As the 15th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I was recently reminded of a telephone conversation I had many years ago with Tom Casalini, a nationally recognized photographer who lives in Indiana.
The reason for our talk was a book written by Timothy Wallis titled “Ordinary Heroes” that focuses on Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. Each of them were photographed by Casalini.
Though the book had been in the works for some time, the timing of its release in 2002 was nothing short of incredible, given the fact that the nation was just starting to understand what a hero really was in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.
As I spoke with Casalini, I began to see how he viewed the task of photographing these heroes.
“I’d been searching for a new project — something that would literally take hold of me,” he shared. “When this came along, I remember thinking … THIS is what I’ve been asking for.”
Casalini took the assignment and poured his heart and soul into the images he captured.
“I looked deeply into their eyes … to find that message that was too personal or too emotionally significant or sometimes even too obvious for them to put into words,” Casalini explained. “I looked through the lens of my camera and found truth.”
While Casalini spoke, I can still recall myself trying to determine what a hero was to me.
The first to come to mind were my grandparents. Though both have been gone about two decades now, I still find myself wondering how they would feel about some of the things I say, write and do. And, in some ways, I still feel their presence in certain situations.
Perhaps the fact that someone has had such a profound effect on your life’s direction is what a real hero is.
Or maybe it’s someone who is only there for a short time, but that time came at just the right moment and left an indelible mark. That brings to mind, for me, an English teacher I had in high school who challenged me to read, understand and write — and is responsible more than anyone for the career I’ve had.
Maybe a hero is someone who faces a challenge bigger than anything you yourself could ever endure — and does it with the grace and acceptance of someone who has held the hand of God.
If that’s the case, then a long-ago friend by the name of Jerry — a 13-year-old cancer patient — would qualify as a hero. His trips back and fourth between home and the hospital depressed everyone but him. He had quite the spirit right up to his last moment on earth.
If Sept. 11 and the book collaborated on by Wallis and Casalini teaches us anything, it should be that heroes aren’t the Michael Jordans or Cam Newtons or John Travoltas or Taylor Swifts of the world.
Instead, heroes are those who shine in the face of adversity, tragedy, life and death. They are able to take something ordinary and make something extraordinary; they offer themselves as a source of strength and guidance to those who are in need.
As I read through “Ordinary Heroes” for the second time recently, I began to wonder if I had in me to do what any of them had done. Most of us don’t really know what we might be capable of.
Casalini summed up best what those in the book did: “All know that only by the grace of God are they here today. They were at the door of heaven and turned away.”
Read the book and you’ll understand.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.