Every Way Heroes

When Kevin’s hero slips into a phone booth, it’s just to make a phone call. And no, Janna’s hero is not wearing that cape backwards. It’s an apron.

Here you are, an LDS teenager in New York City—home of the United Nations, Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, Carnegie Hall, Wall Street, Madison Avenue.

Living in one of the world’s great cities, you can see some of the finest athletes, watch the most popular performers, listen to the most talented musicians, hear the most brilliant lecturers, observe the wealthy and powerful first hand.

Then, one day your Sunday School teacher asks you who your heroes are. That’s exactly what Sunday School teacher Mark Graham of the Manhattan Second Ward asked his class. Well, that wasn’t exactly the question. Actually, the whole thing started with a discussion of greatness. The first question really was “What makes a great person so great?” From there it progressed to a class project to discover their real heroes and the qualities they have.

No rock stars need apply

This being a Sunday School class, naturally the focus is on spiritual qualities of spiritual heroes—and even more specifically, people who influence your life personally. So rule out the athletes and performers, the millionaires and politicians. As one of the class members, Ben Cottam, explains: “In the beginning when we started this project, we talked a lot about people doing big things, but really, the most important thing that goes into being a great person is the love and the caring. If you love people and care about them, that’s going to make you great.”

Other qualities the class listed included determination, commitment, service to others, modesty, humility, courage, and love of God. Once class members knew what qualities they were looking for, heroes start turning up pretty close to home. Very close. In fact, the list included a number of parents, several Young Men and Young Women advisers …

Hey, isn’t this the Big Apple?

Before we go any further, remember where we are: Manhattan. The chapel is on Broadway, across from the Lincoln Center. These kids attend schools all over New York. Many of them are headed for distinguished universities all over the country. They are bright and articulate and aware. Typical New Yorkers, they are not easily impressed. And here they are, listing their heroes as parents, advisers.

Janna Beck picked her mother “because of her service to me and to my whole family.” Beyond service to the family, “Mom always volunteers in the schools. She is also a volunteer at the state women’s prison to help prisoners set their lives on track.” Besides, “She’s always reading the scriptures. I want to have that quality.”

Kara Beck chose her dad, Gary, who’s an attorney in the Coast Guard. “Dad is always concerned about other people. He’s always positive. I’ve never heard him say anything bad about anyone. He gives copies of the Book of Mormon to everyone and does it in such a way that people aren’t offended.”

Myung Lee is Korean by birth. He’s stayed behind in New York to finish his schooling while his father—his hero—has returned to Korea with the rest of the family to serve as a mission president. Myung Lee says of his father, “He constantly has good thoughts on his mind, thoughts of Christ. My dad really seems to be focused. His faith in Jesus Christ is that He can guide him through anything and that my father will always follow. That’s how he leads his life every day, and that sort of tells me to lead my life that way.”

Singing praises

Neylan McBaine’s mother, Ariel Bybee, has had a distinguished career singing with the Metropolitan Opera Company. An accomplished musician herself, Neylan understands just how great her mother’s career achievements are. Yet it’s her mother’s spiritual qualities that make her a hero to Neylan, qualities like compassion, awareness of others’ needs, working hard at Church callings. But then it really gets personal. “She’s always been willing to put the career second, to cut down on the time that’s needed to have a full star’s career to always come home and be with me, fix me dinner, be there when I get home from school. I’ve always known that if she had to choose between me and a career, she would choose me.”

Love of the Savior, love of the family, love for others—the picture of a real hero begins to emerge as class members talk about what they have learned. Others reinforce that image.

Jeremy Vogelmann chose his mother “because she’s a really strong woman. She stands up for everyone. She has a really big heart. If she sees someone in need, she will go and feed them or do whatever she can.”

Kevin Vogelmann, Jeremy’s younger brother, selected Serge Bushman, his priests quorum adviser, for his compassion, humility, devotion to the quorum members, and spirituality. After watching his adviser, Kevin defines a hero as “someone who is always trying to make himself better.”

Sorry, Santa

Obviously, any human hero is going to have faults. If you pick distant heroes, like famous people, those faults may not be obvious. But when you live with someone like a parent, or watch someone week after week like a teacher or adviser, you are going to see flaws. For example, after he spends several minutes talking (in her presence) about how great his mom is, you ask Benjamin Cottam if his mother is perfect. “No, of course not,” he jokes. “That’s why my first choice was Santa Claus.”

That’s also why humility is one of the foremost traits the class listed for a hero. You’re not going to find a perfect human being to imitate, but you can find good people who continually improve their own lives at the same time they are reaching out to others. You can find people who are honest with themselves about their faults. And you can find people who have been wise in their own choice of heroes.

Take Marsha and Gary Beck, for example. Remember, Janna and Kara picked them as their heroes. But who are Mom’s and Dad’s heroes? “The Savior,” Sister Beck answers simply. Brother Beck adds a new twist to this hero thing: “My kids are my heroes. And my parents, my Primary teachers—everybody that I’ve ever had a chance to rub shoulders with—there’s a little bit of heroism in all of them, and I have always tried to find what that is and to incorporate that into my own life.”

Heroes’ heroes

Can you really be a hero to your hero? Well, Gary Beck isn’t the only “hero” in this study who feels that way. Kristin Baxter is the Laurel adviser in the Manhattan Second Ward. She was picked as a hero by Leslie Mantillas, a recent convert to the Church. Leslie, who went through some tough times after her baptism, credits Kristin with always being there for her. “She never judged me. Her love always showed through.” But Leslie is something of a hero to Kristin, too. (As the two of them talk about it, tears well in their eyes.) “I think it goes both ways,” Kristin says. “I think she’s a hero, too. A hero is someone you look up to, even if they have a couple of faults. You know their heart.”

Maybe Adam Fennimore sums it up as well as anyone. Adam, who’s now serving a mission in Madrid, Spain, says, “A hero is someone whose characteristics you would like for your own. You find people who are like you want to be.”

Heroes like these can be found anywhere—in the smallest of towns and in the smallest of families. You’ve probably never heard of most of these heroes before, and maybe you’ll never see or hear their names again. That’s okay. Maybe no one’s ever heard of your heroes, either. It doesn’t matter. If they make you want to be better than you are, if they lead you closer to the Savior, if they make you want to be someone else’s hero in turn—those are things that matter.

[photos] Photography by Brent Petersen

[photo] Even when Mom has a successful career with the Metropolitan Opera, it’s other qualities that have her daughter singing her praises. Right: Ariel Bybee and daughter Neylan.

[photo] Right: Janna, Marsha, Gary, and Kara Beck. A life on the move as a Coast Guard family could have brought out the worst in everyone. Instead, they have learned to see and appreciate the best in each other.

[photo] “She has a really big heart,” says Jeremy Vogelmann (left) of his mother, Megumi. In a city known for its famous and powerful people, these teens picked qualities like “heart” as worthy of emulation.

[photos] Right: Leslie Mantillas, Kevin Vogelmann, and teacher Mark Graham. Their Sunday School class project took them in an unexpected direction—very close to home.

[photos] Ben Cottam picked his mother, Doris. Because she’s perfect? “Of course not. That’s why my first choice was Santa Claus,” he says with a straight face.