Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Everyday Heroes

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By Dennis McCloskey

In a discussion of the concept of heroism, the late U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, said he had read a report that indicated John Wayne was the last American hero. Reagan expressed sadness at the thought that we are living in a time when there are no heroes. Of course, he was wrong. There are heroes. They are everywhere. We just have to look all around us.

After I heard his remark many years ago, I decided to find out about the state of hero worship in Canada as seen through the eyes of children. I surveyed students aged 7-13 across the country, asking them to name their hero. I received 564 replies, and the results were encouraging (and some surprising). In my subsequent magazine article, I reported there are lots of heroes in the hearts, minds and souls of Canadian children, including such idols as Wayne Gretzky, Robin Hood, Bugs Bunny, Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, Helen Keller, Godzilla, Dolly Parton, Judy Blume, Terry Fox, the men and women of world wars, pets, siblings, and parents. A young boy from Regina, Saskatchewan, wrote: “The reason for picking my father for my hero is because I get my allowance and food supply from him. He is also my hero because he and my mother brought me into this beautiful world and offered me bed and shelter.”

The Saskatchewan kid is my kind of hero. And he’s the kind of everyday hero I’ve been writing about throughout my writing career. I have no interest in celebrity journalism where reporters and writers extol the virtues of “plastic” Hollywood stars and starlets, many of whom are “deep as a saucer” and are famous for partying, travelling, cavorting, spending, or just famous for being famous. Likewise, I do not bow at the shrines of professional athletes who are paid megabucks for slapping a rubber puck or swatting a baseball. One baseball star once declared that he measured respect by the figures on his contract. I just don’t get that kind of mentality.

Don’t get me wrong: there are lots of genuine heroes in the world today; men like Chesley Sullenberger III who safely brought down his disabled aircraft in New York’s Hudson River on January 15, 2009, thus saving the lives of 155 people; and my cousin’s son, Michael, who got dinged in the neck last year by a sniper’s bullet while fighting for his country in Iraq and who’s still there working as a civilian. These are the kinds of people I like to read and write about: ordinary people doing remarkable things.

My definition of a hero is one who is admired, brave and noble...a shining example to others...one who sets a good example and exhibits model behaviour. By that definition; there are heroes all around me and therefore there’s “grist for the mill” for the rest of my writing career. In the past, I have written about my father, Wally, who spent a night in jail for disobeying an order from a superior officer. He was in the Royal Canadian Air Force and had to work on a particular Good Friday. A devout Roman Catholic, he temporarily left his job for a few hours (went AWOL) while serving on an air force base in Summerside, P.E.I. to attend the Good Friday service at his church. When he was brought up on charges before his Commanding Officer he was asked if he wanted anything with him while he cooled off in the “clink.” He asked just for his rosary! I have also written about my father-in-law, Bob, who will turn 90 in June and who served overseas in WWII for four years. My late friend, Ed Loch (a U.S. Marine veteran of 26 years whom I have written about extensively) said if he ever got the opportunity to meet Bob he would salute him because he regarded men like Bob as true heroes. Sadly, Ed passed away in 2007 before he got to meet Bob.

One afternoon over a beer, I asked a tough question of the 50-year-old retired USMC Master Gunnery Sergeant, who had “gone where the thunder sounded, many times in his military career.” I asked Ed to name a few of the people he admires most. He named a young woman, Valen Cover, 25, who was his colleague at the insurance company where they both worked in York, Pennsylvania. I ended up writing a book about her!

Valen Cover is the subject of my 2008 biography, “My Favorite American.” To learn more about Valen and my book, please go to my website www.dennismccloskey.com. On the “Books” page you will read reviews from people all over the world who have been inspired by this remarkable, young and ordinary lady who has endured some extraordinary experiences and “emerged from the darkness” of illness and disease in a heroic manner. I have scores of emails from adults who told me that her compelling story has inspired them tremendously. A corporate VP in Montreal is the father of four children who said he rides to work with my book on the passenger seat so he can see Valen’s front cover photo and be reminded of--and be thankful for--the health of his sons and daughters. He also vowed to start donating his blood so it may end up in a PDK patient like Valen.

Valen may not feel totally comfortable with this kind of adoration and hero worship—although she accepts the positive comments with gratitude and great humility. She loves children and young adults and she treasures emails from youthful readers of my book, like the one from 12-year-old Taylor, of Honolulu, Hawaii, who praised Valen for “facing challenges with courage and for using her challenges in life to help others.” This month, Valen heard directly from 15-year-old Joe who volunteers in the dialysis center where Valen spent many agonizing months awaiting a kidney transplant. Joe read my book and he wrote to Valen, saying she is “an inspiration” and that her story is “amazing.’ Earlier this month, Valen dropped by the dialysis center to meet Joe. Needless to say he was thrilled to meet his hero. He said he wants to become a dialysis nurse. Valen is also a hero to Walker, a student at Central York Middle School where she once attended. After reading my book, Walker decided to do a school research project about Valen. She graciously responded to his many written questions; she accepted an offer to meet with Walker and his mother over lunch; and she is looking forward to seeing him and his mother who have indicated they will attend our February 1st book launch at Borders bookstore in York, PA.

Valen may have to get used to this kind of attention. Her goal in life is to bring an awareness to--and possibly help to find a cure for-—Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD) which she and so many members of her family suffer from, as well as 12 million others worldwide. She’s not a glamorous, star-studded, party-going, loud, publicity-seeking, Hollywood celebrity--and maybe that’s what makes her such a genuine a hero in so many eyes!

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This blog (my 16th this month) brings to a close my “15 minutes of fame” as January Writer-in-Residence for openbooktoronto. It has been a wonderful experience writing about writing for writers or aspiring writers. I hope I have imparted a few words of writerly wisdom. I’d like to exit this stage with a parting thought, not from me, but from author Richard Bach:

"A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dennis McCloskey

Dennis McCloskey is a journalist and editor and the author of numerous books. Several hundred of his human interest and business articles have appeared in over sixty-five newspapers, magazines and corporate newsletters in Canada, the US and Europe. His latest book, My Favorite American, is published by General Store Publishing House.

Go to Dennis McCloskey ’s Author Page