There are several women whose stories have crossed my path in recent months. I’ve written about Rachel Carson and her pioneering efforts to bring controls over pesticides used indiscriminately in this country after World War II. She didn’t want to write about birds and fish dying, but the more she researched the topics, the more she realized she had no choice. She was vilified by the pesticide manufacturers when Silent Spring was published in 1962, but her book brought awareness and eventual changes and controls over DDT that was killing wildlife and making people sick. She didn’t set out to create a whole governmental agency (EPA) to monitor the poisons and pollution of our new industrial world, but she did, and she did it because she knew someone needed to speak for the voiceless.
In researching my latest release, Civil War Journal of a Union Soldier, I came across some references to a woman I’d known all my life as “Aunt Laura.” Laura S. Haviland lived 1808-1898, and she saw injustices in the way slaves and women were treated. She opened her southeastern Michigan home as a stopping point on the Underground Railroad as she assisted–and sometimes accompanied—runaway slaves to Canada. She opened a school attended by my great grandfather and dedicated its purpose to educating women and African Americans. She didn’t have to open herself up to these causes, but with her Quaker upbringing she saw no other way to live her life. Her life is the blueprint of someone dedicated to fighting for causes that seemed hopeless, but left a lasting legacy. A statute stands in front of the Lenawee County Courthouse in Adrian, Michigan, with the dedication, “A Tribute to a Life Consecrated to the Betterment of Humanity.”
Recently, I watched Erin Brockovich about a single mother of three who fought the huge utility giant, Pacific Gas and Electric. Best of all, she won. It was good to see this movie again. Erin Brockovich— real person—discovered in her job researching for attorney Ed Masry that people living in Hinkley, California, were coming down with mysterious illness and extreme cases of cancer. As Erin continued her research with Masry’s permission and sometimes reluctant participation, she discovered the culprit. PGE was dumping toxic waste into the waters of Hinkley. Erin didn’t want to get embroiled in this ghastly business, but seeing children and mothers suffering so much she had no choice but to become involved. In 1996, PGE was forced to pay out $330 million to more than 600 residents of Hinkley. Erin’s dogged research resulted in the largest payout for this type of lawsuit. Her website states it best, “If you follow your heart, if you listen to your gut, and if you extend your hand to help another, not for any agenda, but for the sake of humanity, you are going to find the truth.”
There are many other women and men out there who heed the call to action. Some of them become famous; yet others are sitting right next to us on the bus, train, or airplane, in the line at the grocery store, or at the PTA meeting. They do their work and follow their heart simply because they feel they have no choice. These are the real rebels with a cause.
When I was younger and much more jaded than I am today, I thought there were no heroes. But now that I’ve mellowed, I’ve taken the time to realize some of my closest friends fit the same mold of Rachel Carson, Laura Haviland, and Ern Brockovich. They are folks living their lives for the betterment of humanity.
These other heroes get up every morning and set out to make the world in which they live a better place.
There’s my very dear friend who’s a nurse. She goes to work each day with one thought in mind, and that’s to put the patients first. She helps them find their way through the red tape of insurance, and she makes sure they leave the office or the phone call with answers. She is their advocate, and after spending the past year in and out of doctor’s offices, I know firsthand how a kind word, or even a smile, goes miles toward easing my troubles. She probably won’t have a movie made of her life, but she’s a hero to many who come under her tender loving care. I know—she’s always been one of my stalwart supports. When I returned to Michigan for the funeral of my mother, I stayed at her house. One night I came home dispirited and depressed. On the table waiting for me was a plate of hot spaghetti, garlic bread, and a glass of my favorite wine. I never forgot that night and the tender loving care she showed me on a night of deep despair. She does that for everyone within her orbit.
Another dear friend brought her older brother into her home to care for him as his MS worsened. He can’t use either his arms or legs, but she ensures he’s showered every day and comes to the table with the family for most meals. She’s led by example in many things she’s done, but perhaps none greater than what she did after her daughter was killed in a drunk driving accident. The daughter, Sara, turned her keys over to her boyfriend that fateful night, and she died while the boyfriend survived. My friend went to court when it came time for sentencing of the young man. She spoke up and said it could have been her daughter driving and that she forgave him and hoped for leniency in his sentencing. She’s remained a support for this young man as he faced life after the accident. Her unselfish actions make her a hero for all time, even though Hollywood probably won’t visit her either.
These women stand as the examples of lives well-spent to benefit us all. They don’t do it for glory or fame; they do it because it’s the right thing to do. I can only sit back in awe and attempt to follow in some very big footsteps. This week of Thanksgiving, I give thanks to all the rebels who fight for causes no matter the cost or the sacrifices. Our world is a better place because of them.
Who are your heroes today?