“Close-to-Home Heroes,” Ensign, Mar. 1991, 43
I recently chauffeured a group of Scouts on a fishing outing. As we drove along a densely forested back road toward a creek newly stocked with trout, I enjoyed chatting with them about stream fishing, their summer plans, and the baseball season. They talked about baseball cards and baseball stars, and I asked them who their baseball heroes were. They each named one or two major-league players: Herschiser, Murphy, Sandberg, McGwire, Strawberry, Mattingly, Clemens. Then I asked them, “Who are your everyday heroes?”
There was total silence for a moment, as the boys tried to ignore my question. After I repeated it, they started to think. Eyes squeezed shut or stared off in the distance; shoelaces and fingers were scrutinized; five bodies shifted nervously. After a minute, Craig sat up straight in his seat and said, “Oh, Sister Bowen, let me answer first, okay? I know who my hero is!”
“Okay, Craig,” I replied. “Who is it?”
“It’s my dad!”
His answer made my eyes mist. I know his father well: he has served as a tireless elders quorum president in our ward; he is the “extra-mile” kind of home teacher that every bishop hopes to clone; and most important, he is a truly focused and devoted father.
“What a great answer, Craig. I really admire your dad, too. You couldn’t have a better hero. Now tell me why he’s your hero.”
Craig answered immediately, “Because he’s always there for me.”
I knew the truth of that statement. I had watched this man love and serve his three children. He rarely missed a school performance or a ball game, even though he had to travel some distance and make special work arrangements in order to be at the ballpark, pack meeting, or school auditorium. He was always there in more ways than being physically present: I had witnessed many moments of cheering, listening, quietly directing, comforting, and loving.
Several weeks later, in my Sunday School class of teenagers, I directed a lively discussion about heroes and role models. My class quickly pointed out that in recent movies, even superheroes like Batman and Superman, whom they had wanted to emulate in their childhood, had caved in to current social pressures and had not remained chaste. “So who are we supposed to look up to,” moaned one priest, “if even Superman doesn’t have high standards?” Luckily, these teenagers could name plenty of people who lived around them who serve as true role models—people who have overcome challenges, people whose service is extraordinary, people who have excelled.
In his April 1976 general priesthood meeting address, President Spencer W. Kimball quoted Walter MacPeek, saying, “‘Boys need lots of heroes like Lincoln and Washington. But they also need to have some heroes close by. They need to know some man of towering strength and basic integrity, personally. They need to meet them on the street, to hike and camp with them, to see them in close-to-home, everyday, down-to-earth situations; to feel close enough to them to ask questions and to talk things over man-to-man with them.’” President Kimball added, “I sincerely hope that every father provides that kind of closeness to his boys.” (Ensign, May 1976, p. 47.) He was speaking exclusively to men and boys that evening, but we can assume that President Kimball’s words apply equally to mothers and daughters as well. Our children, all of them, need to have heroes.
As members of the Church, we are committed to the family as a divine unit. It makes sense, then, that the best place for a child to look for a hero and role model is in his or her own family. And the best way to teach our children is by example.
We do our best teaching about prayer by praying with our children. We likewise show our children what it means to walk uprightly before the Lord by modeling integrity, humility, charity, obedience, and other important gospel principles as we live through each day. Our children will learn from and often follow the examples set for them, whether they are good or bad. This is a sobering responsibility and one that cannot be abdicated.
Unfortunately, there are many children among us who grow up in homes without good role models. In addition, some families have but one parent who is doing all he or she can to teach and set an example, without a partner with whom to share the responsibilities of parenting. Such children are blessed when they find an everyday hero close by to emulate.
A returned missionary in our ward is one such hero for us all. His name is Moe Te. Moe was just nine years old when his family fled across Cambodia to Thailand, crossing Cambodia’s “killing fields.” It was a frightening and arduous journey; in the course of the trip, Moe lost both his father and a sister. With extraordinary maturity and courage for a boy of his age, Moe assumed the responsibility for his mother and family. Eventually, they reached the refugee camps of Thailand and successfully emigrated to our area, where they were sponsored by a fine LDS family who not only helped them settle in a new culture, but also taught them the gospel. A young man who possesses a quiet inner strength, Moe is a happy, loving person, who, despite the ugliness and cruelty he has experienced, faces the future with a simple, positive faith and optimism.
