Jimmy Valvano: The Hero Who Taught Us How To Live

jim-valvano-07By Meghan Dillon

When James “Jimmy V” Valvano was seventeen years old, he wrote down his dreams on an index card. On that card, he wrote that he would play college basketball, become a head coach, win a game in Madison Square Garden and, finally, cut down the nets after winning a National Championship.

At age thirty-six, Jim Valvano could take that crumpled index card out of his pocket and cross off everything on the list. He had done it all.

Since I was little, Jimmy V has been my hero simply because his North Carolina State Wolfpack Men’s Basketball team is the greatest underdog story of all time. However, when delving deeper into the various taxonomies and exploring the definition of heroism, I have been able to identify that it is the classic come-from-behind story: someone who once walked among us, as an ordinary person, accomplishing what was deemed impossible.

Jimmy V can be identified as the classic, odds beater/underdog by three heroism scientists named Zeno Franco, Kathy Blau, and Phil Zimbardo. In 2011, these three scholars published a Situation-Based Taxonomy of Heroes. Jimmy V is a true underdog in the way his team won a championships it had no business winning, and in the way he fought cancer with bravery, dignity, and class.

Jimmy was born in Corona, Queens, New York to a middle class family. He would go on to marry his high school sweetheart, and be a loving father to three daughters. Despite his successful coaching career that would require him to be away from his family, his Italian upbringing provided the strong foundation from which jimmy-v-sports-illustrated-cover-315Jimmy V could live out his aspirations. One of the many reasons I see Jimmy V as a hero is that, along the way to accomplishing his dream of winning a national championship, he took on a personal ideology of living that would allow him, a seemingly ordinary man, accomplish things that we see as extraordinary. This ideology would help him to innumerable victories.

Sadly, Jimmy V would face an opponent that would be the most challenging of his life: cancer.

One of the features of the Joseph Campbell‘s hero’s journey is the return, in which the hero gives back and shares the knowledge learned from their transition from layperson to hero. Despite all of the incredible things he accomplished while healthy, it was all the things Jimmy V did while sick that solidified his heroism, in my eyes. During the final 10 months of his life, Jimmy V utilized his coaching platform, sharing personal anecdotes and vibrant insight into his life as a patient in hopes of spreading awareness of the disease that has taken so many.

Jimmy V did not shy away from the public eye, as showcased in his ten minute acceptance speech upon receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 1993 ESPY Awards. He was not afraid to show the world the truth about cancer: crying in interviews and struggling to walk. He knew he would lose his final battle in his life after winning so many, but his spirit, charisma, and genuine heart are things that will live on forever.

The best stories in sports are those that transcend the playing field or court. They are the stories of those who climb the latter of success, attaining achievement and, often times, in the most famed stories, coping with the agony of loss. The 1983 NC State Wolfpack has one of the most storied runs of all time. That run is nothing without my hero, Jim Valvano, who could be seen as falling shy of a hero because he lost his battle with cancer.

However, like Jimmy V said, “… That does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live”.

Below is a clip of Jimmy V’s inspired speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards.

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Meghan Dillon 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. Meghan and her classmates are contributing authors to the forthcoming book, Heroes of Richmond, Virginia: Four Centuries of Courage, Dignity, and Virtue.

Monkey Business: The Heroic Journey to the West of Hsuang-tsang

hsuan-tsangBy Dick Mercer

First published in 1582, The Journey to the West (Hsi-yu Chi) is one of the great classics of Chinese literature.  The fantastic tale takes as its core the real sixteen-year pilgrimage of the monk Hsuang-tsang (596-664) to India to collect and bring back to China Mahayana Buddhist commentaries and sutras.  Compiled and written most likely by Wu Ch’eng-en the 100 chapter novel comprises the adventures of the monk and his four animal disciples on their quest, a series of perilous adventures in which they overcome a variety of ogres, fiends, and monsters in dangerous and mysterious settings.

