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The Making of an American Hero

by on March 03, 2014 6:20 AM

There are times when even the right word doesn't say enough.

The word joy to describe the feeling of holding your child for the first time. The feeling after the loss of a loved one is so much more than sad.

Having one of those great experiences with family on a vacation that goes beyond the scope of the word fun.

Sometimes, the word hero doesn't say enough.

I reflected on the word hero last week with the passing of Colonel Gerald Russell of State College. When I met Colonel Russell for the first time, he was just shy of 90 years old. I was curious about the title "Colonel" but, as is so often typical in these fast-paced days, I sadly didn't take the time to learn more about him. Later, I found out that the sweet old man I had met at coffee had a story like very few others.

What a story it is. A son reared in a religious home that provided the faith foundation of his life. A heralded high school athlete. A college scholarship for track. An acceptance at Harvard Law school on which he decided to pass. An Olympic qualifier.

A career Marine. A soldier wounded and also stricken with malaria on Guadalcanal. One of the youngest Battalion Commanders in WWII history. Wounded again at Iwo Jima. Witnessing the raising of the flag on Mt. Suribachi. Wounded again in Korea. Commander at Guantanamo Bay during the heat of the missile crisis. A distinguished career as a teacher and university administrator. The founder of the United Way Day of Caring in Centre County and a driving force behind the PA Special Olympic State Games.

Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines hero as "a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities."

Most of us think of a hero as someone who goes beyond the play-it-safe boundaries or whose commitment or dedication to an effort or cause exceeds expectations. Others identify a hero as someone who is willing to put him or herself out there – even if it means great risk – in the service or saving of others. Most of the people we consider heroes aren't heroic for applause or recognition.

We non-heroes often fall into what social scientist call the bystander effect. The more there are of us in the crowd, the more diffused is our sense of responsibility, accountability and motivation to step forward and save the day.

What then makes a hero?

Since the beginning of time, social scientists have debated how we come to be who we are. Is it nature and inherent in our genetic make-up? Is it nurture and learned in our environment? Is it both?

What makes a person like Rick Rescorta, security chief for Morgan Stanley, knowingly put himself at risk and eventually lose his life by turning around to go back into the World Trade Center on 9/11 after leading 2,700 people to safety? What makes a Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl, who continues to speak out so bravely and with such risk on behalf of education for girls and women? What makes a David Glen, Penn State ice hockey player and bone marrow donor, take time out of hockey and college to give so much to someone he doesn't even know?

Perhaps if we knew, there would be more heroes.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Colonel Russell's daughters Eileen Moser and Maureen Russell who are amazing women in their own right, and his long-time friend Brent Pasquinelli last week to reflect on the Colonel's life and his commitment to the service of others. With tears and with laughter, they shared memories and thoughts about the making of a hero.

"My Dad lived in a house of women" says Maureen. "Even the dogs were female. He was such a kind and sweet man. He was never boastful. He was just our Dad."

Not the stereotypical "Ooh Rah" Marine, Colonel Russell led and parented not by yelling and demanding but by example. Maureen shared a story from her adolescence about teenagers on the base who climbed a water tower and used green paint to spell out something about a party. As the little sister tag-along with those teenagers, she says they took great effort to hide their clothes and hide themselves from the MPs (military police). She laughs as she explains that when she got home the next day, the clothes, with the splatters of green paint, were folded neatly and placed at the end of her bed. The Colonel never said a word about the incident.

That same man took a bullet at Iwo Jima and kept on fighting.

Recalling the year the family was stationed in Paris, both women talk about understanding that their behaviors in public reflected on not only their father and the Marines but on Americans. "It was a different time then" says Eileen. "We wore dresses and white gloves to travel. We would sit at restaurants and lay our gloves neatly on the table as we had been taught. So many people commented to our parents that we were so well behaved. We learned that at home."

A Marine who led 1,000 troops into battle before he turned 30. A father teaching little girls proper manners.

Both women talked about a love between their mother and father that was unfaltering through the decades that they were married. "We didn't accompany him when he was assigned to Guantanamo Bay" says Maureen. "We visited over Christmas that year. The Cuban army would come in close to base every night and move the American land mines around. My father got called out almost every night we were there because of an incident near the lines. My mother wouldn't sleep until he was home safely."

Fighting the bad guys at night and building bookshelves in his daughter's rooms during the day.

After a second career at Penn State, the Colonel could have easily taken the easy road into retirement and stepped aside to let others take the lead. Instead, he channeled his energy and focus into giving to our community. He was a life-long runner who worked so diligently to support the athletic endeavors of people with developmental disabilities. A bullhorn in hand, he directed the efforts of a community-wide volunteer initiative.

Making the world a better place for all of us and doing it without fanfare or a need for recognition.

Pasquinelli, community volunteer and Viet Nam veteran himself, says, "The Colonel just wanted to be remembered as someone who made a meaningful difference."

After saving the win in an Olympic ice hockey games last month in Sochi, American player T. J. Oshie was quoted as saying, "The true American heroes are the ones wearing camo. That's not me."

That was Colonel Gerald Russell. Sometimes the word hero just isn't enough.

Related Stories:

Loved Ones Remember Col. Russell, a War Hero and Community Leader

Friends Remember Col. Gerald Russell's Contribution to Country, Community

American War Hero Passes Away, Colonel Gerald Russell Was Noted Community Leader

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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