What is a hero? That’s not a rhetorical question. Ask 5 people what a hero is, and you may get 5 different answers, similar but different. I guess a hero is in the eye of the beholder.
Universal agreement about a particular hero is rare. But one who fills the bill is Alvin York, the most decorated American soldier in World War I. I recently visited the parcel in the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee where York grew up and lived all his life except when he was in the Army. I bought and read a wonderful account of his life, as told by York himself.
The making of a hero
Alvin York was twice a hero—in the war and afterward as a one-man advocate for the poor people of Fentress County, Tennessee. His name became a household name even before he came back to the States from France because his incredible exploits as a soldier were spread far and wide. He almost single-handedly killed 20 Germans, took out several German machinegun nests, and captured 132 German soldiers. A pretty good day’s work for a mountain man who had never been outside of his community!
York most certainly did not expect or want the celebrity status thrust on him. When he returned to the States, his only desire was to get back to Fentress County, back to hunting and farming, back to the simple life of the mountains. He turned down multiple, lucrative offers to capitalize on his popularity because he felt it wouldn’t be right to do so when others bled and died on the battlefields of France. In his own words “ . . . I sorter felt that to take money like that would be commercializing my uniform and my soldiering. I also knowed I didn’t go to war to make a whole heap of money, or to go on stage or in the movies.” But this only enhanced his status as a hero—not willing to cash in on his status for his own well-being. How unique is that?!
It wasn’t until the ‘30s, about 10 years after the end of World War I, that York agreed to allow his story to be made into a movie—Sergeant York starring Gary Cooper in the title role—the largest grossing movie in 1941. Of course, this merely extended the legend of Sergeant York of backwoods Tennessee. It’s safe to say Alvin York was one of the most famous and popular men in America in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, an authentic hero.
The second making of a hero
When York returned home, he realized he’d changed. Though his time in the Army and in Europe was short, nevertheless he’d been exposed to a bigger world than he could have imagined. And he realized his mountain community was isolated from almost everything desirable. Suddenly, the poverty he’d assumed was a way of life for everyone he knew wasn’t so charming anymore. The lack of education for the families of Fentress County wasn’t to be ignored as it had been as long as anyone could remember.
York was especially moved by the lack of education in his county. He himself had only a second-grade education. That was acceptable before he left for war, but not anymore. Here is his own assessment of the education system in Fentress County in the late ‘20s:
“We only had a few schools here. They were all frame buildings, and some of them were well-nigh uninhabitable. There was only one high school. Very few of the teachers were college graduates. So, you see, we needed new buildings and up-to-date teachers and equipment most awful bad. . . . In our county alone there are over one thousand boys and girls between the ages of six and eighteen that can’t even read and write. And I’m a-telling you it’s not their fault. . . . I’m a-going to bring them a heap o’ larnin’.”
So, Alvin York, the mountain man who shot up Germans in the Argonne Forest of France, who became a household name leveraged his popularity to raise money to build new schools and hire new teachers for the poor children in his community. He traveled to some of the big cities in America, called on wealthy people, and raised funds to accomplish his goals. I am willing to say Alvin York’s efforts to serve the poor people of his community from the time he got home from war makes him a hero just as much as what he did on the battlefield in France.
Later in life, when Alvin York was asked what he wanted to be remembered for he did not point to his military exploits but to his efforts to alleviate poverty in one of the poorest parts of America. Either one makes him a real hero, but serving his poor neighbors makes him a heroic servant.
I am inspired by Alvin York. I would have loved to spend time talking to him about why and how he gave himself to serving the poor of Fentress County Tennessee. He did what any of us are called to do: use what God has placed in our hands to serve others . . . and we don’t have to be a hero to do it.