Impulse 77: Board Notes


Mark Laskow

Most of these articles focus on the Carnegie heroes themselves, on the risks they take, and on the price they often pay for their heroic acts. That shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Yet there is another group of people who stand close to the heroes and, in the aftermath of their rescues, often bear a considerable burden themselves. These are the spouses, children, and parents of the heroes. Let’s talk about them a bit. They are important as well.

A few years ago I met a Carnegie hero and his wife. As soon as he began to describe the rescue that earned him the Carnegie Medal, his wife began to cry.

The rescue had occurred 25 years earlier, but it still had that strong an emotional impact on this woman.

At first I was startled by her tears, but not so surprised. Her husband had risked much in his rescue, but it also put much of her world at risk as well. Suppose he had died in the rescue, as about 20% of Carnegie Medal recipients do. He would have lost his life, but she would have lost him, her husband, for a lifetime.

The children of a fallen Carnegie hero lose a father or mother, the parents lose a son or daughter. Even when the Carnegie hero survives, his or her family knows all too well what they could have lost.

Certainly every parent, spouse, and child of a Carnegie hero is proud of their family member’s heroic act, and perhaps proud of the recognition bestowed by the Carnegie Medal.

And yet, at some level most of them are aware that they too could have shared in the sorrow experienced by the families of perished Carnegie heroes.

This can make for a complicated mix of emotions, but the emotions involved are completely normal.

What parent would not shudder at least a bit on learning that a child had taken a risk that could have resulted in their death?

We often emphasize here that the heart of the Carnegie Medal is that the hero made a free, unforced choice to attempt a dangerous rescue.

But family members would be entirely justified to ask, “But what about us? We had no influence on your choice, but we had much to lose as well.”

This discussion, if there is one, is probably best for the heroes and their families. We should be aware of this issue, and listen sensitively if it comes up, but I personally am not sure that as outsiders we have much to add. Listen, respect, defer.

That said, I would offer three very general observations.

First, parents, spouses and even children influence the character of their family member who became a Carnegie hero. They had an indirect but real effect on the hero’s decision to undertake a risky rescue.

Second, the very character traits that lead a Carnegie hero to plunge into a rescue doubtless showed up in other parts of their life, to the benefit of their family.

In more ordinary, day-to-day circumstances this character made the hero a loved and useful part of their family and community.

Finally, these heroic rescues benefit not only the immediate victims, but they add goodness and strength to the communities and culture in which the heroes’ families live.

In fact we would all like to live in a world in which everyone, in matters large and small, would display the character of the Carnegie heroes. I know I would.