Archive for the 'Legendary Heroes' Category

Josephine Baker: Bronze Venus

By Rick Hutchins

Pulp Fiction abounds with larger-than-life heroes who seemingly achieve more than any mere mortal could hope to accomplish in one lifetime. Mainstream society rejects such notions as mere Romanticism and advises us to set our sights lower — however, such people do exist.

This is the story of one such person.

The woman who would become known as the Bronze Venus was born into a life of poverty in the Negro slums of St. Louis in 1906, the daughter of Vaudeville performers. She did not intend to follow in her parents’ footsteps. However, abandoned by her father and abused as the domestic servant of a wealthy family, she found herself homeless and starving on the city streets; so, when dancing for pennies on the corner led to an invitation to perform in a local chorus line, she was not slow to accept.

Her natural talents quickly became apparent. Before she was out of her teens, she had moved to New York and had become the highest paid chorus girl in Vaudeville. By her early 20s, she was charming audiences in at the Folies Bergère in Paris with her uninhibited eroticism and comedic antics.

Josephine Baker quickly became one of the most famous women in the world. Her success allowed her to be financially independent, quite rare for a woman of that era and unheard of for a Black woman. As an artist, she was an innovator. In addition to pushing the boundaries of eroticism and nudity, even by the standards of the Roaring 20s, she was the first Black woman to star in a major motion picture and is credited with introducing the Jazz Age to Europe.

After more than a decade of increasing success as an exotic performer (complete with pet cheetah), mitigated only somewhat by experiences with racism in the United States, Baker had become a French citizen and did not hesitate to answer the call when World War II broke out. She was recruited by French Military Intelligence and, later, the French Resistance to obtain and conduct information vital to the war effort.

Her celebrity status allowed her to rub shoulders with movers and shakers at embassies throughout Europe and her charm allowed her to gather data about enemy airfields, harbors, and troop movements, which she would then convey written in invisible ink on her sheet music and in notes pinned in her underwear. She was, in short, a spy. In addition, her home in the south of France became an unofficial headquarters for the Free French movement, where operatives could obtain visas.

Throughout the war, Baker also performed freely for the troops and worked as a nurse for the Red Cross. Many Allied soldiers remembered her generosity and healing ministrations throughout the remainder of their lives.

For her efforts, she was awarded the Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance, and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle.

After the war ended, Baker’s celebrity status was heightened by her wartime heroism, and she was not afraid to use her newfound clout. Returning to the United States after many years, she refused to perform for segregated audiences– most venues, most notably in Miami and Las Vegas, gave in to her demands, resulting in a sold-out national tour. She was named the NAACP Woman of the Year in 1951 and May 20th was declared Josephine Baker Day. A parade was held in her honor.

All was not wine and roses, however. She was turned away by dozens of hotels for being Black and received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. A confrontation at the New York Stork Club (in which she was befriended by Grace Kelly, a hero in her own right), resulted in the revocation of her visa for several years.

Nevertheless, Baker continued to work with the Civil Rights Movement, and was an ally of the NAACP and Martin Luther King. She spoke at the historic March on Washington in 1963 (the only woman to do so) and was heartened by the sight of so many Blacks and Whites standing shoulder to shoulder. “Salt and pepper,” she said. “Just what it should be.” When Doctor King was killed, she was offered the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement by his widow, but she declined. By then, she had a family to think about.

Her family at that time consisted of her husband, Jo Bouillon, a French conductor, and a dozen adopted children who she called her Rainbow Tribe (as well as a menagerie of exotic pets). The children were of a variety of backgrounds– European, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern– and were a testament to Baker’s belief that “Surely the day will come when color means nothing more than the skin tone, when religion is seen uniquely as a way to speak one’s soul; when birth places have the weight of a throw of the dice and all men are born free, when understanding breeds love and brotherhood.”

Josephine Baker died in 1975 from a cerebral hemorrhage, following a retrospective performance in Paris that was attended by celebrities, royalty, and dignitaries from all over the world. She received full French military honors and a public funeral attended by tens of thousands.

Today there are parks and streets that bear her name, she is the subject of multiple books, movies and plays, and there are museums and memorials from Missouri to Monte Carlo that pay tribute to this underprivileged Black woman from the streets of St. Louis who championed sexual freedom, provided a role model for independent women, fought the Axis, stared down the Klan, and set an example of human fellowship that is still needed today.

