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I Need a Hero

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Is there such a thing as a purely selfless deed--one with no hidden motives whatsoever? Walter F. Rutkowski from the Carnegie Hero Fund spends his days measuring good deeds by some very stringent criteria--such as risking your life "to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the life of another person." We got in touch with three of these bona fide heroes to ask what went through their minds the moment they leapt into action. The heroes: Lora Shrake (who squared off with a 950-pound bull); Bill Pennell (who repeatedly dove into a burning car for survivors); and Wesley Autrey (who jumped in front of a subway train to save a fellow rider).



Walter F. Rutkowski

Comments [20]

I just watched a PBS Documentary called "Love in the Animal Kingdom" in which they explore acts of selflessness and kindness across the natural world. One striking example they portray, and a scenario I have recently entertained in my own relationship with my fiance, was a pair of flamingos, which are mates for life. When a flock migrated from a muddy lake bed, one flamingo remained stuck in the mud, unable to fly away. Its mate was there, but helpless to save its life. The show ended with the two birds lying down next to each other to die after several days of struggling. The mate did not even save it's own life. In all of their examples of altruism, radiolab focused on "altruistic" acts of saving another's life, all because of an instinctual urge to propagate our own genes. This example of the flamingos, and in my own feelings towards my fiance, who I would die with because I truly want her to feel happy, not because I want her to carry my genes on,shows that altruism, and love, are not only real, but are among the most powerful forces in the universe, able to overpower our own desire for survival.

Aug. 24 2015 12:59 AM
Audrey A from Walla Walla, WA

The one common trait I've never heard discussed is quickness of action; the hero responds without thinking. It is this that sets apart the one who would save the person in peril and the one who has already jumped into harms way. Why didn't the neighbors rush to pull the kids from the burning car? They were still thinking, "What was that sound?" then "What is that flickering light?" and then comes the "OMG a car accident!" thought. Meanwhile, the hero has already acted. I've seen it in action and it is marvelous indeed; acting without thinking, and it is the hallmark of not just heroes, but athletes who respond so fast to a changing situation that the rest of us are left amazed.

Aug. 11 2015 06:27 PM
Roedy Green from Victoria BC

I would like to know what percentage of the time heros actually save someone and what percentage of the time they end up killing themselves or disabling themselves for life.

I would like to know how rational heroism is, even when you consider every life equal.

Aug. 07 2015 04:44 PM
derek Tweedy from Tassajara, Ca

need to find an older show that hits darwin, canegie heroism, and the story of a man who may have been George? blankity so and so who sought out 4 different occupations etc and spent the last years with homeless people and then committed suicide, defining his drive to understand darwin and his theorys. man I cant recall the mans NAME. wonderful radio show that connects the "dots" of chaos, acts of bravery, "pre-determined math for DNA to perpetuate, better gazzelle better cheetah. man protects an unknown person having eppilectic siezure on subway tracks leaving his 2 small children alone to save person, because he faced a gun that didnt fire in his face that created his quick brave act of heroism.. Thank you! I am SO not going to quit looking for this show.

Jun. 02 2014 05:38 AM

Hello, history 8 pd C!
Sincerely, anonymous.

Mar. 31 2014 10:07 AM

Your examples always had an 'assistant'/witness. Was that intentional? Is there no convincing evidence without witnesses? Does that compromise your research?
My half-century of experience with occasional heroism tells me that it is usually a symptom or a sign, like the sniffles, of a constellation of causes that people (and some animals) are heir to, not just one ‘reason’. It is a reflection of the hugely various internal workings of the owner's mind & heart: conniving for reward or adulation, bargaining in the ‘prisoners dilemma’, fear of shame or change or of loosing a (possible) friend, miscalculation of the risks of/desire for 'being a hero', sense of duty, instinct (genetics), ... , a spiritual sense of the extended (universal) self. (You can probably think of many I've omitted.)

Dec. 22 2013 02:56 PM
Jesse from North Dakota

I can't help but wonder if the search for altruism is a bit like searching for copper in a gold mine. If the formula for altruism is that A gives some c to B without anything coming back to A, then you'd result in A + (B+c). However, wouldn't (A+d) + (B+c) be even better yet? What if the reward for doing something good (d), which negates altruism, isn't viewed as selfishness, but additional Good?

This morning I took a break from the show to run in and pay for gas. Upon entering the gas station, I held the door for the guy behind me. I got 1) the good feeling of doing something kind and 2) a careless, "thanks man," in return, so it wasn't altruism, but BETTER than altruism because we both received more "good" in our day.

It saddens me that people lose hope that pure altruism cannot be attained, especially if something better can be attained.

Jul. 13 2013 03:12 PM

Actually, in spite of the bafflement expressed by Jad and Robert at the lack of any clues to the origin of the heroic deeds of the Carnegie award recipients, Bill Pennell -- the second Carnegie hero interviewed in the segment -- did make a very important comment, which Jad and Robert seem to have missed or ignored. Bill said, something like, "I was thinking 'These are somebody's kids in there.' I had a daughter at the time who was 16." Clearly, he experienced empathy toward the parents of the kids and almost paternal feelings toward the kids in the car. He understood and identified with the suffering that would have been experienced by others if the children in the car perished. For some reason, Jad and Robert chose not to explore the implications of this statement.

