Archive for Monday, October 4, 2004

Heroes deserve our thanks

October 4, 2004


Heroes pass through our lives and provide glimpses of the grace and power in giving to others. I would like to talk about thanking three such heroes who "visited" my life.

I do not even know the name of the hero in my first story. I made a point of stopping and thanking my second hero, but I never thanked my third and most important hero.

The first story began as I sat with colleagues at a booth in the Kansas Union dining area. It was only noon, but already it had been a bad day. My pals and I were sharing our various woes.

Then, it happened. A young man wearing a KU letter jacket lunged at a coughing, older man who was sitting about 20 feet away. Initially confused at this sudden burst of action, I learned that the older man had food stuck in his esophagus. The athlete had performed the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge the food.

This quick action probably saved the man's life. Everyone seemed to be in "thankful awe" at what we had witnessed. Normally noisy, the cafeteria had fallen silent until someone clapped; quickly, the applause spread. Embarrassed, our would-be hero grinned sheepishly and scurried off. I felt wonderful, however, in applauding his heroism.

My second story involves Steve Palermo, a widely respected American League baseball umpire. It is rare when ball fans praise an umpire, but Palermo was unique in that he was good and even-handed at this very difficult job.

Although I do not know the specifics of his heroism, I do know that it occurred one evening when he confronted assailants who were mugging two women. Trying to intervene, Palermo was shot in the spinal column. This resulted in instant paralysis to his lower extremities. There were questions as to whether he would be able to walk again. With tireless rehabilitation efforts and the support of a cane, however, he did walk.

Entering the first floor of Allen Fieldhouse on my way to a KU basketball game, I turned a corner and suddenly there was Steve Palermo. Without hesitation, I walked up and told him how much I admired his courage. He seemed genuinely surprised at this feedback. I also remember how gracious he was in accepting my praise. I never have regretted this gesture.

My third story is the most difficult. Unlike the protagonists in the other two stories, I actually had known this last hero for almost three decades. Moreover, her acts of heroism were almost countless. She worked her regular job, along with part-time jobs to see that I could go to college. She was a hero in every sense, giving so that I could have a better life than what she had experienced. This hero was my mother.

It was the spring of 1972, and I had just taken a job as an assistant professor at KU. My mother told me that my life as a college teacher was to be her reward. She planned to visit Lawrence later, in 1973, but that visit never happened. Diagnosed with a form of quickly spreading cancer, she spent her last months bedridden in Dallas.

I visited as much as I could, and we talked about things that were important to both of us. Unfortunately, I never told her that she was my hero. Almost every day over the past 30 years, I have regretted this omission.

When I was a kid and playing a game in which the outcome was not going the way I wanted, I would shout, "Do-over!" meaning that I would get another chance. Life is not a game, however, and hollering "Do-over" will not let me thank my biggest hero.

-- Rick Snyder is the M. Erick Wright Distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at Kansas University.

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