Archive for the 'Unsung Heroes' Category

Harriet Quimby: Aviatrix One

By Rick Hutchins

In the early 20th Century, men and women were considered quite different animals and the social roles assigned to them reflected that belief. Women were expected to keep house and raise children while the adventures of invention and exploration were left to the men. Going beyond those expectations was not encouraged, and often punished. Most people conformed to those limitations, but some were not content to be grounded–- some, like Harriet Quimby, felt compelled to find new horizons.

Long before being bitten by the aviation bug, Quimby led an independent and liberated lifestyle that was the envy of many women of her day. An unmarried woman in New York City, she was a successful writer, turning out articles for the magazine Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly for many years, as well as several screenplays for DW Griffith in the early days of Hollywood. She was an “old maid” of thirty-five when she attended an international aviation tournament on Long Island and met famous aviator John Moisant (whose sister was to quickly follow in Quimby’s footsteps). Her first flying lessons soon followed. A headline in The New York Times, typical of the attitudes of that era, stated “Woman in Trousers Daring Aviator; Long Island Folk Discover That Miss Harriet Quimby Is Making Flights at Garden City.”

A year later, in 1911 (more than a decade before Amelia Earhart), Quimby became the first woman in the United States to earn an aviator’s certificate. Her friend Matilde Moisant became the second shortly thereafter.

But Quimby was not yet finished with making history. The next year, in April of 1912 (the day after the sinking of the Titanic), she became the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the English Channel.

Sadly, her next milestone was a tragic one. In July of 1912, she attended, and participated in, The Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet at Squantum on Dorchester Bay. While circling Boston Harbor, with event organizer William Willard as a passenger, her plane experienced unexpected turbulence and both pilot and passenger fell to their deaths, the plane crashing on the beach.

A century has now passed since the untimely death of Harriet Quimby. The romantic figure of the first aviatrix in her distinctive purple flight suit is all but forgotten. But thanks to her and others like her, the opportunities for women in society have expanded to a degree that few in her lifetime would have believed possible. Yet it is still true, well into the 21st Century, that both women and men are pressed to limit themselves to roles defined by their gender. Most will conform. But some will not be content to be grounded. And thanks to those like Harriet Quimby, their flight may be a little smoother.

- – - – - – - – - – -

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

Death and Heroism

By Scott T. Allison

“Death throws life out of balance, and it’s up to us, the living, to try to bring that balance back.” - Rick Hutchins

Recently, I’ve been mulling over the link between heroism and death. Last spring, two events in Richmond, the city I love and call home, sent my heart and my head into a state of grievous yet hopeful pondering.

On May 10, 2014, two of my colleagues at the University of Richmond died tragically in a hot air balloon accident. I knew one of the women, Ginny Doyle, the Associate Head Coach of the women’s basketball team. She is described by everyone who knew her as the shining light of the university. She was a stellar athlete and even better person.

The same praise is being heaped upon Natalie Lewis, who also perished. Natalie was a natural leader, a young woman with so much promise she was named Director of Basketball Operations in her early twenties. She exuded kindness and had a smile that lit up every room she entered. These two individuals are gone but not before leaving an indelible imprint on our small but loving campus community.

I think about Ginny and Natalie the same way I think about my sister Sheree, who succumbed to cancer only a few months earlier. In a flash, our short lives can be rendered shorter than we could ever imagine. We had best be mindful about how we use what precious time we have.

I wrote about my sister and called her, “the quiet hero.” The same can be said about Ginny and Natalie. They quietly touched the lives of many people in ways that will have a ripple effect throughout eternity. Kindness begets kindness, I am sure of it.

Death has a way of humbling all of us. Before they died, it’s quite possible that few would use the ‘hero’ label to describe Ginny, Natalie, or Sheree. Part of this may be due to death heightening our evaluations of those who pass. But I also believe that death amplifies our sensitivity and appreciation of the inherent goodness in people. Death directs our attention to what really matters in life – love.

In the end, our loving actions define us.