Mere Romanticism indeed. Such people do exist.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and is a regular contributor to this blog.  In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

Two of Hutchins’ previous essays on heroes appear in our book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

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Harriet Tubman: The Hero Who Fought Slavery

By Mary Hampton, Kelsey Donner, & Jessica Partlow

In 1820, Harriet Tubman, born Araminta Ross, was born into a family of slaves in Maryland. Several of her siblings were sold by their owners and she never saw them again. Harriet spent countless hours laboring for others. Along with doing manual work for her owners, she had to put up with numerous beatings, one in particular that split her skull open and never healed, causing severe brain damage. She never received any medical attention and the trauma resulted in epileptic seizures and narcolepsy for the rest of her life. Her resentment and anger at her circumstances steadily grew, particularly after she was threatened with being sold, fueling her passion to escape and bring others along with her.

Harriet was called to be a freedom hero. In 1849, Harriet became ill once again as a result of her head injury. Her value as a slave was diminishing and her owners were attempting to sell her. Soon afterward, one of her owners died and it became likely that her family would be split up and sold to different owners to settle his estate. Harriet decided she would not be sold again so she fled to Pennsylvania through the Underground Railroad. She successfully avoided slave catchers by traveling at night and seeking the protection of abolitionists.

She had not been in free territory for long when she heard that her niece was going to be sold. Tubman decided to go back to slave territory to save her niece and her children. She selflessly wanted to help others and she would risk her life in doing so.

In December of 1850, Tubman made the bold and dangerous decision to return south. Risking her own re-enslavement, she courageously embarked on the first of many journeys to set her people free. On her first trip she brought her niece and family to the north by the same route she escaped by.

A few months later she returned for her own brother and was well on her way to earning the nickname “the Moses” of her people. In over a decade she made 19 trips to the south and back, rescuing over 300 slaves. Slave owners in the south never knew there was one person behind the escape of so many slaves, but other abolitionists did.

She worked with many abolitionists like Thomas Garrett, Frederick Douglass, John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison.  Douglass and Brown both counted Tubman among the bravest and most important anti-slavery heroes of the day. Tubman successfully led slaves to freedom for nearly a decade without ever being discovered or losing a single passenger on her “underground railroad.” She was a valued activist and spoke publicly to abolitionists while taking care of her relatives and fighting her illness.

When the Civil War began Harriet first served as a nurse before adopting a more active role by helping map terrain for the Union Army and even leading armed assaults. When slaves were liberated from captured Confederate Territory she helped to recruit them to the Union Army.

Despite her incredible work and dedication to the Union, Harriet was never compensated and the U.S. government did not properly recognize her service until nearly 40 years later. The fact that she never received compensation combined with her role as caretaker for her family and rescued slaves meant that she was in a perpetual state of poverty. Despite the constant difficulties she faced with her health, her finances and the total lack of recognition, Harriet never stopped working to help other people.

Harriet Tubman showed great heroism during her journey from slavery to freedom to liberator. Her life was not easy and her experience of belittlement and hardship persisted even into the 20th century. Even though she was oppressed herself in being a disabled, uneducated, black, former slave woman, she navigated physical, social and political danger for the sake of freedom. She received some recognition for all of her many achievements, including her work in the suffragette movement.  She pursued her vision unswervingly and by the end of her life, Tubman was widely known and finally received the respect she deserved. After her death she has become widely recognized as one of the most important American heroes and activists for the end of slavery and civil rights for former slaves, African-Americans, and women.

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Mary Hampton, Kelsey Donner, & Jessica Partlow are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

Grace Kelly: A Friend Indeed

By Rick Hutchins

Movie stars and royalty are often considered heroes by those who find inspiration in their talent, perseverance, generosity and leadership. In those terms, Grace Patricia Kelly, who won an Academy Award at age twenty-four and became Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco at age twenty-six is twice a hero. However, the true heroism of this remarkable woman is both more personal and more profound.

