Two women are being hailed as heroes this week. One, Barbara Bush, led a political dynasty but never lost her focus on compassion and elevating others. The other, Tammie Jo Shults, calmly guided a stricken airliner and its 148 passengers to safety.
Although the two led very different lives, they both teach us the value of quiet dignity, persistence and a constant concern for the welfare of others.
Bush, who died Tuesday at age 92, was well known for her decades-long campaign to improve literacy.
Lesser known and forgotten by many was her compassion toward people suffering from HIV and AIDS. At a time when many feared catching the illness just by being close to someone with the then-incurable disease, Bush hugged and kissed abandoned babies infected with AIDS. She also hugged a gay man with AIDS.
Bush recalled meeting AIDS advocate and volunteer Lou Tesconi in her 1994 memoir.
“I especially remember a young man who told us that he had been asked to leave his church studies when it was discovered he had AIDS,” she wrote. “His parents had also disowned him, and he said he longed to be hugged again by his mother.”
“A poor substitute, I hugged that darling young man and did it again in front of the cameras. But what he really needed was family.”
It was a seemingly small gesture, but in 1989, it changed the conversation about AIDS and HIV.
“This message of compassion at a critical moment in the history of AIDS helped Americans to learn that AIDS was yet another disease to manage and not a death sentence,” Nancy Beck Young, a historian at the University of Houston, told the Houston Chronicle. “She brought needed publicity to the problems of those who suffered and helped humanize her husband’s presidency.”
Bush was the wife of a president and mother of another, and her power, within her family and on the American stage, was never in doubt. Yet, she remained self-deprecating, choosing to focus her attention on bettering the lives of others through her devotion to increasing literacy and improving the health of children, among other causes.
“Never lose sight of the fact that the most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat other people — your family, friends, and coworkers, and even strangers you meet along the way,” she once said.
Shults was unknown to most Americans until Tuesday when she calmly piloted a Southwest Airlines jet to safety after one of its engines exploded at 32,000 feet, shattering a window, which caused the oxygen to rush out of the plane.
After an emergency landing in Philadelphia, Shults walked through the plane and talked with the passengers, asking if they were all right. One passenger died after she was partially ejected out the broken window, and seven were injured.
Shults was one of the Navy’s first female fighter jet pilots after the Air Force refused to accept her and she had to convince an aviation instructor that she wasn’t lost when she showed up at his class. At that time, women were barred from combat, stifling their careers in the military.
“We endeavor to teach our children to be leaders, not lemmings,” Shults wrote in a book about military pilot mothers. “This is especially important when it comes to making the right choice while the crowd is pulling in the other direction.”
It’s important to recognize groundbreaking women like Bush and Shults who remind us bravery takes many forms. Sometimes it reveals itself when the world is watching, but more often it manifests in the daily, often-hidden work of smashing barriers. Today, we celebrate the acts of heroism by women, known and unknown.
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