The short shelf life of today’s heroes, in sports and in journalism

Michael Wilbon was on ESPN radio discussing Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o when he posed this rhetorical question: “What is the shelf life of a hero today?”

An excellent question: What is the shelf life of heroes in a world overflowing with instant communications, the need for instant gratification, and instant (and too often bitter, obscene and mean-spirited) rebuttals?

The talk show conversation and Wilbon’s question registered a stronger reaction than it may have on other days; it came at a time when I was thinking about one of my personal heroes, Gene Patterson, at a time when the news of his death was still raw.

There was a time when the answer seemed so simple, in the long ago years when we cheered for Johnny Lujack, the All America quarterback and the Fighting Irish on Saturday afternoon; when we listened on the radio to Joe Louis’ latest victory or President Roosevelt’s fireside chats, or in theaters watched Sugar Ray Robinson, who may have had some flaws outside the ring but was unflawed inside the ropes.

Or when we lived vicariously through Felix “Doc” Blanchard, Mr. Inside for Army, who graduated from high school with my oldest brother. Or certainly when we tuned into KMOX from St. Louis and visualized the quiet man Stan Musial crouched at the plate, a cobra in baseball knickers ready to strike. Or when we first saw a Brookhaven, Miss., high school kid named Lance Alworth and realized we had witnessed unmatched athletic talent of any generation, or a Louisiana youth named Billy Cannon.

And for someone who grew up working on my dad’s weekly newspaper, Hap Glaudi and Bill Keefe, New Orleans sports columnists, Turner Catledge, who also started his journey on a Mississippi weekly and rose to become executive editor of The New York Times, Hodding Carter, the courageous Mississippi Delta editor, and my dad provided enough day dreams about the future to keep me going.

But most of all, there were the heroes who went off to wars:

  • My Godmother, who served as a nurse in World War Two and came home an Army major.
  • Her brothers, one in the Navy and one in the Marines, who, one or the other, fought in and survived every Pacific battle, from Pearl Harbor to VJ Day.
  • My cousin Donald, who was more of a brother and who is buried in Normandy.
  • Five brothers who wore various uniforms and served during various wars
  • And so many more from that small town we shared.

Then as we aged and became more selective of those we admired, mentors and colleagues filled a number of the slots. My thank-you card is jammed with the names of the men and women who served as teachers, who enriched my career with their contributions, who gave unselfishly of their wisdom — mentors such as Gene Patterson, Pulitzer Prize winner, an officer under General Patton, an editor of courage, whose moral compass always pointed in the right direction.

He is gone, but the lessons he left to so many of us who admired him will live on. He seemed to always know what to do and what to say when you needed a guardian angel. You never had to ask. And he was an editor to the end, even in his hospice bed, cutting a half-million words from the Old Testament and publishing it through Amazon. “I always wanted to read it completely, but I never could get through it, “ he told me. “Now I can.”

Hearing him speak on subject after subject was pure joy. Perhaps another friend put it best when he said that after listening to Gene one night talking about journalism, the Constitution, ethics, Broadway, the Bible, and also filling the evening with laughter, he felt he had graduated to the big boys’ table. I felt that way every time we interacted.

Gene would reject the label of hero. But he was one to me, as were and are a number of others who have acted and often sacrificed to make a difference in people’s lives.

So maybe the answer to Wilbon’s question is simple after all: Be selective and sparing about whom you put on the shelf in the first place. Then you won’t have to ask how long they will remain there.

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