I received a phone call a while back from the Gallup people, who were wanting to know which living Americans I admired most. I started off with President Clinton, John Kerry and President Carter, but the pollster wasn't satisfied. She kept prompting me for more names.
As I get older, I find that the people I admire the most share one thing: a love of hard work.
I ran through the rest of the Clintons, Gores, Coretta Scott King and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and yet the pollster kept asking me for more. I listed as many of Clinton's Cabinet that I could name off the top of my head and then threw in Michael Jordan's name. By that time I had exhausted my list of heroes.
That came to mind the other day when I was thinking about the very real people I see around me who are actual heroes in a way that won't ever be recognized by the Gallup Organization.
You won't see their stories on the 6 p.m. local news, nor will they be recognized as Time's Person of The Year. But they are everyday people who perform quiet acts of courage every day.
One such person who comes to mind is a woman I know in the field of health care. She's remarkably attractive in a kind of Halle Berry meets Wonder Woman kind of way, but that's not what makes her beautiful. She's tremendously witty and charming, too, but that doesn't make her notable either. There are plenty of attractive and witty women in this city, although there can never be enough of those for my taste.
What makes her a hero to me is the way she wakes up at 5:30 a.m. each day, makes breakfast for her kids, takes one of them to the bus stop and drives the others to school. She then heads off to work, where she has to clock in no later than 8 a.m.
During the course of one day, she has to see roughly three dozen people and administer flu shots to a few dozen more. She has to sit with people with all kinds of illnesses, make them feel comfortable and assure them that help is on the way and that everything is going to be all right. She does this even, and especially, when both she and the patient know that things aren't necessarily going to be all right.
But even those qualities don't make her a hero. It's the way she treats everyone she sees with the same dignity and respect. And no matter what complaint an individual patient has, her eyes tell you that she understands, a rarity in health care these days.
Maybe she exhibits empathy because she has known hard times herself. She took advantage of the programs the Clinton Administration passed in the '90s and lifted herself and her family out of deprivation. She worked during the day and applied for grants so she could go to school at night.
Last week, she took possession of the keys to her own Habitat for Humanity home after putting in more than 300 hours of work pounding nails and putting in drywall on it. It gives her a mortgage she can afford in a nice neighborhood and a life where she is dependent on no one or anything except her own hard work to take care of her family.
That's the kind of person I consider a hero, not some entertainer or sports figure or politician. She works hard for what she has; and what she has, nobody can take away. That's an envious position for anyone to be in, let alone someone who just a few years ago had little power over her own destiny.
As I get older, I find that the people I admire the most share one thing: a love of hard work. I don't even want to know anyone who doesn't have at least that. Athletes and rappers describe it as being "hungry," while others just call it ambition.
For much of my life, most of the people I've known have been like me: They stumble around from paycheck to paycheck, leading lives not necessarily of quiet desperation but of quiet dissatisfaction. Some people drink a lot to dull the pain. Others lead promiscuous lives, in hopes that the physical satisfaction will be enough to carry them through. Still others turn to drugs.
And then you have people like me, who have utilized all of those qualities and many others in an attempt to find a life of dignity.
But I think my friend in health care has it right. I used to believe that hard work was for suckers, especially when a minimum amount of effort will often carry you through the workday. I know literally dozens of people who hate their jobs and spend most of their days surfing the Internet, chatting with friends and checking out items on eBay.
But that's not the kind of person I want to be, not anymore.
My dad was visiting town last week from his home in sunny California, where he lives with his girlfriend. We were talking about the kind of person we admire. He said that the person who represents the qualities he admires most is Reggie Miller.
Think about it. He's not the most talented player on the floor; even in his prime he wasn't the most skilled. He isn't the flashiest, either. He doesn't celebrate every hoop by taunting his opponents. Sometimes he'll shoot a potential game-winning shot and miss.
But what Miller does do better than almost anyone else is play hard. When he's not shooting, he's setting up screens and picks and helping his teammates. He works hard.
So if you get a phone call from a pollster asking which living American you admire most, don't say Clinton or Bush or the Rev. Jackson. Look at the people around you; I guarantee there's at least one Reggie Miller in your own life. Honor and appreciate them.