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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Some Random Thoughts On Heroes In Appalachia

Quite a while ago, I wrote the post "A Gallery Of Appalachian Heroes" with every intention of putting together a series of posts about people I consider to be heroes within the Appalachian Studies field or who should be considered heroes by most Appalachian people.  I wrote one of those posts about Jim Ferrell, a personal hero of mine but generally unknown outside Logan County West Virginia and Cleveland, Ohio.  I have also written a few posts about single or limited aspects of a few other people I put on my list of Appalachian Heroes such as Loyal Jones, Albert Stewart, and Cratis Williams.  I have mentioned the names of a few others in passing.  But, the bottom line is I have spent too much time writing posts, when I had the time, about other aspects of Appalachia and Appalachian Studies which also matter to me.  I need to get back to that series of posts and I consider this piece to be a warm up before I begin to actually do the posts about that series of individuals. 

I would like to delineate a list of characteristics of heroes, both Appalachian and non-Appalachian, which may not be universal but any list of heroes would be comprised of individuals who possess most of those key characteristics.  I have no intentions of researching these qualities not because I think I know all the qualities of a hero.  But, rather, I think I know enough about the list of people I intend to write about that I am capable of considering the qualities each exhibited in their lives, both personal and professional, to enable me to comprise a collective list of heroic characteristics.  By doing this, I hope to be able to define, both for myself and my readers, exactly what I believe constitutes heroism and a heroic personality. 

  • Heroes nearly always do the right thing even if it may not be in their own personal interests.  I have known several heroes who placed their own lives and well being in jeopardy in order to act in ways which were in the common interests of the groups to which they belonged.
  • Most heroes are not perfect and many of them exhibit clearly delineated flaws.  I do not wish to espouse or defend the theory of the "fatal flaw" of classic tragedy.  But I have known several heroes whose personalities often clashed with those of many of the people around them.  I have known a few genuine heroes who were simultaneously heroic and egocentric.
  • Many heroes are single minded, especially in support of a cause, to a degree that is sometimes detrimental to either themselves or the people around them.
  • At times, I have seen a few genuine heroes become petty and a bit vindictive.  Heroes sometimes see too far into the future to the degree that their vision of a perfect world does not coincide with the visions of the general public they represent. Two people I have known well and will not name, both of whom I consider to have been Appalachian Heroes, had a common dislike for each other.  Two of the greatest activists in Appalachian history, one of whom I knew well and one I only met once, began a career together and soon parted ways because of this flaw.
  • At least one of the people on my list of heroes greatly limited their potential and achievements through the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs.  Yet this person achieved a reasonable amount of well deserved fame and a devoted following of equally committed and intelligent people in their field.  But the body of life's work this person achieved was seriously abbreviated by the time spent under the influence. 
  • Some heroes are just not very likable.  I have known more than one person who achieved heroic results yet had a small and restricted number of friends and admirers.  Whether we tend to believe in the concept of "the burden of greatness" or not, the presence of a commitment, a dream, or a vision can often make a person less than desirable as company.  When we become driven, we also often drive away those around us.  One of my personal heroes had a very talented wife who was often ignored in the home.  Yet, in her own right, she was popular, talented, and successful in her field. 
  • Many heroes have a tendency to overlook their own shortcomings in the mistaken belief that the rest of the world around them must know how important the hero and his/her work is. 
At this point, it might seem that I have a strange and unpopular list of heroes.  But most of my heroes have all the standard qualities that one tends to find in books about greatness and those who exhibit it.  They are intelligent, committed, driven, honest, ethical, visionary, altruistic, zealous, and tireless.  But, the bottom line, for most of my heroes, is that they are also human. Over the next few weeks, I will introduce my readers to a group of people I consider to be among the most important to have lived in Appalachia.  I have known some of them.  Many of them I only wish I had known.  But in each case, their lives and their work influenced me and helped me to become the person I am today. And, in each case, they also performed some important work in Appalachia or Appalachian Studies which also has affected the lives of numerous others. 

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