Throughout the story a question emerges–just who is the hero of this momentous journey, the monk Hsuan-tsang or his chief disciple Monkey? At the beginning of the novel Monkey is born from a stone egg; he bursts forth with great energy and is at once able to walk, run, leap about, and best of all enjoy life immensely.  Quickly he becomes the handsome monkey king of all the other monkeys in a wonderful cave behind a waterfall, but before long he becomes sorely troubled by the realization someday he will die.  He leaves his happy kingdom in search of immortality.  After traveling across the ocean he enters the school of the Taoist master Subodhi who gives him secret instruction and so Monkey gains huge powers.

With these powers come ambition and achievement and recklessness; he becomes a kind of Taoist Frankenstein.  Monkey ventures into the heavenly kingdom of the Jade Emperor where against all the rules he causes great disruption and even further adds to his potency, so much so that the heavenly ruler at the end of his rope can only call on the Buddha in India in hopes of controlling rebellious Monkey.  When they meet, Monkey explains himself to Shakyamuni the Buddha:

    Perfected in the many arts of ageless life,

    I learned to change in ways boundless and vast.

    Too narrow the space I found on that mortal earth;

    I set my mind to live in the Green Jade Sky.

    In Divine Mists Hall none should long reside,

    For king may follow king in the reign of man.

    If might is honor, let him yield to me.

    Only he is hero who dares to fight and win!

This is Monkey’s grand declaration–his mission statement. The Buddha is unable to persuade Monkey of the wisdom that is self-control so he proposes a bet–just the sort of thing that would appeal to Monkey.  If Monkey can jump out of the Buddha’s hand, he can become king of heaven, if not he must accept the consequences.  Monkey gleefully takes the bet.  In a justly famous comic episode he fails and the Buddha drops a mountain on him.  The powerful, immortal “hero” is helpless under a immense mound of earth and stone.

monkeykingThe story of Hsuan-tsang is very different.  An orphan found floating in a basket down a river, he is taken in and raised as a Monk at Hung-Fu Buddhist temple in the imperial capital Ch’ang-an.  As was the case with the Jade Emperor of heaven struggling with Monkey, the mortal Tang emperor is embroiled in troubles that literally take him to hell and back burdened with a heavy obligation to sponsor a grand religious ceremony.  He selects Hsuan-tsang to celebrate these rites.

In the meantime the Buddha, returned to his distant home in India, decides things have come to such a pass that it is time to intervene.  He dispatches the great Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin to China to select a pilgrim to travel to India for scriptures and then return to Ch’ang-an as a dharma messenger.  On her way to China she encounters three monsters with super-powers being punished for misdeeds; if they will agree to join the quest they can gain their freedom.  She makes the same bargain with Monkey under his mountain.

With dharma-quest set as the key to freedom for these incarcerated super-heroes, it remains for Kuan-Yin to select the essential human pilgrim to make the journey to the west.  Without much difficulty she discovers Huang-tsang who agrees to set out for India in search of Mahayana scriptures.  To mark the importance of the journey the Tang emperor gives the monk a new name–Tripitaka, the term used to designate the complete Buddhist cannon of monastic rules, sutras, and learned commentaries.

From the outset it is clear things will not be easy.  On the first day Tripitaka’s two human companions are eaten up by monsters.  Suddenly all alone, he is saved by an old hunter who guides him near to the border where they hear Monkey cry out, “the master has come.”  Tripitaka releases Monkey from beneath the mountain and the two of them cross the frontier to begin their adventures in search of wisdom and liberation through the dharma.

Almost immediately they are surrounded by six robbers identified as eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.  For Monkey who is used to fighting fearsome ogres and heavenly armies, these six (allegorical) banditti are not much of a challenge.  He finishes them off in the blink of an eye, but to his dismay Tripitaka admonishes him.  He should bring them to a magistrate, not kill them.  Monkey loses his temper and storms off, leaving Tripitaka on his own again; this conflict between the human pilgrim and his rash, powerful disciple is played out again and again to the end of the novel.

Kuan-Yin, disguised as an old man, appears to the Monk and gives him a coat and a cap for Monkey, the means to control him.  When Monkey cools off and comes back, Tripitaka convinces him to put them on.  Monkey and Tripitaka are together again, but with a difference.  Monkey’s new headgear can’t be removed and if he acts out, Tripitaka, using a little mantra, can cause the cap to shrink and Monkey to suffer a terrible headache.  Pain replaces confinement as the bitter fruit of rashness and anger.

