Category Archives: Unsung Heroes

Chen Si: The Hero Who Offers Hope to Suicide Attempters

GetFileAttachmentBy Kathryn Lynch

Human connections are a fickle and funny thing. Throughout our lifetimes we may pass by thousands of people without giving a second thought to who they are or where they’re going. Yet one simple interaction can completely alter the course of someone’s life. We only have to pay attention.

Chen Si of Nanjing, China is an ordinary man of simple means. In 2003, he was barely able to make a living selling vegetables in a downtown market. It was then he began his daily walk down the Nanjing Yangtze River bridge, the most popular site for suicides on record. China has more deaths by suicide than any other country in the world, at over 280,000 a year — twice the rate of the United States. The first day in 2003 he saved a man’s life after grabbing him from the railing and tackling him to the ground.

After that event, Si took it upon himself to serve as guardian angel to those who wished to end their lives on the bridge. He built a small house next to the entrance to the bridge, where he has lived alone for the past 11 years. Each year Si saves an estimated 144 people.

Throughout his service, he has seen people with problems of all kinds, but all are plagued by the same inescapable pain and hopelessness. GetFileAttachmentAccording to Si, “I know they are tired of living here. They have had difficulties. They have no one to help them.”

But Chen Si’s heroism goes beyond the physical act of saving one’s life. He provides salvation. He gives hope and direction where there is none. One story he remembers is of a woman whose abusive husband left her and her 3-month old child with nothing. She had no education, no job, and no means of caring for the child. She hoped that her death would require her husband to take care of her baby. After convincing her to leave the bridge with him, Si tracked him down and brought his wife and child with him. After the husband spit in his face, Si responded, “I am her brother now. If you ever hurt her again, I am not going to let you get away with it.” The couple left, and Chen hasn’t heard from them again.

There have been countless others. The billionaire who lost everything. The student who couldn’t handle failure. The dreamer who bet it all and lost in the big city. Si has talked to all of them. And while he cannot alter the circumstances that bring them to that point, he feels it is his responsibility to try and put them on a better path. “I always have to tell them there is nothing I can’t solve,” Chen said. “It’s a lie. Yet I have to keep on telling the lie, to make them think things will get better.”

Chen Si teaches us that those at their lowest point in life, those who are so lost that they feel that they will never find their way again, are in the most need of our help. Many of the people on that bridge did not want Chen Si’s kind words and strong hands to pull them back from the edge — GetFileAttachment-1they pushed him away and yelled in his face, content to accept their fate, and did not believe they were worthy of help and compassion.

It is easy to be a hero where there is a hole to fill, where people actively look for someone to protect and care for them and give their love in return. Chen Si’s true heroism lies in his ability to look for those who do not advertise their struggle. Those who have given up hope that a hero will ever appear. Many of us in a similar situation would wonder how to address such a problem of this magnitude, how to save people who have no desire to be saved.

To Chen Si, there is no choice or considerations to make. “There is a saying in China,” he says, “the prosperity of a nation is everyone’s responsibility. How can we all avoid this responsibility?”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Kathryn Lynch is an undergraduate enrolled in Scott Allison’s Heroes and Villains First-Year Seminar at the University of Richmond. She composed this essay as part of her course requirement. Kathryn and her classmates are contributing authors to the forthcoming book, Heroes of Richmond, Virginia: Four Centuries of Courage, Dignity, and Virtue.

The Heroism of Daryl Davis, Collector of Robes

3258E1E800000578-3499658-image-m-11_1458344520932By Rick Hutchins

To those who took part in the social revolution of nearly half a century ago, the 21st century was expected to be a time of Utopian ideals. Instead, the world has entered a Dark Age of growing extremism, in which hate-mongering and race-baiting have replaced efforts to promote positive change. Instead of leaving the world a better place than they found it, the aging architects of that revolution have had to watch their accomplishments undermined and eroded.

This has led to an atmosphere of despair. Many wonder how we can come back from a culture war in which every day brings escalated rhetoric and the threat of increasing violence.

The answer, of course, is the same as it has always been. The only way to win a war of ideas is to win the hearts and minds of the people. And the only way to truly win hearts and minds is to be right.

For several decades now, a man named Daryl Davis has been doing just that, in a manner that is as unlikely as it is courageous. Davis, who holds a 3258E1BE00000578-3499658-image-a-20_1458344683084bachelor’s degree in music and who has performed with artists such as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis (to say nothing of his own band), is a Black man who was a child during the Civil Rights Era. He experienced firsthand the harsh reality of that struggle when he became the first Black member of a local Cub Scout troop in Massachusetts. But his innate intellectual curiosity combined with his benevolent disposition to form a most unique reaction to the problem of racism.

It was in 1983 that Davis met a member of the Ku Klux Klan for the first time, in a bar in Maryland where Davis was performing. This proved to be an educational experience for both men. For the Klansman, because he had never known a Black man before and so was suddenly seeing one as a human being. And for Davis because he finally found the answer to the question of how someone could hate him without knowing him — it was because they didn’t know him.