If love is paramount, then it is especially heart-gutting when someone dies while performing an act of love. This is precisely what happened here in Richmond in late April of 2014. Eight-year-old Marty Cobb was playing outside when he saw his older sister being attacked by a 16-year-old boy. Marty rushed to help her and died at the hands of the older boy while trying to protect her. Marty’s sister recovered from her injuries. But Marty is forever gone.

It is unthinkable for a precious young boy to die from any cause, but when the boy dies while saving his sister’s life, the pain is — to paraphrase Rudy Giuliani — more than any of us can bear. Marty didn’t just live a life of a hero, as did Ginny, Natalie, and Sheree. He died a hero. There is no nobler way to go.

Marty’s selfless act of ultimate sacrifice has only compounded the outpouring of grief, love, and heartache that Richmond’s citizens are now feeling. Summing up Marty perfectly, a makeshift sign placed outside Marty’s home reads, “Pound for pound, year for year, few greater heroes if any.”

The multi-layered connection between death and heroism exists for a reason. We all are called to pause and reflect about the loving lives of those who have been suddenly wrenched from us. Their lives inspire us all because they call us all.

Three beloved Richmonders are no longer with us. Drawing attention to their immense love deepens our sadness but also instills a joyous recognition that their heroism, quiet and otherwise, is an extraordinary gift fated to reverberate throughout eternity.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

Liz Murray: The Hero Who Went From Homeless to Harvard

By Jamie Bieber and Katie Matta

People do not need to possess superpowers to be heroes. All humans are equipped with the ability to summon up the necessary resilience and resourcefulness to overcome adversity, and in extreme cases these efforts can be a heroic inspiration to us all. No one illustrates this idea better than Liz Murray, who transformed herself from being a homeless person into a Harvard graduate.

Born to loving, yet drug-addicted parents, Liz Murray suffered through a turbulent childhood in which most of the money that came into the household was spent on drugs. Murray recalls moments where her mother stole her birthday money, the Thanksgiving turkey, and the family television for cocaine and heroine. Lacking basic resources such as clean clothes and food, Liz Murray had to learn at an early age how to shoplift.

Due to her poor circumstances and having to care for her sick mother, Murray attended school irregularly. Soon her mother died of AIDS, and then her father abandoned her and her sister. The two children had no choice but to live in a homeless shelter. There seemed to be no future for either of them.

Despite these dire circumstances, including hunger and homelessness, Liz Murray chose to structure her life around education. She made the decision that she would become a straight A student and graduate from high school. Sleeping on underground trains, park benches, and her friend’s couch, Liz Murray studied for exams anywhere that she could. She overcame the downward trajectory that many teenagers in her situation follow by believing that every day represented an opportunity for growth.

As a result of her hard work, Murray managed to win the New York Times scholarship for kids in need and, with the help of a dedicated high school teacher, was accepted into her dream school, Harvard University. As her heroic story was passed along to Oprah Winfrey and other sources, the media promoted her heroic story to mass audiences. The cable TV channel Lifetime produced an original movie re-creating her heroic journey.

In their research on heroism, psychologists Scott Allison and George Goethals have found that heroes typically excel in the areas of morality, competence, or both. As a teenager and young adult, Murray distinguished herself on the heroic dimension of competence by dedicating her life to receiving an education. After she graduated from Harvard, she began to show great morality by using her success to inspire others to follow their dreams.

She wrote a book describing her harrowing upbringing and her decision to prevail over her circumstances. Her autobiography is aptly subtitled, A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard. The book speaks to all of us by teaching us that anything is possible if you make every day count toward achieving our goals.

Liz Murray is also a hero for sharing her story in her role as a motivational speaker. The focus of her speeches is on helping children and teens avoid drug addiction and gangs, and to strive to complete their education. On her Facebook page, she describes herself as “a believer of possibilities, creativity, audacity, passion, fun, and a global community.” This could be the motto of all heroes.

