Profiles in Everyday Courage

He always seemed so grim, my doctor. He seldom smiled, despite my constant stream of (usually) funny jokes. Once, after my exam, he asked that I follow him to his office for further consultation. Receiving a personal phone call, he excused himself and left the room. So I glanced around, examined his yellowed diplomas, and looked at the photos on the credenza behind his desk.

One photograph appeared fairly recent — the doctor, his wife and his daughters standing rather stiffly on the front porch of a modest home. Given the doctor’s reputation, experience and bustling practice, his Cleveland suburban home seemed somewhat downscale for a man of his success.

When he returned, I pointed to his family photo, and said, "Doctor, why does everyone seem so . . . sad?" For several seconds he said nothing. Did I offend him, I wondered? Finally, he stood up and quietly closed the door.

For the next 20 minutes he told me about his life. He and his wife, very much in love, married young and quickly produced several daughters. One day, his warm, vivacious wife suddenly lost her energy. She became increasingly distant and less affectionate. The doctor first wrote it off to fatigue. But little by little his wife became cold and uncommunicative, with intermittent, unprovoked fits of anger followed by a sudden withdrawal. Specialists diagnosed her with a genetically based mental illness. Soon each of his daughters, at various ages, started showing the same symptoms.

Every dime the doctor earned went to specialists and therapy. Nothing worked. The daughters, now dysfunctional, never finished high school. Friends stopped visiting, because his wife and daughters recoiled at "strangers."

Ignoring advice to "institutionalize" his family, the doctor hired and dismissed a series of in-home attendants before finding one his family accepted. Now, the doctor told me, he comes home every day to his troubled family, and tries to make their lives as comfortable as he can for as long as he can.

"How do you deal with this?" I asked.

"How do I not deal with it?" he said. "God would expect no less."

Another story.

Paul, a successful friend of mine from Philadelphia, started out as a delivery driver. He then went into sales, and discovered that his personality and drive made him a natural. He went into real estate, aligning himself with a successful developer. Now, they operate a large number of a national restaurant chain’s West Coast franchises. Paul’s team also manages a growing number of diverse real estate investments. Paul married, and he and his wife have a wonderful 17-year-long relationship, and counting.

"What drives you?" I asked him.

"My dad," Paul said. His father, Sam, worked 33 years as a middle manager for a surgical instrument manufacturer. Sam loved his job, and the people he worked with absolutely adored him. "In those days," Paul told me, "nobody worried about things like sexual harassment." So Sam, to spark morale, might walk up to the lady in shipping or the gal in bookkeeping, put his arm around her and say, "Hey, hon, how’s it goin’?" This handsome man with his megawatt smile infected everybody with his joy and optimism. His co-workers referred to Sam as the company’s unofficial "mayor."

One day, the owner sold the company. The new buyer escorted Sam to his office, gave him two hours to pack up, and showed him the door, telling him to take his comfortable, middle-management salary with him.

Crushed, Sam tried to find a job that paid enough to maintain his family’s lifestyle. No luck. After exhausting all possibilities of finding a position with a comparable salary and status, he finally accepted, at less than half the pay, a job operating a tollbooth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike — tollbooth No. 6.

Sam, though, never felt sorry for himself, and resolved to put as much energy and enthusiasm into toll-taking as he did at his former manufacturing firm. Pretty soon, Philadelphia commuters, though weary from a full day’s work, queued up at Sam’s tollbooth to pay their tolls, even though the booths to the left and the right had shorter, if not empty, lines. "But at my dad’s tollbooth," Paul told me, "the line stretched six to eight cars deep. I kid you not."

Why would tired workers wait at Sam’s booth, when they could scoot through a shorter line, save time and get home faster? "Because my dad flashed the same smile he used at his manufacturing firm," said Paul. "He always said something funny to each of the drivers, often remembering their names. Commuters preferred to spend a few minutes with my dad, even though it meant getting home a little later. Like I said, I kid you not."

Every day in America, ordinary people show up and perform with a sense of duty, honor and responsibility. They live up to their commitments, doing what needs to be done with dignity, pride and without self-pity. Quiet, selfless, unheralded heroes — all around us.