Sep. 11 2011 05:12 PM
Matt Gibson from Lou, KY

As a fellow Carnegie Hero Award recipient I take my hat off to the three true heroes represented here. My act was 15 years ago this week and it's like the 3 heroes say - you just act and do what you have to do. Great work on the NPR segment - you really captured it all.

Jul. 29 2011 10:12 AM
Nikoleta Mountanos from New York

I love this! My 8th grade English teacher played this for my class 1st period before break, and the stories are just phenomenal! I will definitely keep listening!

Apr. 20 2011 07:50 PM
Susan Leitner

Such a wonderful program. We listened to this pod cast with our fifth and sixth grade as part of a discussion on the traits of leaders and heroes. The kids were amazed to hear about these remarkable people. I love that they had to listen to a piece instead of watch it!

Apr. 05 2011 02:15 PM
Carol Jones from Chicago

According to Darwin's other seminal work "The Descent of Man," the answer to your question may lie in the sometimes competing instinct for mate selection. Animals develop traits that are not primarily survivalist but enhance the opportunity for passing down our genes by attracting not only a mate, but the "best" mate, or the one with the best genes. So, it makes sense that developing a hero trait over thousands of generations would be akin to developing an eloquence trait (as is sited as an example of enhancement for mate selection). Think of the peacock tail, Darwin says. Not exactly a survival asset but works great with the peahens. So Darwin's theory works with the idea of developing kindness, courage, etc...
PS, I LOVE this series so much!! Wish you could do them weekly!

Mar. 28 2011 03:50 PM
Gerald Weber

"her and Mary" ?

please clean up the grammar!

Mar. 22 2011 02:29 PM
John Cennamo from Newtown, CT

Wow... Incredible! These stories are amazing. The man saving the other man from the subway brought a tear to my eye.

Mar. 05 2011 03:45 PM
Jeremy from Vancouver, Canada

Good question about why some people act and some people don't in situations calling for a hero. In my PhD doctoral work in psychology, I've explored this very question as well. Jad and Robert wondered whether heroism comes down to context and situational influences, and that under the right circumstances, anyone could become a hero (the so-called "Banality of Heroism"). The competing intuition is that heroism is really sourced to a person's attributes. So which one is right? Well, both... but as it turns out, it depends on what we mean by a hero.

In our 2010 study (popular press at, we assessed the personalities of 50 bona fide heroes (they had won award like the Carnegie Medal). And we also assessed the personalities of 50 people with the same demographics as a 'control' group. We found that the heroes were of three personality types: two types were very different than their matched controls---one was the caring type, the other, of the thoughtful and sophisticated variety. So these folks were quite extraordinary. In contrast, the third group of heroes had totally ordinary personalities.

So here's the twist: the 50 heroes had not all received the same award: they received one of *two* awards, either for a single act of bravery (like the folks in the RadioLab episode), or for decades of humanitarian service. Guess who were the ordinary ones... yup, the single-act-of-heroism folks.

So it looks like the Average Josephine can become a one-off hero if the situation is right. But it takes virtue (perhaps personality development) to become a Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. (Stay tuned for a study in which Gandhi, MLK, and 13 other heroes comprise the "dream team" group.)

Feb. 12 2011 01:53 PM
Michael from Seattle, wa

An odd feeling came over me when I realized I went to high school with Lora! Lovely hearing your name after all these years. Glad to here
You were in the proximity when the woman needed a savior.

Jan. 31 2011 06:00 PM

wow. I truly hope most of us have a little bit of the hero in us.

Jan. 29 2011 03:26 PM
Kevin Stigant from Perth, Australia

Some things we do with rational consideration for self preservation or personal gain, or even make sacrifices for a variety of reasons such as honour or duty, however when we do things where there is no time to think we act for the most part purely on instinct alone and instinct is born of evolutionary processes where the instinct to preserve the life of another at risk of peril would have come about from our early tribal existence where in a small clan of people any member of your clan in danger could well be one of your own offspring or descendants or at least a valuable member of your tribe, who you rely upon to survive. Unlike an anonymous stranger in a big city the early existence of man was most likely in a small group where each person had an important part in the survival of the whole group. Those groups where members did not have such a compassionate mindset would be more likely to perish completely without passing on the characteristic. So it stands to reason that today we would still have this instinct of selfless sacrifice for any fellow human we meet despite the fact that today living in large populated masses they most likely are not going to be an integral part of our own clan or an offspring.

Jan. 15 2011 06:22 AM
Cathy Cairns from Ambridge

You are doing wonderful, important work in a culture that often celebrates wealth over character. Hats off, m'dear!

Dec. 21 2010 11:38 AM
Wid Harpster

Can't help but love the program. For some reason, Lora was meant to be on that road, that particular day. I am very proud to say that Lora Shrake is my neice, and a very remarkable young woman.

Dec. 17 2010 12:23 PM

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