Below is a clip of Liz Murray describing her story.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

Jamie Bieber and Katie Matta 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.

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.

- – - – - – - – - – -

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.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

Hannah Taylor: The Hero with a Heart

“If we never give up, and care enough for each other, we can do anything.”

-Hannah Taylor, 2006

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

By Kelsea Starr, Mike Rocco, & Rachel DeRosa

Often, the road to  heroism begins with a powerful personal experience. Such was the case with inspirational Canadian teenager Hannah Taylor. As a 5-year-old, Hannah witnessed a homeless man eating from a garbage can in the cold of winter in Winnipeg, Canada. Deeply confused and saddened by this image, Hannah began inundating her mother with questions about what she saw. She wanted to know how and why this could happen.

With the clear-minded innocence of a 5-year-old, she asked her mother, “If everyone shared what they had, could that cure homelessness?” For about a year following this event, Hannah’s curiosity and sadness did not cease. She continued asking various family members about homelessness, a concept she simply could not begin to wrap her mind around.

One day Hannah’s mother suggested that perhaps Hannah should do something about this issue so that her “heart would not feel so sad.” The next day, Hannah approached her first grade teacher and asked if she could speak to her class about homelessness, what she had learned about the issue, and make possible suggestions for what they could do as a class to help. Hannah and her classmates proceeded to organize a bake sale and clothing drive from which proceeds would benefit local homeless shelters.

Upon seeing the success of this event, Hannah decided that her contributions would not stop there. In 2004, 8-year-old Hannah founded The Ladybug Foundation, a registered charity with the mission to end homelessness and alleviate the stigma associated with homeless people. She wanted others to understand that homeless people are not to be feared but are simply “great people wrapped in old clothes, with sad hearts.”

She selected the ladybug as her foundation’s mascot, as it is said to represent good luck. Hannah felt that good luck was not only crucial in her mission to help the homeless, but that this luck is also greatly needed by those in poverty. The foundation raises money to assist reputable charities throughout Canada which meet many of the needs of people who are homeless. As stated by 8-year-old Hannah at the time of the foundation’s creation, the goals of The Ladybug Foundation are as follows:

1. “To teach people that people who are homeless are just like you and me. They just need us to love them and care for them.”

2. “To teach everyone to treat people who are homeless like family because if you do that you will love them in all the right ways and care for them in all the right ways.”

3. “To teach people that no one should ever eat from a garbage can or live without a bed or a home and let them know that there are people that have to because they have no choice.”

4. “To ask every person that will listen to help however they can to make life for people who are homeless better.”

5. “To teach people that everyone can make a difference in the lives of others.”

Since 2004, Hannah has spoken to over 175 schools and organizations. She has traveled throughout Canada, the U.S., Sweden, and Singapore, striving to educate the general public and bring dignity to the homeless population. She has also hosted a series of luncheons with various top business executives and community leaders across Canada to gain fundraising support. In 2007 Hannah published a children’s book called Ruby’s Hope, which further emphasizes the importance of helping those in need. Through her efforts,  Hannah has raised over $2 million toward providing shelter, food, and safety for homeless people.

Hannah’s humanitarian efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2007 she was awarded the Brick Award by the DoSomething! Foundation, which is presented to people under the age of 25 who have made a significant contribution to the lives of others. In that same year, Hannah also became the youngest person ever to receive Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women Award. In honor of her great accomplishments, an emergency shelter has been named after her in Winnipeg, known as “Hannah’s Place.”

Hannah’s mission to help others continues to this day. She has founded a separate charity, called The Ladybug Foundation Education Program, implemented in various schools throughout Canada. This foundation provides resources to empower youth to discover what they are passionate about, get involved, and make a positive change.

Hannah’s story is inspiring and heroic, as it displays that with motivation and perseverance anyone can make a meaningful difference in the world, no matter how old you are. All you have to do care.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

Kelsea Starr, Mike Rocco, & Rache DeRosa 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.

