Homer Hickam, Francis Peabody & Uncle Carmen

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If you are struggling to find something wholesome to watch on TV, check out the inspirational movie “October Sky” based on the true story of Homer Hickam, who earned fame as a NASA engineer. Hickam was also a Bronze Star recipient from the Viet Nam War, and is a noted author of several books including Torpedo Junction and his biography, Rocket Boys. My favorite scene in this movie is when Homer comes face to face with his father, who he fears is disappointed in him for deciding not to become a coal miner like his dad. In this emotional scene, Homer sets the record straight about the man who is his true hero. Homer’s dad assumes that his son’s hero is Dr. Wernher von Braun, the legendary rocket scientist, who has inspired Homer to pursue a career in science instead of following his dad into the coal mines –

Homer: “Dad, I may not be the best, but I come to believe that I got it in me to be somebody in this world. And it’s not because I’m so different from you either, it’s because I’m the same. I mean, I can be just as hard-headed and just as tough. I only hope I can be as good a man as you. Sure, Wernher von Braun is a great scientist, but he isn’t my hero.”

Even though Homer chose a different life path, he learned invaluable life lessons from his coal-mining father. It was how his dad lived, not what he did, that made him Homer’s hero.

In this context, I was struck by the April 14, 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal: “Peabody Energy Files for Bankruptcy.” According to the article, Peabody energy was started in 1883 by Francis Peabody, who had all but $100 and two mules to his name. It is undeniable that coal played a huge part in the industrial revolution and the economic growth of our country over the past two hundred years. Yet, what struck me most in this article was a comment made by Theo Spencer of the Natural Resources Defense Council – “The miner shouldn’t be allowed to “walk away from the billions of dollars in damages to landscapes, wildlife, and crucial water supplies that are part of coal’s legacy.” I make no argument with his statement as it relates to the environmental impact of coal usage. But, as Spencer states, environmental issues are only part of the coal’s legacy. What kind of person was Francis Peabody? I suspect, like Homer Hickam, Peabody had a hero who inspired him. Did Peabody inspire others during his lifetime to achieve greatness in some other area? I think these questions are just as important to address if one is going to discuss a legacy.

On a sad and personal note, my wife’s Uncle Carmen passed away last week, at the age of 95. Carmen was one of my heroes. On June 6, 1944, Carmen, as a soldier in the First Division, landed on Omaha Beach. He too, earned a Bronze Star as he fought with the Big Red One all the way to the end of the war. Our family will long miss him and forever be inspired by how he lived.

Our country and economy are always evolving. New industries are continually being developed while old stalwarts fade away. It is the relentless pursuit of discovery that drives this process and it is the lifeblood of our economic system. For every Edison, Bell, Gates, Hickam, or Peabody, most likely stands a hero who inspired and taught each of them invaluable life lessons – hard work, commitment to family, loyalty, and perhaps most of all, perseverance.

If this dynamic ever dies, it will mark the zenith of our great country. For some reason, I am fearful it is dead already. But I am hopeful that I am mistaken. No matter how technologically advanced our country gets, core values will always matter. They may matter more today than ever before. We cannot allow cynicism to replace hopefulness, nor should we put aside the values that made our country great, in the name of political correctness.

So in the months ahead, I am going to be on the lookout for that unique person who might emerge as a unifying hero today. How will that individual inspire us? And perhaps more importantly, how can we inspire others?

I’m also going to think about and perhaps write about core values. Which ones are most important today? Which ones from the past do we need to refocus on?

I’ll need your help with these challenging questions. So, please share your thoughts.

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