The friendship that resulted from this encounter not only turned this Klansman away from the Klan, but showed Daryl Davis his path forward.

Over the course of the years that followed, demonstrating patience and tolerance that can only be described as superhuman, Davis met many more Klansmen, by arranging introductions, setting up interviews, and even getting himself invited to Klan meetings. He believed that most racists hold their beliefs because of misconceptions instilled in them in their childhoods, and that it is difficult to maintain these prejudices when confronted with an actual person who belies them.

In short, he believed that the cure for ignorance is education, that the cure for suspicion is kindness, and that the cure for hatred is friendship. In this, he has been proven correct many times over.

accidental-courtesy-daryl-davis-klansmanDavis is currently in possession of more than two dozen KKK robes, given to him by former Klansman who have abandoned their ideology, disarmed by the mere existence of this good-natured peacemaker. Among those who have foresworn White supremacy in favor of a Black friend is Roger Kelly, former Imperial Wizard of the Maryland KKK. Kelly later invited Davis to be his daughter’s godfather.

Unbelievably, or perhaps not given the current political climate, Davis has been on the receiving end of criticism from some who self-identify as Progressives, including some members of Black Lives Matter and the NAACP. He has been called an Uncle Tom, and worse, and his achievements have been minimized and trivialized. After all, say his detractors, what difference does it make that in thirty years one man has softened only a smattering of hearts, has changed only a handful of minds?

But what if everyone was like Daryl Davis?

– – – – – – – – – –

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.

Hutchins is a regular contributor to this blog.  Two of his published essays, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, can be found in our book Heroic Leadership.

© 2017 Rick Hutchins

Why Our Fathers are Our Heroes

8By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In our Mother’s Day blog, we noted our research finding that people listed their mothers as heroes more often than any other person.  Fathers were a close second.   Why are parents viewed as so heroic?  Developmental psychologists tell us that the relationship we have with our parents is the first significant relationship of our lives.  It is a relationship that indelibly shapes our values, our aspirations, and our future behavior.  Thus when we experience successes in our careers and in our personal lives, it is not surprising that we attribute those triumphs, at least in part, to our parents.

The origin of Father’s Day is not entirely clear, but there are several fascinating possibilities.  Babylonian scholars have discovered a message carved in clay by a young man named Elmesu roughly 4,000 years ago.  In the message, Elmesu wishes his father good health and a long life.  Some believe this ancient message represents evidence of an established tradition of honoring fathers, but there is little evidence to support a specially designated Father’s Day until modern times.

There is some debate about the origin of the Father’s Day that we celebrate today.  Some claim that a West Virginian named Grace Golden Clayton deserves the credit.  fathersIn 1907, Clayton was grieving the loss of her own father when a tragic mine explosion in Monongah killed 361 men, 250 of whom were fathers.  Clayton requested that her church establish a day to honor these lost fathers and to help the children of the affected families heal emotionally.  The date she suggested was July 8th, the anniversary of her own father’s death.

Still others believe that the first Father’s Day was held on June 19, 1910 through the efforts of Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington.  Inspired by the newly recognized Mother’s Day, Dodd felt strongly that fatherhood needed recognition as well.Her own father, William Smart, was a Civil War veteran who was left to raise his family alone when his wife died giving birth to their sixth child.  Dodd was the only daughter, and she helped her father raise her younger brothers, including her new infant brother Marshall.

Whereas Mother’s Day was met with instant enthusiasm, Father’s Day was initially met with scorn and derision.  Few people believed that fathers wanted, or needed, any acknowledgement.  It wasn’t until 1972 that President Richard Nixon made Father’s Day an official holiday.  Today the holiday is widely celebrated in the month of June by more than 52 countries.

Why are fathers heroes?  fathersThe respondents in our survey listed two main reasons.  First, fathers are given credit for being great teachers and mentors.  They teach us how to fix a flat tire, shoot a basketball, and write a resume.  Fathers are less emotional than mothers, but they lead by example and devote time demonstrating life skills to us.  Former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, once said, “I talk and talk and talk, and I haven’t taught people in 50 years what my father taught by example in one week.”

Second, fathers are great providers and protectors.  Our respondents told us that their fathers were heroes in their commitment to provide for their families, often at great sacrifice.  Many fathers work at two or more jobs outside the home to ensure that their families have adequate food and shelter.  Fathers also provide us with a sense of safety and protection.  Sigmund Freud once wrote, “I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.”

On this Father’s Day, we wish all fathers, and all men who serve as father figures, all the kudos they so richly deserve.  Happy Father’s Day!

– – – – – –

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).

