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My Heroes by T…

October 13, 2012

My Heroes

 by Theodore W. Palmer

October 13, 2012


I do not remember a time when I did not have heroes to whom I looked with admiration.  I suppose when I was very little they might have been imaginary characters in the books read to me.  


My first definite hero was Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) the American inventor.  Even as a small child I loved to find out more about people and things that interested me, so from age 6 to 8, I got paraded around a lot as an annoying smart-child who knew “everything” (lots more than most adults) about Edison.  By about 8, I had understood that he had no interest in science, but only in things that had economic value and became ashamed of my earlier enthusiasm.


I suppose my next heroes were those whose names were around me on a daily basis, even though they were mostly dead.  These would be:


Charles Sprague Sargent (April 24, 1841 – March 22, 1927): Founder of the Arnold Arboretum where we lived.


Frederick Law Olmsted (April 26, 1822 – August 28, 1903): Designer of the Arnold Arboretum and many other places I knew well.  He also saw clearly that slavery was destructive to the American South, long before the Civil War and worked hard to reduce the misery of the soldiers in that horrible conflict.


Asa Gray (November 18, 1810 – January 30, 188):  Leading American botanist, supporter of Darwinism and antagonist of the Arnold Arboretum for most of the last part of his life, but even so on the side of the good.


Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882):  The person who gave us an understanding of our place in nature, more than anyone else.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR, January 30, 1882 – April 12, 1945):  He saved the United Sates of America from the Great Depression, and managed to arrange the defeat of Naziism.  Without him it is not impossible that we could have gone the way of Germany.


Winston Churchill (November 30, 1874 – January 24, 1965):  An inspiring hero of the Second World War.


With the partial exception of Churchill (who had only been a hero of his as a future and then actual war-leader since I was born), all of these were my father’s heroes.  Every evening we sat down at table and had a very formal dinner with my father leading the conversation.  These were the names that came up in a favorable light evening after evening.  They were more real to me than most of the people I actually met.


I started this little essay with the hope of clarifying my current list of heroes.  All of those in the last paragraph still qualify, but may not be near the top of my list.

I will try to list my current greatest heroes first, but of course there is not a simple linear order.


Abraham Lincoln (February 12 1809 – April 15, 1865):  16th President of the the United Sates of America.  He is clearly first.  I admire him so deeply!  That a man who grew up in a home with no love of learning could become one of the greatest masters of the English language, and a person with a political understanding of the terrible times in which he lived beyond any one else is incredible.  This was through ability, immense, persistant  hard work and an overwhelming desire to do something useful in his life. He also maintained his humanity at a level beyond most anyone else who ever steadfastly fought a terrible war.


Captain James Cook (November 7, 1728 – February 14, 1779):  Like Lincoln, he came from a humble background, and through personal ability and enormous effort got to be the greatest explorer of our species.  He could not have accomplished these exploration without his interest in the lowly sailors (and their health) who worked his ships.  He could not have done so much for science without his deep sympathy for the people he met all over the world.


William Clark (August 1, 1770 – september 1, 1838):  I like to think of myself as a bit of a surveyor, and Clark is my greatest hero in this department.  The map of the west he worked on for so long, had only one really serious mistake despite the paucity of reliable information he had at his disposal.  Like Cook, he was able to understand the depth of the knowledge of the “primitive” people he met.  Despite the terrible fate of the original inhabitants of this continent, he tried as much as possible at the time to help those he with whom he dealt.


Nelson Mandela (July 18, 1918 – ??):  I cannot imagine how a person could spend, what for most of us are the best years of our lives, in prison at hard labor and not come out embittered.  This man did it and showed great wisdom in leading his country towards a better future.  Perfection is NOT required, nor complete success in one lifetime.  What a hero!  I am proud to have overlapped his life.  


Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826): 3rd President of the the United Sates of America.  What a guy!  Perfection is not a necessary qualification for being a great hero.


William Shakespeare (April 23?, 1564 – April 23, 1616):  His understanding of human beings and what it means to be human, transcends that of anyone else.  I derive enormous pleasure, and I hope a little understanding, by reading and re-reading his plays and seeing them performed.


Charlemagne (ca. 1742 – January 28, 814)  Maybe he is on my list because he is a direct ancestor, but he encouraged learning and even decreed that there should be schools to teach girls to read in the Ninth Century.


Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858 – January 6, 1919) 26th President of the the United Sates of America.  I was not named for him, but he started the conservation movement in America, and tried to level the playing field between monopolies and ordinary people. He also wrote lots of good books including books for children.


Ernest Jesse Palmer (April 8, 1875 – February 25, 1962).  My father, who grew up poor supporting his family from age 11, but became a significant botanical taxonomist through ability, hard work, and love of natural history.


I could include MANY musical composers, but will just mention the two at the top of my list: 


Johann Sebastian Bach (March 31, 1685 − July 28, 1750).


Ludwig van Beethoven (December 16, 1772 − March 26, 1827):   I do not know how I could have survived adolescence without his late string quartets and the Missa Solemnis.  Many of the most wonderful times of my life have been provided by dozens of composers and those who reproduce their music.


I admire many people living and dead including women, but this seems like a long enough list of heroes.  I was just listening to the opera Nixon in China on the radio which reminds me that I greatly admire anyone who has united China.  From the First Emperor (Qin Shi Hung, ca. 259 – September 10, 210 BCE) to Mao Zedong (December 26, 1893 – September 9, 1976) many of these people have had horrible faults (certainly the first and the last did) but they have had the sustained political genius to accomplish something of enormous political scope.  Human beings can never reach perfection, but should strive so that their most consequential activities leave the World better than they found it.


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