Welles Crowther: The Self-Sacrificing Hero

By Hayden Stults, Amelia Knight, and Abby Goethals

Self-sacrifice is one of the principal defining features of heroism. No one embodied this principal better than Welles Crowther, a 24 year-old investment banker who sacrificed himself on September 11, 2001 in order to save the lives of at least 12 people inside the South Tower.

Welles was a very smart and ambitious young man, and on the morning of September 11, 2001 he had every reason to fight for his own life, which was tracking toward great success. Fortunately for South Tower employee Judy Wein, along with dozens of others, Welles took it upon himself to change the outcome of a situation that would have meant certain death without his intervention.

Welles looked up to his father from a very early age, which is what led him to follow in his footsteps and become a junior volunteer firefighter at age 16. Although Welles did receive training as a volunteer firefighter, many people would still have considered him a kid, or at least a young adult, at age 24.

From the perspective of Judy Wein, one of the direct recipients of Welles’ aid, “people can live 100 years and not have the compassion, the wherewithal to do what he did.” The difference between Welles and most of the people in the Trade Center Towers on that horrific day is that Welles dismissed the fear of his own death and made it his sole mission to help as many people escape as possible.

After United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower, Welles made his way down to the 78th floor sky lobby, where he found a group of dazed and confused survivors huddled near the elevators. According to witnesses, he was already carrying a young woman on his back when he took control of the disgruntled group and directed them in a “strong, authoritative voice” to the stairway, where he led them down fifteen flights of stairs to safety.

Rather than escape the building with the first group of survivors, Welles turned around and ran back up the fifteen flights of stairs, where he found a second group of distressed survivors. He helped put out fires surrounding the group, administered first aid to those in immediate need, and led the group downstairs. Welles repeated this process several times, and was last seen entering the chaos with firefighters before the South Tower collapsed.

We consider Welles to be a hero because he exhibited extraordinary bravery and selflessness in the face of grave danger. He disregarded his own safety in a situation in which the majority of people would put themselves first, and by doing so he saved the lives of more than a dozen people, many of whom have said individually that they believe they would not have made it without his help and guidance.

Welles not only directly helped those individuals, he also inspired other survivors in the South Tower to help the get the injured to safety. Welles did not know that his story would be told, and he was not acting in order to gain fame or respect. He simply felt that it was his responsibility to do everything in his power to help every person that he could.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

Hayden Stults, Amelia Knight, and Abby Goethals 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. Abby is the niece of George Goethals, one of the co-founders of this blog.

Shavarsh Karapetyan: The Underwater Battle of the Champion

By Sharon Novikov, Matt Rosenthal, & Russell Pine

Shavarsh Karapetyan is a retired Soviet Armenian finswimmer. He is an 11-time World Record holder, 17-time World Champion, 13-time European Champion and 7-time Soviet Champion.

Despite his prolific accomplishments in the water, Karapetyan is much more well- known in the former USSR for his heroic, self-sacrificing actions on September 16, 1976. Just as he finished a 12 mile training run with his brother alongside the Yerevan Lake in Yerevan, Armenia, a trolleybus veered out of control, fell from the dam wall, and crashed into the reservoir, 80 feet from shore and 33 feet deep into the water. Karapetyan swam to the bus, and despite almost zero visibility in the dirty water, broke the back window of the bus with his legs and began pulling people out.

The trolleybus was crowded with as many as 92 passengers and Karapetyan knew he had little time, spending approximately 30-35 seconds for each person he saved. Karapetyan managed to rescue 20 people (he picked up many more, but 20 of them survived), before the combined effects of the freezing water and wounds from broken glass rendered him unconscious, where he remained for 45 days. The damages sustained from his selfless, heroic act included subsequent sepsis (due to the presence of raw sewage in the lake water), and lung complications, ending his athletic career. Today’s experts agree that no one but Shavarsh could have been physically able to do what did, and the passengers on the bus are lucky that he was there when the crash happened.

