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.

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.

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!

– – – – – –

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).

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.

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

 

 

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.