Tripitaka and Monkey now go on to form the complete dharma posse. This entails encountering the two dragons and the great pig who, like Monkey, have agreed with Shakyamuni_Buddha_Mantra1Kuan-Yin to join the pilgrimage in exchange for freedom from bondage.  It soon is obvious to the new members, however, that Monkey is by far the most powerful member of the group.  In fact, Pigsy asks Monkey why doesn’t he simply carry them all to India in an instant and so avoid all the hard work and dangers that surely lie in front of them.

Monkey says:

    It is required of Master to go through all these strange territories

    before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows. . . . 

    We cannot exempt him from these woes nor can we obtain the scriptures by ourselves.

The human component of the quest is just as important, if not more so, than the great powers of the four super-heroes who not only overcome great barriers and dangers, but who must help Tripitaka surmount his very real human weaknesses.

Shortly after Monkey emerges from under the mountain the two suffer a setback and Tripitaka for the first time–but not the last time–becomes confused and despondent.  Monkey reacts with characteristic energy:

    When (he) saw him crying, he was infuriated and began to shout: 

    Master, stop behaving like a namby-pamby! .  .  . 

    Bellowing like thunder he said,  “You’re a weakling!  Truly a weakling!”

Tripitaka may have the main goal of the quest in view, but it is Monkey, with regular, timely help from Kuan-Yin, who keeps the dharma posse on the road day to day, even in the face of petty and comical but potentially serious conflicts between the super-hero pilgrims themselves.

After many trials and close to their goal the pilgrims arrive on the bank of yet another river, this one over 20 leagues wide.  Soon they are met by a man rowing a boat, but Tripitaka has very serious misgivings; the boat has no bottom.  Seeing Tripitaka hesitate Monkey takes him by the scruff of neck and pushes him on board.  The others join him on the gunwales, and they set off.

Suddenly they saw a body in the water, drifting rapidly downstream.  Tripitaka stared at it in consternation.  Monkey laughed.

    ‘Don’t be frightened Master,’ he said. 

    ‘That’s you.’  And Pigsy said, ‘It’s you, it’s you.’ 

    Sandy clapped his hands.  ‘It’s you, it’s you,’ he cried. 

    The ferryman too joined in the chorus. 

    ‘There you go!’ he cried.  ‘My best congratulations.’

When they reach the other side, Tripitaka steps ashore with a strange feeling of lightness and exhilaration.  Freed from the domination of the six senses–mortal flesh and bone–a fundamental spirit of mutual caring emerges. At this time he begins thanking each one of the dharma posse for helping him to reach his goal, but Monkey interrupts:

    ‘Every one of us,‘ said Monkey, ‘is equally indebted to the other.

    ‘If the Master had not received our vows and accepted us as his

    disciples we should not have had the chance to do good works

    and win salvation.  If we had not protected the Master and mounted  

    guard over him, he would never have got rid of his mortal body.

Through a beautiful landscape they all set out for their meeting with the Buddha. After collecting the scriptures they have come for, they begin the return journey to China.  Along the way, however, they experience several further crises that indicate theirs is an unending quest.  The process is as important as the achievement, but there is a difference now.  Monkey controls his temper, Pigsy is no longer a fool, Sandy attains perfect discretion, Horse is well able to see the point of a discussion; Tripitaka becomes the Buddha of Great Merit.

To be a hero patient cooperation and watchful self-control are essential.  The Dhammapada, a very old collection of Buddhist proverbs, puts it this way:

    Just as the farmer irrigates a field,

    An arrowsmith fashions an arrow,

    And a carpenter shapes a piece of wood,

    So the sage tames himself.

At the very end of the novel when Monkey is named Buddha Victorious in Strife he asks Tripitaka why he must still wear the terrible little headache cap that he can’t take off.  Tripitaka explains it was put on Monkey’s head when he was impossible to control, but now that he has become a buddha it is no longer needed.  Monkey raises his hand to touch his head and indeed the migraine cap has vanished!