Asking people the question “Who are your heroes or role models?” yields valuable information. The answers vary. Predictably, I hear the names of outstanding athletes and successful career people; however, the ratio of world-famous names is small compared with the names of everyday heroes who live outside the limelight.
The familiar heroes I hear most about are, aptly, Jesus Christ, Peter, Nephi, Moroni, Eve, Mary, Joseph Smith, or our local and general Church leaders. That’s where the list of familiar names ends.
As young people tell me about personal heroes, I hear about a teacher at Ricks who extends himself to students beyond the classroom. Kurt tells me, “When he’s in the room, it’s like there’s this tangible thing filling the room. You just know that he loves you and that he would do anything to help you. I used to hang around after class, and he always made time to talk to me. He really helped me through some rough spots when I had to make some hard decisions. And he actually invites his students to his home for dinner! It was so cool being in his home and meeting his wife and family. I want to be just like him.”
Jason tells me about Mark Pope, another priest in our ward. “When Mark makes up his mind that he’s going to do something, you know it will happen. Mark decided he wanted to improve in basketball—to be not just another good basketball player, but a great one. He spent the whole summer training and practicing, way beyond what the rest of us did. You can see the difference now when he plays. He’s amazing.”
Kathy tells me of a fellow gymnast on her high-school team who inspires the whole team to perform better at each meet. “She’s a good athlete, because she works very hard. When I work out, I watch her, hoping to be able to perform as she does. She’s also a great person to be around—she always compliments you and encourages you.”
I hear about teenagers who “set and follow their goals with determination, truly living what they believe.” I am told about two Laurels in our ward who will not compromise their principles at school or when pressured by peers. In the process, they inspire and quietly guide whole groups of friends to make wise choices.
Parents of friends are everyday heroes, too. Chad says, “Sister Becky Thompson is one of my heroes. She has all those kids, yet she always has time for me. She used to be my Sunday School teacher, but she didn’t stop being interested in me when I moved out of her class. It’s been years since then, but I know she still cares about me. When I call the house to talk to one of her kids, I sometimes end up having a conversation with her, and she always makes me feel really important. I know I can always go to her for help or advice. She’s the nicest adult I know.”
Todd, a seventeen-year-old convert and the only member of the Church in his family, talks about the family across the street. “I don’t have just one hero. I have a whole family of them: the Dixons. When I have a family of my own, I want us to be like them. There is such a feeling of love and peace in that home—I feel it when I walk in the door. And they always make me feel welcome. They’re not perfect, but even when there’s a conflict, it’s resolved in a good way.”
The Dixons have enjoyed including Todd in their family activities. They introduced him to the Church, had the missionary discussions in their home, and now, with the approval of Todd’s parents, they include him in family home evenings and other activities. I’m aware of the Dixons’ concern and love for Todd—it is illustrated by a phone call I received recently from Sister Jenny Dixon. She asked for help with a certain family home evening lesson she was preparing, because she felt that Todd had a special need. Then she asked if I would follow up on this lesson when I was with Todd. She expressed her great love for this young man and told me that she only knew one way to treat him when he was in her home: as if he were a son.
This love affects Todd in many positive ways; and it is extended to others as well. Todd is now bringing Chris, a friend of his, to visit the Dixons. Because of Todd’s good influence and the fine example and caring of the Dixon family, Chris has recently asked about baptism and will be starting the discussions with the missionaries.
Tim, a former seminary student of mine, recently stopped by my home while he was on his honeymoon so that I could meet Emalee, his bride. I asked them about their heroes, and Tim told me about Brother Lawrence Flake, of Missoula, Montana, whose love and influence are so powerful that his presence is felt in a university ward even when he is absent. “Really, I know that sounds far-fetched,” Tim says, “but sometimes I sit in sacrament meeting and look around at the other college kids, and I can go from row to row, counting kids whose lives this man has touched. It’s like he’s there, even if he’s away, visiting another ward.”
“How does he touch all these lives?” I ask.
“First of all, he’s a dynamite teacher. You come out of every class uplifted. And he lives what he teaches. He just radiates love. I watch him interact with others, and I think, “‘I’d sure like to influence others as he does.’”
I am moved as Emalee tells me that her role models are her mother and her grandmother. “I want to be just like them, in every way. I don’t see anything in their lives that I wouldn’t like to copy,” she says sweetly.
