Personal Heroes

I’m not inclined toward hero worship. Sometimes I think it must be a personality flaw on my part. The cult of celebrity is so pervasive that I feel desperately behind the times when I read what web-savvy authors write. Or maybe the truth is that my heroes live closer to home. Or lived. I grew up in a small town as the child of a working-class couple, both of whose sets of parents were not educated beyond high school. We were simple folk. We didn’t have much money and we didn’t have elaborate demands. My mother put up with an alcoholic and then absentee father, raising three children largely on her own for the better part of a decade. (She eventually remarried and the three became four, but I want to focus on the early part of the story today.) She had a rough life. Her hero, not surprising for an only girl with four brothers, was her father. Her admiration for him, whether genetic or via learning, passed on to me. I can’t claim to remember him since my grandfather died just before I turned two and just before he turned 75. As I grew up, however, he became my hero.

HomerSitterley

Today would have been his birthday, and I’m thinking about Homer Sitterley, my hero. He grew up on a farm in upstate New York and tried to better his circumstances. He taught in a one-room schoolhouse, which you could do in those days without a college degree. He also met my grandmother in that schoolhouse, which you could also do in those days. He had to change careers and became a civil engineer—still with no degree. He started and supported a family of five and moved around the country trying to keep his spouse happy. Back in the 1920s and ‘30s they moved from Virginia to Montana and back to the east, eventually settling in New Jersey, where my mother was born. They finally moved to Pennsylvania where my three brothers and I were born. He died there in August of 1964.

Homer Sitterley may have never worn a cape like one of his silly grandsons did in college. He didn’t have any super powers beyond the strong will to survive in a hostile and thankless world. He never grew rich despite hard work and few outside his family knew his name. He is a hero nevertheless. His kids were upstanding people: religious, polite, and kind. Their children—my many cousins—are good people. In a world where superheroes are shown increasingly as flawed, the real heroes are simply human. And my personal hero, although he never knew he was—and is—was a man who cared for his family to the very end. He was only human. And all the more heroic for being so.

2 responses to “Personal Heroes

  1. I love learning about people’s pasts and where their families came from. It fascinates me. It’s also interesting in seeing a view of what the world was once like. That is amazing that it was possible for your grandfather, without a college degree, to become a teacher and then a civil engineer. How the world has changed!

    One of my grandfathers was born dirt poor, maybe at best had a third grade education and not particularly smart, and yet worked his way up into a decent position in a high paying factory job that allowed him to send his kids off to college while taking yearly vacations,building a house, regularly buying new cars, and still with an extremely comfortable retirement.

    I never thought of any family member as a personal hero. Maybe it’s because I never grew up around any of them. Just occasional visits. Then again, I don’t tend toward hero worship of anyone, If it is a personal flaw, I share it with you.

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    • Yes, the past is a fascinating space. I find people’s backstory extremely interesting. It’s also amazing how much has changed. I suspect, in my case, that much of my purpose in life has been driven by the belief (my own, I confess) that my grandfather never accomplished as much as he’d hoped he might. I’ve tried to continue that struggle, albeit in my own way. His story has been an inspiration to me since he started out, like so many at the turn of the past century, as a farmer with a very active mind.

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