In 1951, the Stork Club in New York City was a popular haunt of celebrities from both Hollywood and Washington. Grace Kelly, at that time, was a young actress of stage and television about to begin a career in film. As she dined with some friends and colleagues one night, she was witness to what was an all-too-common event in those days — a woman being refused service because of the color of her skin. That woman turned out to be Josephine Baker, an internationally famous singer and exotic dancer (herself a hero of WWII and the Civil Rights Movement), who, at that time, was a far bigger celebrity than Grace Kelly.

With no thought to the possible consequences to her own career, Kelly left her dinner, took Baker by the arm and departed for more welcoming pastures (to their credit, her companions followed suit). She vowed never to return to the Stork Club and she kept that promise. From that night onward, Grace Kelly and Josephine Baker were lifelong friends.

The next several years brought amazing changes for Kelly. She quickly became one of America’s most beloved actresses. In 1955, she headed the U.S. delegation to the Cannes Film Festival and there met Prince Rainier of Monaco. The prince knew a princess when he saw one and a few months later he made a reciprocal trip to the United States where he proposed marriage.

Josephine Baker’s fortunes, unfortunately, did not fare as well. Branded a communist by the HUAC, likely as a consequence of her charges of racism against the Stork Club, whose owner was a friend of J. Edgar Hoover, she was banned from the U.S.  Her luck went downhill from there, but her friend did not forget her. When her difficulties ultimately resulted in bankruptcy, Princess Grace gave her a villa for herself and the twelve multiethnic orphans she had adopted in better times, and offered financial support as well. In fact, Baker’s final show, a glowingly reviewed retrospective performance in Paris, given only days before her death, was financed (and attended by) the princess and her prince.

In 1982, Princess Grace suffered a stroke behind the wheel of her car; she died as a result of injuries suffered in the crash. Throughout her short life, she proved herself a true philanthropist, always using her fame and wealth and status to promote the betterment of mankind, work that still continues today through the Princess Grace Foundation. However, nothing exemplifies her heroic character more than that one selfless act of friendship to a stranger, in the days when that was all she had to offer.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

This is Hutchins’ sixth guest blog post here.  His first two, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, will appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

The Heroic Companionship of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In our Heroes Book, we discuss the remarkable story of Karl Merk, a German farmer who ten years ago lost both his arms in a farming accident.  In July 2008, Merk was the recipient of the first double-arm transplant, conducted in a 15-hour surgery at the Munich University Clinic by a team of 40 doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologists.  Today, after three years of intensive physical therapy, Merk has regained significant use of his arms and is acquiring more function every day.

Merk and the medical team that is treating him are an example of companionate heroes — people who are dependent on each other for their heroic qualities to surface.  Usually, but not always, companionate heroes consist of a person who needs considerable help to survive, and another person who has the perfect skill-set to assist him or her.

Perhaps the most famous companionate heroes of the 20th century were Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.  When Keller was 19 months old, she contracted an illness that left her blind and deaf.  She was imprisoned in a dark, silent world, and no one in her family could reach her.  Keller’s parents hired 20-year-old Anne Sullivan to perform the seemingly hopeless task of educating Keller.  Sullivan was the perfect person for the job.  Visually impaired herself, Sullivan was empathetic, patient, resourceful, and persevering.

Sullivan first tried to teach Keller basic language skills by using her finger to spell words on Keller’s hand, but Keller did not understand that each object had a different name.  A breakthrough occurred on April 5, 1887.  Sullivan led Keller to a water pump and splashed water on one of Keller’s hands while spelling the word water on the other hand. Keller later recalled, “We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honey-suckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.”

Sullivan next tackled Keller’s atrocious table manners. Keller had the habit of eating with her hands, grabbing from the plates of everyone at the table, and throwing a temper tantrum if anyone tried to stop her.  Sullivan punished Keller’s tantrums by refusing to “talk” with Helen by spelling words on her hands.  Soon Keller developed impeccable manners and learned how to perform everyday tasks such as getting dressed and brushing her hair.
Thanks to Sullivan, Keller was transformed into a bright, curious, lovely young woman who was destined to make a positive mark on the world. The bond between Keller and Sullivan grew into a beautiful friendship that lasted for 49 years.

Keller was the first deaf and blind person in America to graduate from college, and she later became a prolific author of many books and articles on a variety of social and political topics. Most importantly, Keller became a world-famous advocate for people with disabilities. The 1962 film The Miracle Worker inspired millions of people with its story of Keller’s triumph over disability and Sullivan’s selfless devotion to helping Keller fulfill her vast potential.

