October 11, 2015

Celebrating Innovative Everyday Heroes

Celebrating everyday heroes

Type 1: the person who performs a single dramatic heroic act

When we talk about celebrating everyday heroes, we should pause to redefine what we mean. When I was growing up, a hero was someone who did something “extraordinary” and positive for others or for the community at large. We became accustomed to defining heroism in terms of saving someone’s life, such as a firefighter who entered a burning building to rescue someone or the police officer who saves a citizen’s life.

Type 2: the person who plays a vital role in a bigger heroic effort

More recently, we have expanded our definition of a “hero” to include those who provide a vital contribution to a major accomplishment, such as the work many unsung heroes played in winning World War II, as Paul Kennedy profiled in his great book Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War. On Saturday, March 16, 2013, I attended a wonderful event for the Explorers’ Club, which celebrated both a few very famous people, like Senator John Glenn and Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter, and both of these kinds of heroes.

The Explorers Club celebrated a Sherpa who saved many people’s lives in mountain-climbing accidents in Mr. Everest, who would be like our first kind of hero. James Cameron, the director of Titanic, who did a number of deep oceanic exploration efforts, credited a number of engineers like a wonderful gentleman named Kevin Hardy from San Diego’s Scripps Oceanographic Institute with being essential to his success. Hardy, with whom I spoke at dinner Friday evening, designed and built the unmanned capsule that descended to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean in the world, took photos and captured other data essential to preparing Cameron for his deep dive in 2012.

Type 3: The person whose cumulative body of work is heroic, but is insufficiently recognized or rewarded

However, there is a third kind of hero, which we do not explicitly celebrate, but should: the person who consistently develops innovative solutions that make a big difference in the lives of those he or she touches every day. Often, these innovative solutions are not documented, and, as a result, they are not celebrated in books, movies, plays, or even in recognition events like the Explorers Club event, although the Explorers Club comes closer than any organization I have seen to recognizing this kind of unsung hero.

Along these lines, I was pleased to read today that baseball will be honoring Dr. Frank Jobe at the July 27 Hall of Fame induction ceremony for his pioneering work in what is now called “Tommy John” surgery. Dr. Jobe invented that surgery on the baseball pitcher, Tommy John, who had damaged his pitching elbow to the point that his chances of recovering and pitching again were estimated at 1 in 100. His ligament grafting process, invented in 1974, increased the chance of full recovery to over 90% today. Dr. Jobe has contributed to the career successes of several dozen pitchers and position players and has probably been responsible for billions of dollars of enhanced value for baseball team owners, only a fraction of which has gone to him. Although he is a wealthy man, he is a relatively unsung hero in baseball and other sports.

Coach Catana Starks: the ultimate example of the third type of everyday hero

However, to me, the everyday hero we should celebrate in entertainment, books, and recognition events is the person who innovates everyday in multiple situations, changes the lives of many other people, but does not get recognized publicly for much of what he or she does, and often is far more under-rewarded than Dr. Jobe. That is why I have put the story of Dr. Catana Starks on screen, and why her story and others like it need to be told.

Our film could only scratch the surface of what Coach Starks was able to do over a lifetime of coaching. Part of the reason was because she did her job in such a quiet way that it was difficult to dramatize some of her accomplishments within the time constraints of a full-length feature film. Part of the reason was that she did not think to tell us what she had done because she did not appreciate how heroic it was. Finally, the major part of the reason was that her heroism was not the single, easily definable accomplishment that could be the subject of a large project, but the cumulative effect of many smaller, innovative acts that made a big difference in the lives of those she touched.

What we would have liked to celebrate, but did not get a chance to celebrate, were many small acts of daily heroism about which we either learned from Coach Starks after we finished shooting the movie, or from others. There are many stories about Coach Starks, and they fit into three categories:

  • Redefining adversity as opportunity;
  • Seeing opportunities to make a difference in situations that no one else saw; or
  • Using scarce resources in novel ways.

Redefining adversity as opportunity

Coach Starks did not have the budget or the established, prestigious program to recruit the most sought-after golfers, so she often had to recruit people who were from less advantaged backgrounds. Her genius or “heroism” was her innovative way of convincing them that their apparent “disadvantaged” backgrounds prepared them better for the competitive challenges of life than the so-called “advantages” bestowed on their competitors.

My favorite story about Coach Starks in this regard was how she figured out that the “disadvantages” of not having enough money to afford hotel rooms the night before a tournament and of not having a big enough van to enable everyone to have a sleeper seat could be turned into an opportunity. In the beginning, the person who sat upright in front with her on a long overnight drive was disadvantaged, but she gave that person a special treat, in terms of hours of conversation in which she presented life lessons. The golfers with whom I spoke told me that they eventually came to see the front seat position as a better option for them than a sleeper seat, even though they had a less comfortable sleeping position. Every one of them remembered those long conversations years later.

Seeing opportunities where others did not

Coach Starks was a teacher. Many teachers have invited inmates from local prisons to speak to students about the problems of drugs and how they lead to bad behavior. Coach Starks did that as well.

However, she went one step further. She had one drug dealer speak who had been sentenced to life imprisonment from three felony convictions during his teenage years. It prompted her to use her accumulated knowhow on coaching and mentoring to persuade the prison system to give him an opportunity to get treatment and eventually be released. She became an advocate for reducing the sentences of those whose drug-related offenses occurred early in their adult lives and who had reformed during their prison tenure.

Using scarce resources efficiently

Coach Starks did not have the high-priced instructors or technology to help her team refine its golfing skills. She came up with two innovative solutions:

  • She tapped volunteers in the Nashville area who gave her golfers free instruction at the driving range or on the public courses. These volunteers became mentors beyond the help they gave players relative to their golfing skills.
  • She used a video-cassette recorder to capture the golf strokes of her golfers and then urged them to send the video cassettes back to their coaches in their countries or communities of origin. This accomplished two things:
  • It gave the golfers instruction from someone from whom they had learned to play golf and who was intimately familiar with their technique; and
  • It reinforced a lifelong support system they would need for not only golf, but also everything else they would do.

I could have used many other examples of her innovation solutions to problems caused by resource scarcity, but there are too many from which to choose. Her decades long success as a coach and teacher is the result of many small innovations, no one of which is dramatic enough to be the foundation for a piece of feature film or documentary entertainment, but the cumulative effect of which was huge.

Her story deserves to be told, and it will be told in public venues, beginning later this year in From the Rough.