louis Armstrong, Jonas Salk and a host of others whose influence we still feel today.

To be sure, the Princess of Wales was a towering influence in her brief reign. But, did she do more to change the world than, say, Lord Byron or Oliver Cromwell? Neither of them made the list.

Thankfully, there were only a few objectionable entries based on internet polling. After the first 30 people or so, things began to get serious, say from No. 70 on down.

It might interest readers to know that I guessed the person at No. 1 from the outset. I also completely overlooked some giants who deservedly ranked in the top 10.

I got to thinking about this the other night while taking an antihistamine for my allergies.

It has forced me to rethink that list.

Somewhere on that roster of the most influential people of the last millennium, even one compiled in 1999, had to be the psychopath in Chicago who laced a number of bottles of Tylenol with cyanide back in 1982. The tampering resulted in at least seven deaths and led to major legislation on the packaging of over-the-counter medications. It didn’t stop there.

Today, we endure the fallout of that idiot’s madness every day – every time we reach for the pliers to wrestle a pill from an impregnable bubble-wrapped sheet, every time we open a jar of mayonnaise, a carton of half-and-half.

So this guy or this woman deserves to be on that list. Hitler was.

Another person overlooked was Willis Carrier, the guy most responsible for inventing air conditioning. Without the ability to cool buildings in scorching weather, do you really think cities like Atlanta, Houston or Phoenix could have risen to the prominence they enjoy today?

What about Dubai in the United Arab Emirates? It has an average high in July and August of 106 F. And yet, it has the tallest building in the world and a population of 3.5 million people engaged in one of the fastest growing economies in the Middle East.

One person who would not be on the list is the man or woman who invented the parking deck. That’s because no one really knows for sure that is.

That leads me to another list – don’t we all love them?

I keep an unofficial list of great lead-ins to news stories.

It began 50 years ago when, fresh off his Super Bowl win, Jets quarterback Joe Namath was paid $10,000 to shave his famous Fu Manchu in a commercial for Schick.

The New York Times wrote: “Joe Namath shaved his controversial Fu Manchu mustache yesterday with a Schick electric razor for a reported fee of $10,000. That's about $10 a hair.”

I love stuff like that.

Reporters work hard to make their first few sentences sing with impact.

One of the best story leads on my list was about parking decks. It was on NPR and went something like this:

“Henry Ford was the father of automobile assembly lines. President Eisenhower was the father of the interstate highway system. But the paternity of the parking garage is less clear. Like most inventions, its mother, of course, was necessity.”

It may interest some to know that the best lead I ever wrote for a story, the one I’m most proud of, was buried on Page 3 of an inside section in a daily newspaper some years back. I won’t name the editor who made that decision. But, he’s on another list of mine.

Pat Fox is the Managing Editor of Appen Media Group. Originally from Kansas, Pat covered North Fulton for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Appen Media.