by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
July 23, 2004
WHAT MAKES A HERO?
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- On May 6, 1954, a little over 50 years ago, we learned that Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. That record still holds more interest than any other for runners of the race. He was first; Chris Brasher was ahead early on, but Roger won the race. Chris who? That's right. Second place in the same event did not create a household name.
Until that day a short time ago, relatively speaking, it wasn't known if our bodies could withstand a run like that without damaging the heart and lungs. Do all heroes test their limits? Is that what makes a hero?
We bandy the word about as if it can be applied to anyone we admire, but I find it's only after something is accomplished that we examine who did it. Let's say the person had "courage and unfailing loyalty to a higher good." That's a dictionary definition. I say it's doing something first. There are not many "new frontiers" left anymore.
Alan Shepard was the first man in Space not because he had unfailing loyalty to a higher good - although that could certainly be part of his character - but because his talents as a pilot, his willingness to do daredevil stunts (almost costing him his commission by flylng not only under a bridge but up and around and under again) placed him in the right place at the right time.
Shepard's biography tells of his being raised in the time of Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic and his dream was of becoming a pilot. But, was Lindbergh's being first part of his dream? Could he have envisioned Space as a new frontier? Hardly.
So, first there was Shepard, then John Glenn - the first to orbit the earth - and then Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon. Then Shepard went on a later Moon journey, too. He shot golf balls - becoming the first one to play the game on the Moon. Those are the names of the space heroes; all those who followed are also-rans. They were all just as courageous and dedicated to a higher good (well, perhaps not the game of golf) for the betterment of us all. Lives were lost, missions aborted, launches derailed and bona fide heroes forgotten. They can't all be first.
A hero doesn't have to be a leader and a leader doesn't necessarily become a hero. The possible exception here is Rudy Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York City, who gained world prominence when he was pushed into being a hero, leading the rest of us through the aftermath of 9/11. He was Time's 2001 Person of the Year.
He titled his book "Leadership," offering a formula for on-the-job success in getting done what has to be done, whatever situation arises. He was our visible hero, the household name, the one to direct our thoughts to the real heroes who did the digging, the indefatigable Fire Fighters and Police. He showed "courage and unfailing loyalty to a higher good."
We have personal heroes, people we admire for their work, their accomplishments, their goodness. In a poll conducted in a U.S. News & World Report Classroom students were asked who their heroes were. In order from one to 10, the votes went to Christ, Martin Luthor King, Jr., Colin Powell, John F. Kennedy, Mother Theresa, Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jordan and Bill Clinton.
There is no question that these are personal heroes, not universally heralded. Those who hold Mother Theresa near and dear would be hard pressed to understand the Bill Clinton votes - and vice-versa.
One thing for sure. Heroes are not celebrities, not high-paid athletes doing their jobs, not stars whose names alone make them famous without their having to do anything. Heroes are known by being first to win while so many before them had failed. Or to be at the forefront of a new frontier. What next?
Roger Bannister was a medical student trying to win a race. He had run in earlier Olympics but his schooling took precedence next time out. He elected to run the four-minute mile. He did not have a coach; he had determination.
Once he ran that race and showed it could be done, we expected more and more to run for it. And they did. Their names? Well, Roger was first. I can't think of any sports "hero" since Bannister for whom the sport was a side line to their real lives.
We need heroes. And, if we don't have them, we make them up. It is part of us to want to make the world a better place. Perhaps we should stop waiting for someone else to stand up to the plate. Maybe it's time for us to "just do it," when something has to be done and we look around to see who it might be. Maybe it's me. Well, I'm no hero.
"Nobody is born a hero," says my still little voice. "Heroism is foisted upon you. Just be ready."