Press "Enter" to skip to content

Real Heroes for the West

Essay by Ellen Miller

American Life – August 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

The nation is agog at the O.J. Simpson saga. All the news shows, the sports shows, the tabloids, and the trash TV “productions” are full of it. Whether he killed his ex-wife and her buddy remains an issue for the court. If he did it, the district attorney will have the evidence. Simpson has the capability of hiring the best lawyers in the country, and he has, and so the long court stuff will just, well, go along.

However, even the Los Angeles DA talked about O.J. being an American hero.

Not. He was a football hero. a commercial hero. a television hero. But not an American hero.

The American hero shouldn’t be defined by athletic success, or size of bank account, or number of endorsements bought and paid for. A few United Way commercials doesn’t cut it. What about the real American heroes?

What about Ralph Carr? He was governor of Colorado in 1942 when the obscene Japanese-American internment law was signed. He refused to let federal authorities round up the Japanese who had farmed In Colorado for years and send them to “internment camps.” It cost him his job. He knew it would, and he did the right thing anyway.

What about Jeanette Rankin of Montana? She was the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress, and she voted against the United States entering World War I. It cost her the lob. But In 1940, Montana again elected her to Congress, and sure enough, she was the only vote against the declaration of war against Japan in December of 1941. And, sure enough, it again cost her the job. That both ventures turned out well for country is beside the point. She had the guts to vote what she believed.

What about Wayne Aspinall? He was a schoolteacher from Palisade who, as congressman from western Colorado, got Congress to authorize more western water storage projects than anybody has to date or is ever likely to. Not only did he produce for his native West, his character was Impeccable. His integrity was unquestionable.

What about Mike Mansfield? He was and still is an icon in the rural West. Soft-spoken with a velvet glove, he fought and won for the land he loved. He had so much integrity that long after he retired from the U.S. Senate. he refused to allow corporate contributions to the University of Montana Foundation in his behalf while he was serving as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Japan. The Montana folks raised the money anyway, but not on Mike’s name.

What about George Sarsfield? A lawyer in Butte, Montana, he was the low amateur In the U.S. Open during the early 1930s. He served in World War II, came home and worked to make his home a better place to be. He ended up donating more than $1 million to the University of Montana and came within an eyelash of becoming president of Rotary International.

What about Joe Higgins? He started, nurtured, and runs the most successful youth intervention crime-prevention program in Colorado. Period. There’s nobody close. The guy makes barely enough money to support his family (with the help of his hard-working wife) and has made a difference in the lives of countless kids though Partners in Grand Junction. He ain’t flash-and-dash high-level media spokesman (like O.J. In the Hertz commercials). No. he’s the everyday-get-it-done kind of guy.

These guys (and in the West, gals are guys; it’s interchangeable) never threatened anybody. They let their accomplishments speak for themselves, and they never needed public attention to validate what they did. They didn’t seek, and in some cases were downright shy about publicity. They never dodged their constituents, or the press, but they didn’t seek them out, either.

Western unsung heroes have actually done more to improve the value of our lives than any California media well-known ever will. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the country, and maybe that’s why we resent Californians coming to rural Colorado — because they want to bring their sense of “heroism” with them.

A native of Butte, Mont., Ellen Miller now lives in Grand Junction where she covers the Western Slope for the Denver Post.