Senior Insight: Hero tales uncovered

Senior Insights

Modesty. There’s a word you don’t hear bandied about much anymore. Self-regard runs so high now that people actually post photos of the tuna sandwich they ate for lunch, as though we should be impressed or jealous.
Spend some time with seniors, though, and you will be struck by the difference in attitude. “Modesty” is the word that most often comes to mind. Seniors were brought up to never brag or call attention to themselves.
In their day the catch phrase was, “Don’t toot your own horn.”  A good day’s work was its own reward, and no one expected a trophy just for showing up.
That explains the reaction I got when I recently asked our group here at Live Oak Adult Day Services to talk about times in their lives when they had been heroic. Experience tells me that we have among us war veterans and people who have faced discrimination and hardship, yet as they pondered my request they all blushed or ducked their heads. I saw a few glance around as if to say, “You go first.” It was literally like pulling teeth to get a story out of anyone.
Maureen hemmed and hawed, claiming she was just an ordinary person, but eventually she told us of the day when she was 10 years old and she saved her friend’s life. They had been walking by the spillway of a dam in Idaho, and the ground was still icy from a brutal winter. Her friend slipped and would have fallen a great distance over the dam, but Maureen grabbed her leg and hung on until the girl was able to pull herself back up.
I was awed by her story and asked if the whole town hailed her as a hero. “Oh, no,” she replied. “We knew darn well we shouldn’t have been there in the first place, so we never told anyone about it.”
Paul served in the Army during the Korean War. He says he saw combat the very first day he arrived in Korea. It was freezing cold on the front line. He recalled the terror of going into battle, but said, “Once you see your buddies hit by bullets you get angry and you fight.” During his second day of combat, he and another soldier were in a foxhole when a grenade landed on them. Paul got the man out of the way and saved him from certain death.
While describing that day, Paul is reflective and sober, and he seems surprised that others might see his actions as heroic. Heroism doesn’t have to mean that one person is responsible for saving a whole brigade or a whole town. One person’s life is as valuable as many.
Then Larry Valdez shyly pulled out an old clipping from a 1956 issue of the Gilroy Dispatch. He told us that he just found it again and thought we would get a kick out of the photo of him as a 16-year-old. As I read the caption aloud, he blushed and laughed, barely able to acknowledge our wonder.
Larry was a newspaper carrier for the Dispatch in 1956, and he was out delivering papers along Third Street one day. He suddenly noticed a truck rolling backward toward oncoming heavy traffic. There was no driver. Larry dropped his bike, ran to the truck, jumped in and pulled the emergency brake. The news clipping shows a photo of Larry shaking hands with former City Councilman Sig Sanchez, chairman of the Gilroy Police Commission. Sanchez is presenting Larry with a trophy on behalf of the California Newspaperboys Foundation. In the photo 16-year-old Larry looks as modest and unassuming as he does now. When I ask why he’s never told us this story before during his several years attending Live Oak, he says,
“I try to be a humble guy.”
I know that others here have stories, as well. They are still too reticent to share their own heroic moments. To me, having survived the Great Depression, several wars, racial and ethnic discrimination, economic and family woes, I see each of the seniors here as heroic in his or her own way. They teach us all about perseverance and generosity of spirit. They may not want to toot their own horns, but I am happy to take up that horn and keep
it blaring for them.
Cheryl Huguenor is the program director at Live Oak Adult Day Services, 651 W. Sixth St. #2, Gilroy, and in Willow Glen, Cupertino and Los Gatos. For more information about Live Oak call (408) 847-5491 or go to