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Reader Question of the Week: Unsung Heroes

Here is the question we put before readers last week:

M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: Recently, you gave us a list of usually forgotten persons who have caused great harm to Americans and the U.S. What about a corresponding list of usually forgotten people who have served us well and should be remembered more often?

And here some of the answers we got in response:

C.S. in Minneapolis, MN: As the father of the nuclear powered navy and the person most responsible for the United States' formidable submarine navy, Hyman Rickover should be credited with the prevention of World War III. Thank you, Admiral.

It might be worth remembering too that Rickover's extreme, unwavering standards may be what made nuclear power safe and therefore acceptable.

P.L. in Denver, CO: I am always surprised when a book or movie comes out that shares some significant occurrence of invention that revolved around a woman that we have never heard of. The movie Hidden Figures is a great example. Here are a few examples of woman who were instrumental in some significant innovation:

J.B. in Pinckney, MI: Ulysses S. Grant. Although his stature is rising, he is still underrated thanks to the Lost Cause narrative. He was one of the best military minds in American history when it comes to the overall outcome of a war. Within the context of his time, he was one of the most progressive politicians when it came to race relations. A strong supporter of the Fifteenth Amendment, he likely would have supported rewording it had he anticipated future interpretations. He also largely eliminated the KKK from the South for a period of time, giving a short glimpse of greater equality in that region.

R.P. in Oxford, PA: George H. Thomas. "It is possible to say that the rock on which the Confederacy foundered was the Rock of Chickamauga."

O.E. in Greenville, SC: My favorite unsung hero, both politically and not, is Henry Agard Wallace. He was chosen as Franklin D. Roosevelt's Secretary of Agriculture, where he was a pivotal figure in the early days of the New Deal; he not only made tough decisions but was able to communicate them to the people. Following that, he served a term as FDR's VP, and was an exception to his predecessor's remarks on that office, being involved in more government decisions than many of his predecessors... and successors. After party insiders voted him out at the convention, despite the best efforts of supporters, he took the post of Secretary of Commerce and served well for several years.

These things would be impressive enough, but his biggest accomplishments were outside politics. He was among the first to breed hybrid corn scientifically, which has transformed American agriculture. He also bred chickens, and one-tenth of the world's chicken population are descendants of the chickens he bred, resulting in a major increase of the world's chicken population. Were there no Henry Wallace, there would be no Green Revolution in Agriculture. Both those fields of accomplishment have their critics, but many people don't even know about either of them. I was impressed when I read about Wallace in the early 2000's, and he majorly influenced me. I do think his actions in both fields deserve more attention.

D.R. in Grayling, AK: I would nominate Ida B Wells-Barnett. She was an investigative journalist, teacher, and one of the founders of the NAACP. The fought a crusade against lynching and fought for women's suffrage. She published A Red Record (1895) which detailed lists of the victims of lynching in the south. As she noted: "Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so."

D.S. in Berlin, Germany: Vasily Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov. Those two Russians did not only serve the U.S., but the entire world, as they—on separate occasions—contributed decisively to preventing a nuclear war.

Arkhipov served during the Cuban Missile Crises in 1962 on the Sovjet submarine B-59 which was equipped with nuclear torpedos. A launch required the authorization by three officers: the submarines's Captain Valentin Savitsky, its Political Officer Ivan Maslennikov, and Arkhipov as the chief of staff of the brigade. Arkhipov was the only one voting against the launch, which could well have sparked World War III.

Almost 21 years later, in September 1983, Petrov played a similarly important role. He was the duty officer at the command center for the Sovjet nuclear early-warning system when the system reported that six missiles had been launched from the U.S. Instead of immediately reporting the missiles, which might have led his superiors to instantly launch a nuclear counterattack, he suspected a false alarm and waited for a confirmation of the American attack... that never came.

T.P. in Highland Park, NJ: My nomination for an unsung hero is Norman Borlaug, who is probably the greatest hero of the 20th century. He—along with his numerous and less renowned aides, colleagues, and supporters—is why almost all of those horrible predictions about inevitable mass famine did not come to pass, thanks to their agricultural innovations. While this might not have had a powerful direct impact on America, it did PREVENT many bad consequences rolling downhill to America, and that is leaving aside the authentic and profound morality of feeding the world.

It is now commonplace that world hunger is a question of distribution rather than production. It was not always so. The film Soylent Green was set in 2022 or 2023: Borlaug saved us from that one. May we have many more Norman Borlaugs (Normans Borlaug?)

B.H. in Atlanta, GA: Edward Coles. This guy did the following:

  1. Wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson to join him (Coles) in freeing his slaves. Jefferson wrote back, saying "Nah, you just have accept it as a 'peculiar institution.'"
  2. Was private secretary for James Madison
  3. Freed his slaves and gave them land
  4. Bought pro-slavery newspapers and turned them into anti-slavery papers
  5. Became the governor of Illinois and survived proslavery violence
  6. Worked hard to make Illionios a free state. The vote was close, and if Illinois had been on the other side, it would have made a big difference in Civil War.

Just saying, he did a lot, and no one knows of him.

P.S.: Sadly, his son fought for the confederacy and died after a month of fighting.