Karapetyan’s feat was not immediately and widely recognized. The photos from the accident scene were censored and released to the public only two years later, and the first newspaper article about this accident and Shavarsh’s heroic rescue actions was published six long years after the incident. The publication revealed that he was the rescuer, making his name a household name in the USSR. Subsequently, he received about 60,000 letters and was awarded a medal “For the Rescue of the Drowning”, the Order of the Badge of Honor, and a UNESCO “Fair Play” award for his heroism.

To this day, Karapetyan doesn’t consider his act as heroic or extraordinary. When asked how he managed to do what he did, he humbly replied, “I was simply closer to the crash than anyone else.” He also admitted that he would have rather died than not jump into the water that day. That was his only choice. He simply did what he knew was right, what he was supposed to do in such situation, no matter how difficult and dangerous it was.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Karapetyan’s feat is that he wasn’t satisfied with the number of people he managed to save. Later describing the incident, he said, “I knew that I could only save so many lives, I was afraid to make a mistake. It was so dark down there that I could barely see anything. One of my dives, I accidentally grabbed a seat instead of a passenger… I could have saved a life instead. That seat still haunts me in my nightmares.” Karapetyan managed to save the lives of 20 strangers in the dark, toxic waters, and he’s still haunted by the 21st he could have saved instead of the seat cushion.

Incredibly, Karapetyan found himself in another heroic situation nine years later. On February 19, 1985, he happened to be near a burning building with many people trapped inside. Without a second of hesitation, he ran into the building and began pulling people out to safety. Again, he suffered serious personal injury, this time in the form of severe burns to his body, and spent many weeks recovering in the hospital.

When his wounds healed and he felt better, Shavarsh got back to practices and managed to set yet another world record swimming with a scuba set for a 0.25 mile distance in 3 minutes and 6.2 seconds. This was his eleventh and last world record. He couldn’t proceed with his athletic career, as his injuries severely impaired his health, and he was forced to leave his outstanding sports career behind.

Karapetyan made a great moral contribution that was only possible through his exceptional swimming ability. His heroic act was one of incredible personal sacrifice and valor. While he doesn’t follow the typical monomythic hero path, his courageous behavior, coupled with an admirable sense of humility, exemplifies the heroic definition of someone who makes great contributions that require both great morality and great ability.

Throughout his life, Shavarsh never sought recognition and never claimed any credit for his super-heroic acts. After leaving his sports career he has been living a simple life, working as a school principal and raising his three children. Today he owns and operates a small shoe repair shop in Moscow called “Second Breath.”

- – - – - -

Sharon Novikov, Matt Rosenthal, & Russell Pine 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.

My Sister, the Quiet Hero

By Scott T. Allison

This past December 27th, my sister Sheree passed away from stomach cancer at the age of 57.

On the surface, Sheree was no different from many people. She had a husband and two children, lived in suburbia, owned some pets, played the guitar, and loved to tinker with her home decor and yard.

But for those who knew Sheree and loved her, there was much more below the surface. She was a hero in her own quiet way.

Heroism is tough to define, but most people would agree that heroism involves improving the lives of others in significant ways. It is love and compassion put into action. Here’s one story that shows how, even at a very young age, my sister Sheree had great heroic instincts.

Back in the 1960s, we lived in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The houses in this neighborhood were packed very close together. The five of us – my father, mother, brother, Sheree, and me – lived in a small 800 square-foot home. Literally within an arm’s reach of our porch was the home of our neighbor, a woman named Irene.

Irene was a cranky, middle-aged widow with red hair and a terrible singing voice. We knew about the bad voice because she lived alone and entertained herself with loud singing. On warm summer evenings, with all the windows open in the hopes of catching an occasional breeze, we’d also catch that unmistakable singing. And to call it singing was generous. It was more like the screeching of a wounded owl.

The crankiness of Irene would be on full display any time the three of us kids ventured onto her property. We were very young kids who liked to play ball and go exploring, and so needless to say we’d stray into her yard now and then either out of carelessness or to retrieve a lost ball. When Irene saw us violating her space, she’d yell at us to get out. And much to my mother’s horror, her shouts would include a few choice swear words to boot.

