Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Power of the Truly Extraordinary

We have all heard of Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton and for the ladies Charlie Sheen and Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino of “The Jersey Shore.” Of infinitely greater import, names such as Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Ford and Edison really have had an impact on our past and on the world at large.

However, life is led at the individual level. People such as Richard Winters, Joshua Chamberlain and John Von Neumann have contributed so much to society on so many levels that our debt to them can never be repaid.

You might ask: Who are these guys? After all, their names are not mentioned daily in the media. They all came from very ordinary beginnings, but during their lives, they all acted in extraordinary ways. Two are military heroes and one was considered “the smartest guy on the planet” for a time. All three of these gentlemen are dead, but their legacies live on.

Major Richard Winters, enlisted in the US Army in 1941 before Pearl Harbor, after graduating from college. He was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in 1942. His claim to fame is that he served in the 101st Airborne Division, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Easy Company.  He rose to command Easy Company as it fought in every single major battle that airborne units were involved in starting on D-Day. His actions on D-Day earned (not won) him a Distinguished Service Cross, although he had been nominated for the Medal of Honor for this action. He led a group of 13 men to attack and destroy a battery of four artillery guns that were shelling Utah Beach and defended by a German force of a least 75 soldiers. This assault is still taught at West Point as an example of how to attack a fixed offensive position with a small unit force.

Joshua Chamberlain was born in Maine in 1828 and became a Professor at Bowdoin College. Over his career, he taught almost every subject that was offered at Bowdoin. He even served as the governor of the state of Maine for four years. Yet, he is best known for his leadership of the 20th Maine regiment during the Civil War (not so civil). Their dogged defense of Little Round Top during the Battle in Gettysburg saved the Union from an embarrassing loss of the end of their fighting line. After their ammunition ran out, they turned a Confederate assault back with a bayonet charge down the hill of Little Round Top. By the end of the war, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his service during this and other actions.

John Von Neumann was born in Budapest, Hungary and became a naturalized US citizen in 1937. His family moved to the United States in 1930 before the Jewish communities of Europe were ravaged during WW2. His mental ability was discovered and nurtured from an early age by his parents who hired private tutors to feed his talent for mathematics. He was a mathematics professor at Princeton from 1930 until his death at age 53 in 1957. Basically, he was an uber-genius and was involved in quantum mechanics, economics and game theory, and contributed heavily to the early US nuclear device program. His equations and theories are the basis of most of modern mathematics and physics. Along with others, his equations and principles were put to use in almost every area of human existence yet his name is unknown by most.  His death by cancer cut short what was certainly to be a career second to none including his contemporary Albert Einstein.

These men represent what is best in this world by taking seemingly ordinary people and letting them use their God given talents to do the extraordinary. While these stories are noteworthy, there are an uncounted number of other similar stories of individuals who have succeeded under difficult circumstances to do the greater good. It denigrates the names of these heroes when we pay false tribute to the shallow lives and bad habits of rock, hip-hop, movie stars or other so-called icons. We cannot allow this curtain of adulation to hide the true virtues and contributions of really great individuals who have changed our society for the better.  

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