Jackie Ormes: Portrait of the Artist as a Hero

jackie ormesBy Rick Hutchins

Throughout history, societies have segregated their people into clans and classes by the most arbitrary criteria. Modern ideas of egalitarianism and pluralism have run a hard road to outdistance the inertia of ancient ideas and biological instincts. Such weary travelers as find themselves at a new milestone along that interminable road are made of sterner stuff than most of those they pass along the way.

One such brave traveler was Jackie Ormes, a syndicated cartoonist of the mid-20th century, who used her talent and vision to smuggle some of those new ideas past the checkpoints on that road, ideas that quietly grew and changed the way people saw the world.

Though the United States is a country that was founded on those modern concepts of equality, and has fought wars both foreign and domestic to defend them, at home the old traditions are still buried deep in the cultures that have settled here. In the days following World War II, a global conflict that repudiated racial ideology, options were still limited for Blacks. And though countless women had proven themselves in the war effort, in the air and in the factories and in all places between, their options were limited as well.

Pioneering cartoonist, Zelda 'Jackie' Ormes with her Patty Jo doll.But Jack Ormes was a Black woman who aspired to make a career for herself in journalism and cartooning, two fields divided along lines of skin color and sex. She crossed those lines and erased them by becoming the first Black woman in America to produce a nationally syndicated comic strip. The strip starred a popular character named Torchy, who was a well-educated and independent Black woman, very different from most contemporaneous depictions of Blacks. According to the 1953 documentary One Tenth Of A Nation, Ormes’ comics were seen in scores of newspapers and she had an audience of over a million readers. The effect of her work on a country on the verge of a Civil Rights revolution cannot be underestimated.

But Torchy was not the only contribution that Jackie Ormes made in the struggle for America to live up to her lofty principles. Another of her characters, Patty-Jo, a little girl as independent and savvy as Torchy, was marketed as a doll for children. Not only was Patty-Jo unusual for not being presented as a negative stereotype, but she was also the first Black doll to come with a selection of fashionable attire typically reserved for White girls. Young Black girls were, perhaps for the first time, seen differently, both by themselves and others.

Jackie Ormes understood that the only way to promote positive change is with a positive message, and with the best of her prodigious ability she used her cartoons and her characters and her stories to communicate that message to the people of her country. As the first nationally syndicated Black female cartoonist, she was in a unique position to do so. Torchy and Patty-Jo created a new impression and provided inspiration.

Modern ideas of egalitarianism and pluralism still run a hard road today. But the journey is made a bit easier when someone has paved the way.

– – – – – – – – – – –

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.

Hutchins is a regular contributor to this blog.  Two of his published essays, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, can be found in our book Heroic Leadership.

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. In 2014, several events in Richmond, the city I love and call home, had me reeling. Years have passed and my heart and my head have still not yet recovered.

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.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Dr. James Barry: The Hero with a Secret

By Jesse Schultz

It seems almost like the makings of a popular television show: A roguish doctor who travels the world, helping the sick and the poor, all the while fighting duels and enraging those in power. He’s an outwardly unpleasant man with a sharp tongue, but one with compassion for his patients and a determination to help those he can.

But this wasn’t the plot to some new medical drama but the actual life of Dr. James Barry. Little is known for certain of his early life, but he began his medical studies in University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1809 and earned his MD in 1812. He continued his studies in London and passed his examination for the Royal College of Surgeons of England. He was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant in the British Army in 1813.

From there Dr. Barry rapidly rose in rank and served in a variety of places in the world; from India to South Africa to Malta to Crimea and to Jamaica. Wherever he went though he fought for better food, sanitation, and medical care for troops and their families, prisoners, and lepers. While in South Africa he performed the first successful Caesarean section, resulting in the infant being named after him. He decried unnecessary suffering and often advocated for the underclass.

He did seem to get into frequent trouble for his work. He made enemies, was demoted, accused of being homosexual, and even arrested during his career. None of that seemed to stop him or deter him from his work.

Dr. Barry retired in 1864 and died of dysentery in 1865. During the examination of his body it was reported that he appeared to have stretch marks indicating that he had given birth some years earlier.

James Barry had been a woman.

It is speculated that Dr. Barry was born as Margaret Ann Bulkley and took the name of her uncle, the Irish artist James Barry, in order to gain access to medical school. The ruse seemed to be a perfect one as no one apparently discovered it until his death. His enemies would occasionally call him “effeminate”, which reportedly led to a few duels as Barry would take offense to that.

But Barry was a woman who excelled all the while maintaining a near-perfect masquerade and in a time period when it was assumed that women could not do such things. Male or female Barry had a career that would make anyone proud. A life devoted to making the world a better place.

One of the dictionary definitions of a hero is: “somebody who is admired and looked up to for outstanding qualities or achievements”. In that case Dr. Barry is doubly so. One for devoting her life for others and the other for finding a way in overcoming the limitations that society had imposed on her.

– – – – – – – – – – –

The author, Jesse Schultz, has often pretended to be a writer on this blog, but in reality he just dresses like one.

 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –