Tenets of Hero Fund seeded in Carnegie’s presentation to ‘ boy soprano ‘

boy soprano
Program cover for January 1903 YMCA event at Carnegie Hall. Courtesy of Carnegie Hall Archives.

Earl Gulick is absent from the roll of Carnegie Heroes, but his bravery as a 14-year-old in a 1902 water rescue once led to the mistaken, widespread belief that he was the first recipient of the Carnegie Medal.

To be fair, that’s largely attributable to the fact that Andrew Carnegie indeed presented Gulick, a popular singer celebrated as the “boy soprano,” with a medal for helping to save a 30-year-old man from drowning in a canal in the Long Island area of New York. During a YMCA ceremony at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 20, 1903, Carnegie bestowed Gulick with the gold medal of the United States Volunteer Life Saving Corps.

Although the Pittsburgh-area mine disaster that ultimately inspired him to create the Hero Fund would not happen until the following January, that night Carnegie seized the opportunity to promote the tenets of just such a national organization to support the families of fallen heroes.

His comments built upon his own contribution to a monument honoring a 17-year-old boy, William Hunter, who drowned in a rescue attempt in his native Scotland in 1886. Not only did Carnegie call Gulick a “hero of civilization,” recalling part of the inscription on Hunter’s monument, Carnegie quoted the John 15:13 Bible verse that appears on Carnegie Medals as well.

boy soprano
Earl Gulick, from Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York, One Hundred and Twenty-Seventh Session, 1904.

“The family of no hero who loses his life while trying to rescue a fellow man should ever suffer want, nor should the hero himself, if injured,” Carnegie said, according to an excerpt published in the corps’ annual report. “He deserves a pension, with the thanks of the community, as well as a gold medal to be worn and afterward handed down to his family as a badge of true nobility.”

Besides instant newspaper coverage of the medal presentation, Carnegie’s words were repeated in a column, entitled “Everyday Heroes,” that ran in multiple papers the following spring.

Gulick’s connection to Carnegie and the medal remained forefront in some minds as the years went on, although it was another teen, Louis A. Baumann, Jr., who was awarded the first Carnegie Medal for his July 1904 water rescue in the Pittsburgh area.

In a November 1913 story about Gulick traveling to Italy for voice training, the New- York Tribune stated that he “carries the first medal ever issued by Carnegie.” It also credited Gulick’s rescue as the impetus causing Carnegie “to establish the medal fund.”

That misconception returned upon Gulick’s death in December 1945 at the age of 57 after a career as an advertising executive. Among the news reports, The Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle published an obituary stating that Gulick “was the first person to receive a Carnegie Medal for heroism.”

And, perhaps, with an asterisk – or a lowercase “m,” anyway – that is true.

—Chris Foreman, case investigator

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