None of us liked Irene, and we did our best to steer clear of her. But there were many times when we’d be shouted at, and the only comfort we took was that at least it momentarily stopped her from singing.

One day after one of Irene’s tirades, Sheree did something extraordinary. She was only five years old at the time, a sweet thing with blonde hair, deep blue eyes, and an endearing smile. She also had the instincts of a saint.

Sheree had just been on the receiving end of one of Irene’s outbursts. She ran home to escape our neighbor’s rant. But rather than stay home, she decided to go outside and pick as many wildflowers as she could. She gathered them into a beautiful bouquet and then walked up to Irene’s front door and knocked. When Irene opened the door, Sheree handed her the flowers and apologized.

And Irene was forever changed.

Obviously touched by Sheree’s kindness, Irene never yelled at us again. In fact, she became a friend to the family.  Sheree’s simple act of reaching out with love and generosity had transformed Irene into a kind, neighborly soul.

Irene’s loud and horrid singing continued, however.

Sheree’s kind gesture to Irene pretty much sums up the way she lived her life. She always went out of her way to show kindness to others, including me. Last September, after she had surgery to remove her stomach, she was very weak and in the hospital for almost a month. Yet she still found time to mail me a birthday card with her shaky handwriting wishing me well. I’ve kept the card and will always treasure it.

She died just two days after this past Christmas. Despite being in pain and obviously in a terribly weakened state, she still mailed me a Christmas gift just days before her passing.

There are other aspects to Sheree’s heroism, too many to describe here. She was an Art Docent in her local elementary school, teaching kids about art and famous artists, as well as tutoring and leading or participating in after-school reading programs. She took in stray animals. She reached out to people, and touched them with her smile, her heart, and her contagious laugh.

Irene was one of many whose heart was forever changed by Sheree. I count myself among this group, too.

Thank you, dear sister. I love you and miss you.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

Sidney Poitier: Quiet Revolutionary

© 2013 Rick Hutchins

The word revolution suggests noise. People will do a lot to draw attention to their cause; yelling and shouting is usually the least of it. But some revolutions happen quietly, peacefully, inevitably. All Sidney Poitier had to do to change the world was to be Sidney Poitier.

His humble beginnings did not in any way suggest greatness. A premature baby born to a poor farming family from the Bahamas, he survived infancy against the odds. His early life in the islands, in Miami and in New York was an anonymous one of farming and odd jobs, primarily washing dishes. He did not learn to read until his late teens. After a stint in the army, he simply went back to washing dishes. While he was able to gain a spot in the American Negro Theater, his early appearances were not applauded.

Then things changed. One successful role on Broadway led to another, which led to a notable role in the film No Way Out, which led to more Hollywood successes. Suddenly this quiet, perseverant man was a star — the first Black actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award, then the first Black actor win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

But he was more than that. In the tempestuous 1960s, in the midst of the Civil Rights Era, a time of race riots and student protests and a counter-cultural overturning of tradition, a time of clashes between generations and ideologies and bewildered bystanders, a time in which the pent-up anger of centuries came to a head, Sidney Poitier found himself to be a role model. Without any ambition to do so, he touched the lives of millions.

You could hear a pin drop.

This is not to say there was no controversy; nothing and no one is immune to that. There were accusations of tokenism, of appeasement. With his serene manner, his gentle voice — even after all these years still informed by a gentle island lilt — and his general thoughtfulness, this gentleman was deemed by many to be inadequate to the revolution. As the only major Black actor of his time, he was encouraged to take stronger, grittier, more controversial roles — in the parlance of the age, Blacker roles.

Poitier was conflicted. He did not disagree, since, as does any artist, he thrived on challenge. But, in his thoughtful way, he determined that living up to his own expectations as a role model was more important. He did indeed tackle the great racial issues of his time– a man of his character could do no less– but he did it his own way.