M.F. in Olympia, WA: Hugh Thompson Jr., the US Army pilot who landed his helicopter between U.S. troops and unarmed Vietnamese civilians at My Lai during the 1968 massacre. His intervention and actions with crew members Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn ended the killing on that day and rescued Vietnamese who would have otherwise been among the victims.

M.G. in Boulder, CO: I choose John Gilbert Winant, American ambassador to the Court of St. James during World War II. Three times governor of New Hampshire and a Republican supporter of the New Deal, Gil Winant was widely considered as a possible Republican candidate for president. American magazine reported, "He's rich. He can't make a speech. But he wants to do something for the people. And he does it." A New York Times reporter said that listeners "begin by feeling sorry for him. They end by standing in the aisles and cheering him." As ambassador, Winant followed outspoken appeaser Joe Kennedy, who was increasingly disliked by the British for his defeatist attitude. The new ambassador made headlines all over Britain on his arrival when he replied to a journalist who asked if he had a few words for the people of Britain: "I am very glad to be here. There is no place I'd rather be at this time than in England."

Then he proved it. After air raids, Winant walked the streets, offering help to anyone he met—air raid wardens, ambulance drivers, dazed citizens, firemen. He served, as a Times reporter said, as the "adhesive" that held the countries' political and military leaders together, interpreting words and actions, alleviating tensions, and enabling cooperation. On a personal level, he and his friend Edward R. Murrow worked to promote understanding between the citizens of the two countries, especially important in England, as American soldiers arrived by the shipload and began appearing everywhere. Although Winant was a notably poor speaker, journalists loved his honesty and sincerity and covered him with extraordinary favor, promoting the U.S.-U.K. alliance and making Winant a household name in England. In 1945, in a speech decades ahead of its time, Winant expressed his belief that if we are to survive, we must, as nations, live as if "the welfare of a neighboring nation was almost as important as the welfare of our own." He acknowledged that the task was difficult, but said, "So was D-Day. If we could do that, we can do anything—if we really care to do it."

The British Order of Merit was the only honor Churchill was willing to accept for his war work. The first American to receive it was Dwight Eisenhower. The second—and last—was John Gilbert Winant.

L.G. in Columbus, OH: I'd like to nominate Frank Murphy. In a none-too-long life he was a criminal court judge, Mayor of Detroit, Governor-General of the Philippines (and then the first High Commissioner), Governor of Michigan, Attorney General of the U.S., and Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. A remarkable series of public jobs, but what is even more remarkable is how successful and pioneering he was in each:

Apart from his dissent in Korematsu, Murphy's accomplishments have fallen from view. But he did much to make the United States a more humane nation. He should not be forgotten.

M.M. in San Diego, CA: David E. Harris, the first Black airline pilot for American Airlines. I was curious to know what aircraft he flew for the USAF and was extremely pleased to find out it was B-52s and B-47s; hence, he flew for Strategic Air Command during the Cold War. Pleased again that Harry Truman's order to desegregate the armed forces was so effective. Furthermore, Captain Harris had light skin and green eyes, so on his job applications for all the major carriers he wrote, "I am a Negro." He was hired in 1964. He was a brave and proud man, and definitely an unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement.

B.J.L. in Ann Arbor, MI: He just passed and he doesn't have a Wiki entry, but he was known locally for his impact in Ann Arbor and would qualify as any town's unsung hero. His name was Larry Dishman. He worked in Ann Arbor's Parks and Recreation Department, where he was the team sports coordinator, from 1975 to 2015. As part of his job, he was to come up with creative content and he coordinated with Ann Arbor's Sister Cities programs in other countries to develop youth recreational soccer exchanges. The most successful one was the "Arborough games," where middle schoolers from around Ann Arbor and Peterborough, ON, Canada, were rounded up and bused to the opposite venue for games of soccer, baseball, track, field hockey, etc., with families hosting the kids during the exchanges. The name was, obviously, a melding of the town names. The games rotated between Ontario and Michigan for 17 years from 1983 until 2000, when the logistics proved too difficult to continue. Larry passed away just this last month. he seemed to touch everyone he met. Here is his obituary.

A.G. in Scranton, PA: Prosecutors who invite the ire of the armed and militant religious right when they prosecute my mother... er... um... Ruby Franke and her ilk.

Poll workers who still do what they do, knowing full well the price they might pay if the voters don't choose the candidate some armed and militant people want them to.

Every bank teller in the world as kind and decent as the one who refused to give an impact statement (a damning one well earned) when she heard what the useless junkie who robbed her had gone through that had gotten him to that point.

The pastors and priests and nuns who return, time and again, to Death Row and other prison locations to minister love (most of them) to people who often times show no remorse and who, in some cases, they will have to watch die in unbearable agony, flopping like a fish on a gurney.

Defense attorneys, most of whom know that the person they are defending is lying to them in some way but still give them the defense the Constitution requires and that those armed and militant people who claim to love the Constitution say they don't deserve. And those, as well, who truly believe in the innocence of their clients and spend decades trying to get them released from unjust confinement.

Here is the question for next week:

A.P. in Kitchener, ON, Canada, asks: I enjoyed reading about the best presidents America never had. But who was the worst president America managed to avoid, and why do you say so?

Submit your answers to, preferably with subject line "Dodged that Bullet"!

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