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This essay is Richard Mercer’s fourth analysis of heroism from the Buddhist perspective. His first essay focused on the Bodhisattva. Mercer has been a Visiting Instructor of English and Core (especially Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Beckett) at the University of Richmond. He has studied Buddhism since the early 1990s. Only recently has he realized that the Bodhisattva ideal is a wonderful and practicable model to follow.

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.

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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.

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.

Hero Stories Give Us Wisdom

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In Part 1 of this series, we introduced the concept of the Heroic Leadership Dynamic, which we define as a system of psychological forces that can explain how humans are drawn to hero stories, how they benefit from these stories, and how the stories help people become heroes themselves.

We suspect that early humans first told hero stories at the end of the day, in the darkness, huddled around fires. These narratives supplied meaning, hope, and a welcome escape from the miseries of life. The earliest known hero tales, such as Gilgamesh, Etana, Odysseus, and Hesiod, taught important values, offered role models, provided inspiration, and healed psychic wounds.

We propose that people benefit from hero stories in at least two essential ways. These stories serve epistemic and energizing functions. The epistemic function refers to the wisdom that hero stories impart to us. The energizing function refers to the ways that hero stories heal us, inspire us, and promote personal growth. Let’s look at these two functions in greater detail.

THE EPISTEMIC OR WISDOM FUNCTION

Theologian Richard Rohr argues that hero stories encourage people to think transrationally about ideas that seem to defy rational analysis. The word transrational means going beyond or surpassing human reason. Hero stories reveal truths and life patterns that our limited minds have trouble understanding using our best logic or rational thought. Transrational phenomena that commonly appear in hero stories include suffering, sacrifice, meaning, love, paradox, mystery, God, and eternity. These phenomena beg to be understood but cannot be fully known using conventional human reason.

Hero stories unlock the secrets of the transrational.

How do hero tales help us think transrationally? We believe that there at least three ways: Hero stories (a) reveal deep truths, (b) illuminate paradox, (c) develop emotional intelligence. Let’s examine each of these:

A. Hero Stories Reveal Deep Truths. According to Joseph Campbell, hero stories reveal life’s deepest psychological truths. They do this by sending us into deep time, meaning that they enjoy a timelessness that connects us with the past, the present, and the future. Richard Rohr notes that deep time is evident when stories contain phrases such as, “Once upon a time”, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, and “they lived happily ever after.” By grounding people in deep time, hero stories reinforce ageless truths about human existence.

Hero stories also reveal deep roles in our human social fabric. Norwegian psychologist Paul Moxnes believes that the deepest roles are archetypal family roles such as mother, child, maiden, and wise old man.  Family role archetypes abound in classic hero tales and myths, where there are an abundance of kings and queens, parents, stepparents, princesses, children, and stepchildren. Interestingly, Moxnes’ research shows that even if hero stories do not explicitly feature these deep role characters, we will project these roles onto the characters. His conclusion is that the family unit is an ancient device for understanding our social world.

B. Hero Stories Illuminate Paradox. Hero stories shed light on meaningful life paradoxes. As author G. K. Chesterton once observed, paradox is truth standing on her head to attract attention. Most people have trouble unpacking the value of paradoxes unless the contradictions contained within them are illustrated inside a good story. It turns out that hero stories are saturated with paradoxical truths, such as those mentioned by Joseph Campbell in the quote that began Part 1 of this series. Let’s look at each of them:

* Where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. Carl Jung is famous for saying, “what you resist persists.” Every human being encounters difficult people and challenging issues in life. Hero stories teach us that avoiding these people and issues is not the answer. Once we confront our dragons, they can become the seeds of our redemption.

* Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. What Campbell means here is that when heroes face their greatest fears, they are entering the dragon’s lair. And when heroes slay the dragon, they are slaying their false selves or former selves, thereby allowing their true heroic selves to emerge.

* Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. In the opening act of every hero story, the hero leaves her safe, familiar world and enters a dangerous, unfamiliar world. Going on a pilgrimage of some type is a necessary component of the hero journey. Hero stories teach us that we have to leave home in order to find ourselves.

* Where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world. The hero’s journey is far from over once the dragon has been slain. Campbell observes that the now-transformed hero in myth and legend will now return to his original familiar world and transform it in significant ways. The hero, once alone on his journey, becomes united and in communion with the world.