In the classic film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, a movie whose theme of the marriage between a Black man and a White woman (miscegenation!) was still unspeakably scandalous to much of the nation, his character quietly said to his father, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”

And that was it. While others accused and attacked, he led by example. While others incited passion, he incited peace. While others were fighting battles, he won the war by teaching us that the entire conflict was based on a lie.

Of course it’s not over, even after all these decades; the troubled times are not behind us. There is still racism and chauvinism, still confusion and chaos, still antisocial throwbacks and self-serving crusaders. Even so, standing serenely above them all is a giant named Sidney Poitier– actor, director, author, diplomat– a role model for those with sincerity in their hearts, a leader for those who will listen.

Sidney Poitier, you see, is not too quiet — the world is simply too loud.

- – - – - – - – - – -

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 new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

The Invisible Heroes Among Us

dc_firefighter.jpgBy Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Over the past year, we’ve blogged about many important heroes.  We described the globally transforming impact of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  We shared the remarkably inspiring stories of Pat Tillman, Thomas Jefferson, and Mother Teresa.  And we discussed heroes who displayed unusual courage in doing the right thing, people such as Oprah Winfrey, Muhammad Ali, and John F. Kennedy.  Most of these individuals are household names whose faces we recognize and whose heroism is known to much of the world.

Yet, having said all this, they may not be our most important heroes.

Recently, we conducted a study in which participants were asked to estimate the prevalence of six different types of heroes in our society.  The participants were given a sheet of paper listing the six categories of heroes, along with a brief definition of each.  teacher-writing-on-a-9540.jpgTransforming heroes were defined as people who transform the society in which they live. Traditional heroes were described as individuals who show exceptional talent or who perform a single great moral action. Transparent heroes were defined as individuals who do their heroic work behind the scenes, outside the public spotlight. Transitional heroes were described as people whose heroism is unique to a particular developmental stage in our lives. Trending heroes were defined as individuals who are on a trajectory toward becoming heroes.  And transitory heroes were described as people who perform a single nonmoral action that bring them great momentary fame.

The results of our study revealed that people clearly view one of these types of heroes as far more abundant in our society compared to the others.  Which hero is it?  The transparent hero.  Participants estimated that 65% of all heroes are transparent — the invisible individuals among us whose heroic work we often take for granted, yet they perform their heroism quietly and bravely while others bask in the limelight.  No other category of heroes came close to matching this percentage.  Participants judged traditional heroes to comprise 13% of the heroes among us; transitional heroes scored 10%, transforming heroes 7%, trending heroes 3%, and transitory heroes 2%.

Who are these transparent heroes that dominate the heroic landscape?  We’ve found that people have no trouble at all thinking of many examples of these invisible heroes.  They are our parents who made great sacrifices for us.  They soldier.jpgare the teachers who molded our minds, the coaches who taught us discipline and hard work, and healthcare workers, emergency first responders, and military personnel who protect us and save us from calamity.  These heroic individuals are everywhere, quietly going about the business of nurturing us and keeping us safe. They are quite possibly the most under-appreciated members of our society.

And so if you see parents who are raising a child under challenging circumstances, we urge you to show your appreciation to them.  We encourage you to thank your teachers, both past and present.  Take a moment to express gratitude to your former and current coaches and mentors.  The next time you encounter a law enforcement officer, paramedic worker, hospital employee, or firefighter, be sure to let them know how heroic, extraordinary, and appreciated they are.  And most importantly, be sure to shake the hand of the next military serviceman or woman you see.  Their heroism may be unseen to most of society, but their sacrifice makes every good thing in our lives possible.

These invisible heroes may never make it into our school textbooks, garner their own Wikipedia entries, or have their own youtube video that goes viral.  But they are all indispensable members of our society.  These hidden heroes are also our most essential heroes.

- – - – - -

Do you have a hero that you would like us to profile?  Please send your suggestions to Scott T. Allison (sallison@richmond.edu) or to George R. Goethals (ggoethal@richmond.edu).