“Helen Keller was a fighter,” said Keller’s grandniece, Keller Thompson-Johnson. “She didn’t hide from her problems. She knew that to become a better person and to show other people that they too could overcome their disabilities, she had to be a fighter herself.”  During her lifetime, Helen Keller was consistently ranked near the top of almost every Most Admired list.  In addition, Anne Sullivan deservedly acquired the reputation as a legendary teacher.  Keller and Sullivan are forever linked as heroes who brought out the best in each other.

Below is a rare clip of Anne Sullivan explaining how she taught language skills to Helen Keller.

Captain James T. Kirk: The Hero Who Treks the Stars

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it appears in our book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.

 

– Scott Allison and George Goethals

Christopher Columbus: A Globally Transforming Figure

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it appears in our book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.

 

– Scott Allison and George Goethals

Merlin: Supporting Hero of Myth

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it appears in our book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.

 

– Scott Allison and George Goethals

The "Trouble" With Odysseus: Original Hero of Western Literature

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it appears in our book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.

 

– Scott Allison and George Goethals

Johnny Appleseed: The First Hero to Advocate "Going Green"

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

The past two decades have witnessed a burgeoning public interest in protecting our planet and its limited resources.  The phrase going green was coined in the 1990s to describe the mindset and practice of caring for the environment, with green symbolizing a respect for plant life and other gifts of nature.  A growing wave of companies in all sectors of our economy are now embracing environmentally safe practices.  Going green is the right thing to do, and companies find that a green philosophy even saves them money, too.

One of the first individuals to bring the value of preserving nature to the public's attention was Henry David Thoreau, who recognized the dangerous impact of the industrial age on the environment.  Over 150 years ago, Thoreau said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world."  He understood the clash between modernization and environmentalism.  "Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind," he opined.

Thoreau was influenced by one man from the early 19th century whose impact on conservation and naturalism was so great that he became a true American legend.  This icon's name was John Chapman, although he later became better known as Johnny Appleseed. Chapman was born on a small farm in Massachusetts, and as a child his favorite place to spend time was his father's apple orchard.  As a young adult, he moved west toward Ohio.  Along the way and in Ohio, he planted apple seeds in fenced orchards, sold them, and became somewhat of a wanderer who preached the value of protecting plant and animal life.

Chapman was described in a magazine article as “a small wiry man, full of restless activity."  He sported long black hair and “keen black eyes that sparkled with a peculiar brightness.” He referred to himself as merely a “gatherer and planter of apple seeds.”  Chapman played a crucial role in America's population shift westward during the early 19th century.  His apple orchards provided early pioneers with a self-reliant means of generating income from growing their own apples.  Fresh apples and apple butter were staples in the diets of the early American settlers.  Apple cider could be traded for flour, livestock, sugar, and other staples in cash-poor settlements.  The presence of apple orchards also signified that a piece of land was claimed, serving as the equivalent of a sold sign for all to see.

Chapman enjoyed success with his business model, but he remained a humble man who lived the simplest of lives.  He spent the majority of his adult life living with nature and planting apple nurseries. Chapman clothed himself with the most threadbare garments he received on barter for his apple trees, often giving away the better clothes to the less fortunate.  His generosity and love of nature were legendary, earning him the moniker Johnny Appleseed.  He is remembered today as the patron saint of American horticulture.

In our research on heroes, we've found that a certain category of heroes consists of individuals who attain a mythic status.  We call these people transfigured heroes.  Examples of heroes of this type include Amelia Earhart, Robin Hood, Pretty Boy Floyd, St. Patrick, Merlin and Sherlock Holmes.  Transfigured heroes take on a legendary significance.  Their contributions are largely constructed, exaggerated, or glorified into legend.  We need heroes of this type.  They are larger than life.  And as in the case of Johnny Appleseed, they educate and inspire us with their selfless good works.

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Do you have a hero that you would like us to profile?  If so, please contact Scott Allison at sallison@richmond.edu.

Betsy Ross: The Hero Who (May Have) Sewed the First American Flag

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it appears in our book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.

 

– Scott Allison and George Goethals