This past weekend I attended a prairie conference in Chicago, One of the talks presented by Steve Packard, a luminary in the Illinois prairie movement and a long time friend of mine, concerned the heroes of the movement. Here in Illinois, we have a lot of people from a wide array of walks in life who are doing important ecological restoration work on a volunteer basis. I started out as one of them before making it my profession. Many of them have stories that include elements of the heroic, and Steve was telling some of these stories. It got me thinking about my own heroes and what it means to be heroic. I realized that I have a lot of heroes, and decided to develop a meme on the subject as a way of picking a manageable segment of them to write about.
Who is your hero from the world of literature?
This one is easy. My all-time most inspiring literary hero is Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird
. He understands moral clarity in a way that today’s self-proclaimed moralists can’t even begin to approach. He embraces concerns that revolve around big issues like justice and dignity, and does so fearlessly. More importantly, he projects strength and courage and doesn’t run when his principles are challenged.
Who is you hero from the history of your own culture?
Here in the United States, we have always had politicians (and worse yet, "deciders"), but only rarely have we had statesmen in our history. This one was tough, because although we a bunch of good choices from the earlier history of our country, I can think of none them from recent history. Thomas Jefferson’s clarity of thought and brilliant reasoning are, in my mind, a crucial part of why the US holds some hope of weathering even the current dark times in which we find ourselves. Jefferson distilled the best thought of the Enlightenment into a political system that may be seeing one of its darkest hours in today’s denial of reality by the politically ascendant. May his ideas triumph in the end.
Who is your hero from world history?
Nelson Mandela taught the world how to be right gracefully in the face of opposition by those who were being wrong savagely. He paid an incredibly high price for his principles, and was neither destroyed nor irreparably embittered by it. Sometimes when I am feeling impatient in the face of the bigotry that gay people still face, I consider Mandela who suffered much harsher bigotry and paid a much higher price in fighting it than I have ever been called to. It helps keep things in perspective.
Who is your professional hero?
I probably have an unfair advantage in that there are many people from the scientific world who embody the heroic: Lavoisssier, Marie Curie, Darwin, and many others. My choice is Dr. Rosalind Franklin, a crystallographer who studied DNA structure at about the same time as Watson and Crick. She did amazing work at a time when science was still very much a man’s field, enduring an unflattering (inappropriately, in my opinion) depiction in James Watson’s memoir The Double Helix
. She did some of her finest work as she was dying of cancer, and likely would have won the Nobel had she lived (Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously). She has remained a role model for my entire career.
Who is your hero from your own personal life? Someone whose name will not be familiar to many people but who exemplifies the heroic in an everyday way.
My maternal grandfather died when I was 14. Before I was born he was a teacher, and by the time I came along, a newspaper reporter. When I was in grade school- from the early to mid 1960s- he would occasionally take me along to the police station when he was picking up police blotter notes for his work. I was in awe of how easily he interacted with these (and other) powerful and important people. He was the only person before me in my family to have an advanced educational degree (a Master's in education). It’s been over 35 years since his death, and his memory still inspires me today.