“What do they do that has such an impact on you?”
Emalee smiles. “They’ve always treated me as a person of great worth. Even when I was a little girl, they talked to me with respect. They’re always interested in what I have to say and what I’m doing.”
Mothers are often named as personal heroes. Without hesitation, when asked about personal role models on a questionnaire, four girls in my current Sunday School class answered, “My mom!” These declarations are profound tributes to the mothers of these outstanding young women.
I asked Gayle, an adult friend of mine, about her personal heroes. Gayle told me that when she was a young woman, she had to look outside her home for role models and found a personal example in her Laurel adviser, Sister LaRae Wright.
“I was awed by her. She had a great testimony and knew so much about the scriptures and the gospel. She really cared about me and was always ready to talk. I really needed that at the time, because things were not going well in my own home.
“She’s the one who taught me about love,” Gayle continued. “When I was skeptical about Heavenly Father loving me unconditionally, I began to understand about that kind of love, because Sister Wright loved me—no matter what—and I knew the reality of that. She was also an effective teacher: I’m always thinking about lessons that she taught.”
Enough time has passed that Gayle has a teenage daughter of her own and now works with the young women in her ward. “Sister Wright would probably be surprised if she knew what an impact she has had on my life,” Gayle exclaims. “I studied everything she did, and for years and years, I’ve patterned my life after hers.”
Like many bishops, Bishop Leon Bardsley is a hero named by many in our ward. He has already reared his seven children and currently spends the bulk of his time focusing on the teenagers in the ward family. On most Wednesday nights, he can be found in the meetinghouse gym, playing basketball with a mixed bunch of teens and adults, playing and talking as he coaches them in sports and in the greater lessons of life. He knows how to invest in an individual, even if it requires a great deal of time—he has daily, early-morning scripture study with two returned missionaries who don’t have strong priesthood models in their own homes.
Bishop Bardsley’s profound love for the young people in our ward is universally felt. Teens describe him with these words: “Any problem you have, you can go to him with it.” “He helps.” “He has all the giving qualities.” “He shows unconditional love.” “He has answers because he has been through so much himself.”
Those traits are common to the everyday heroes and heroines I hear about. These are people with a special spirit. These are people who have overcome obstacles or dealt with personal trials heroically. These are people full of love—the kind of love you feel immediately and absorb individually. These are people who extend themselves to others. These are people who spend time with those they love.
Love takes effort—sometimes great effort. The heroes I hear about expend a lot of effort on behalf of those they love. “The principal form that the work of love takes is attention,” says Dr. M. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled. “When we love another we give him or her our attention; we attend to that person’s growth.” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978, p. 120.) Everyday heroes know how to focus on and listen to people. They know how to attend to the growth of those around them.
I have always been fortunate to have parents who have attended to my growth. Throughout my life, my mom and dad have been very “close-to-home, everyday, down-to-earth” heroes to many in their circle of love. I can name hundreds of small, day-to-day acts of generosity, service, compassion, and love.
I think of the bank of wildflowers along a canyon highway that my father carefully transplanted to reestablish beauty there after a bulldozer scarred the bank as it widened the stream after a flood.
I think of a last-minute Christmas Eve errand when I was a newlywed: with a house full of company, Mom still took a moment to send me off to buy five sets of new warm pajamas for a struggling young family in the neighborhood. We wrapped the pajamas and delivered them anonymously.
I think of dozens of delicious dinners, with many guests gathered at our table, as Mom fed lonely students, foreign visitors, newcomers to the community, and friends and family members near and dear.
I think of an abandoned building of historical note whose lawns had turned to brown weeds due to neglect: Dad began to water and mow the grass, arranging for the water bill to be sent to him.
I think of an annual “neighborhood circus” held in our backyard, with dozens of children performing and participating to raise money for our local children’s hospital.
I think of a weekly newsletter that Mom wrote for years and years and sent to friends and loved ones all over the world who were away from home, working, attending school, or serving missions.
The list goes on and on and on. As a result of their fine examples, I want to serve, love, and influence others’ lives, as my parents continue to do.
The influence of everyday heroes can be either subtle or direct, yet the result is the same: we are better people for having known them. And, in time, by following their example, we may become close-to-home, everyday, down-to-earth heroes for someone else.