C. Hero Stories Develop Emotional Intelligence. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed that children’s fairy tales were useful in helping people, especially children, understand emotional experience. With their many dark, foreboding symbols and themes, such as witches, abandonment, neglect, abuse, and death, these heroic fairy tales allow people to experience and resolve their fears.

Bettelheim believed that even the darkest of fairy tales, such as those by the Brothers Grimm, add clarity to confusing emotions. The hero of the story emerges as a role model by demonstrating how one’s fears can be overcome. The darkness of fairy tales allows children to face their anxieties and grow emotionally, thus better preparing them for the challenges of adulthood.

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This series is based on a chapter in our book, Conceptions of Leadership, published by Palgrave Macmillan. The citation for this chapter:

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1057/9781137472038.0011

 

Did The Advent Of Fire Inspire Hero Stories?

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

“We have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

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We begin with a day in the life of early humans.

Life is hard. Lifespans are short. An early death is the norm, either from disease or from danger. At night, tribes huddle around fires for warmth, food, safety, and security. But they also gather around community fires for something else that is nearly as important.

They come to hear stories.

The elders of the tribe know that because life is nasty, brutish, and short (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes), the members of the tribe are afraid. Those members – many of them sick, hungry, injured, or tired — seek some understanding of their misery, some sense of meaning to buoy their spirits.

As the elders begin reciting their stories, the huddled masses seated around the fires, in desperate need of comforting, lean forward in eager anticipation. They may not be consciously aware of what they need from these stories, but their need is strong nevertheless.

The stories told by the elders are hero stories. They tell of ordinary men who are called to go on great journeys or who face formidable life challenges. The protagonists in these stories are described as small, weak underdogs who must transform themselves in important ways to overcome long odds to succeed. These heroes receive assistance from enchanted and unlikely sources. Remarkable cunning and courage are required for these men to triumph. Once successful, these heroes return to their original tribe to bestow a boon to the entire community.

As tribe members soak in these inspiring hero stories, they themselves are affected in profoundly positive ways. Thanks to these stories, fears are allayed. Hopes are nourished. Important values of strength and resilience have been underscored. Life now has greater purpose and meaning.

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Today’s humans are no different from early humans in their thirst for heroes and heroic leadership. The attraction to greatness in other human beings is as strong as ever. Our goal here is to outline a set of psychological events responsible for the powerful and inescapable allure of strong heroic figures.

We propose that a complex web of phenomena exist that capture the human drive to create heroes in our minds and hearts, in storytelling, in our behavior, and in virtually every crevice of every human culture. We call this web of phenomena the Heroic Leadership Dynamic.

We use the term dynamic, and its multiple meanings, intentionally. In its noun form, dynamic refers to an interactive system or process. Used as an adjective, dynamic describes this system or process as energizing and always in motion, a system that drives people toward heroes and toward hero storytelling.

We argue that the human desire to generate heroes implicates a complex system of psychological forces all geared toward developing heroes, retaining them as long as they prove psychologically useful and, yes, even discarding heroes when they’ve outlived their usefulness.

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic can almost be described as a story in itself, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

At the beginning sits our craving for heroes, borne out of a longing for an understanding of the vicissitudes of life. Our early ancestors gathered around fires at night for reasons that went far beyond the physical benefits produced by fire. We propose that for these early humans, the drive to create heroism in their minds, in their stories, and in their culture was as necessary for their mental and emotional well-being as the fire was for their physical well-being.

And we suggest that humans today are no different at all.

Our human craving for heroes, our need for the psychological benefits that heroes offer, and our desires over time either to retain our heroes or to repudiate them, all comprise the constellation of phenomena that are implicated in the Heroic Leadership Dynamic.

And yes, an important part of the dynamic — maybe the most important  — is that it offers a framework for understanding the drive that all of us have to become heroes ourselves, given the right circumstances.

This series is based on a chapter in our book, Conceptions of Leadership, published by Palgrave Macmillan. The citation for this chapter:

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1057/9781137472038.0011

 

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Why Our Fathers are Our Heroes

fathersBy 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!

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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).