Who and where are today’s heroes?
In an age when the mass media can bring seemingly instant fame and adulation to an individual for whatever reason, it is common for people — especially the young — to admire well-known figures in sports, entertainment, politics and other fields, often viewing them as larger than life. It is sad indeed when such prominent persons fail to embody the ideals with which they are imbued by an admiring public.
Having been repeatedly disillusioned, we are led to wonder whether individuals in our day appropriately and consistently live up to this dictionary definition for hero: “any person … admired for qualities or achievements and regarded as an ideal or model” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, IDG Books Worldwide Inc., 2001).
In many of his general conference addresses, talks to young men and young women, and messages delivered in firesides or via satellite broadcasts, President Thomas S. Monson has spoken of heroes, role models and individuals who have led lives worthy of emulation.
He has reached into the scriptures for accounts of faithful souls, into history for anecdotes that portray bravery, loyalty and patriotism, and into newspapers and magazines for reports about individuals who have gone the extra mile — sometimes at great personal risks — to help or even save others. And he has shared a wealth of examples from his own experiences and of those he has known throughout his life.
Name almost any virtue and President Monson has given a verbal illustration with a moral to accompany it, either telling how some individual lived by that high standard or how another dishonored it. Each account has a moral, sometimes stated outright, sometimes implied.
During last April’s general conference, he spoke about honesty, telling young men in the general priesthood meeting, “A Latter-day Saint young man lives as he teaches and as he believes. He is honest with others. He is honest with himself. He is honest with God. He is honest by habit and as a matter of course. When a difficult decision must be made, he never asks himself, ‘What will others think?’ but rather, ‘What will I think of myself?’ “
He then drew from his university days and told of a fellow university student in a business law class who never prepared for the class discussions, leaving young Tom Monson to wonder how the classmate would pass the course.
On a winter’s day when the final exam was given, the student came to class wearing just sandals on his feet.
“All of our books had been placed upon the floor, as per the instruction,” President Monson said. “He slipped the sandals from his feet; and then, with toes that he had trained and had prepared with glycerin, he skillfully turned the pages of one of the books which he had placed on the floor, thereby viewing the answers to the examination questions.
“He received one of the highest grades in that course on business law. But the day of reckoning came. Later, as he prepared to take his comprehensive exam, for the first time the dean of this particular discipline said, ‘This year I will depart from tradition and will conduct an oral, rather than a written, test.’ Our favorite trained-toe expert found that he had his foot in his mouth on that occasion and failed the exam.”
As a counterpoint to the lazy university student is the example of a young man who lived by higher ideals.
During a fireside address in 1989, President Monson recalled a visit he made in 1981 to the grave of Joseph Ott in Dresden, a city in what was then the German Democratic Republic. Joseph Ott was a missionary who had died in Germany in 1896.
As President Monson looked at the grave, he noticed that the headstone was polished, the weeds pulled and the grass trimmed. He asked who cared for the grave and discovered a deacon had done it without prompting from parents or leaders.
“He said that he just wanted to do something for a missionary who gave his life while in the service of the Lord,” President Monson recalled. “Then he said, ‘I’ll never be able to serve a mission, as did my father. I feel close to missionary work when I tend this grave where the body of a missionary rests.’
“I wept out of respect for his faith,” President Monson said. “I sorrowed at his inability to fulfill his greatest desire — to serve as a missionary. But God did hear his prayer. He honored one who magnified the calling of a deacon.”
President Monson noted that members, in what was then on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall, were blessed with a temple, chapels and the full program of the Church. On Thursday, March 30, 1989, the first missionaries in 50 years crossed the border into the German Democratic Republic.
What of the deacon, Tobias Burkhardt, who tended the grave? On May 28 of that year, Elder Burkhardt and nine other companions, the first from their country to serve abroad as missionaries, entered the Missionary Training Center.
“The spirit of Joseph Ott has long since gone home to that God who gave it life,” President Monson concluded. “His body rests in the peaceful, well-kept grave in far away Dresden. But his missionary spirit lives on in the service to be rendered by a faithful elder — even the deacon who so long ago trimmed the lawn, tidied the flowers and polished the headstone of Joseph Ott and dreamed of missionary service once denied but now bestowed” (Church News, May 13, 1989).
We have our heroes today, though not necessarily in the most obvious arenas or among the famous in society. We just need to look for them.