Everyday Heroes

I don’t imagine that the women who died last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School thought of themselves as first responders, let alone as heroes.

As teachers and school administrators, their job descriptions did not call for them to confront armed criminals. Their training did not include special weapons and tactics to stop a young man on a murderous rampage, although the school in Newtown, Conn., did have security procedures that may have saved many lives beyond the 20 children and six adults who were killed there last Friday.

Yet when the unthinkable happened, the women (most of the staff at the school, and all of the adult victims, were female) did not hesitate to offer their lives in exchange for those of their young charges. We are told that Dawn Hochsprung, the 47-year-old principal, and Mary Sherlach, 56, the school psychologist, were cut down as they charged at gunman Adam Lanza in an effort to stop the carnage. First-grade teachers Victoria Soto, 27, and Anne Marie Murphy, 52, were killed as they used their own bodies to shield their students. Teachers Lauren Rousseau, 30, and Rachel Davino, 29, also died with some of their students.

Throughout the building, other teachers calmly shut their doors, covered their classroom windows and kept children calm and quiet amid the sounds of deadly mayhem. Some sang softly with the children; others read to them. Unlike many of the youngsters, the adults knew what was happening nearby.

Stories of such valor no longer startle us. Though human tendencies toward panic and self-preservation will always make heroic conduct exceptional, we are discovering through sad experience that there are a lot of exceptional people.

When a shooter attacked the Clackamas Town Center mall near Portland, Ore., this month, Allan Fonseca repeatedly entered the building to guide shoppers to safety through the interior corridors and stairwells. Fonseca works at the mall’s Lancome store. Many other mall workers locked their gates and herded shoppers into storerooms to wait out the danger, much as the teachers at Sandy Hook would protect their students soon afterward.

Earlier this year, several men killed in a theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., used their own bodies to protect the women who accompanied them to the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

When would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid tried to bring down an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001, his fellow passengers helped to restrain him. Passengers again pitched in to subdue underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to destroy an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight on Christmas Day, 2009. (Abdulmutallab posed less of a threat because, rather than exploding, his underwear burst into flames and left him with serious burns.)

Of course, our most vivid memories of everyday people pressed into heroic acts come from the attacks of 9/11. From the passengers on United Flight 93, who battled their hijackers and prevented their aircraft from reaching its target in Washington, D.C., to the many individuals, known and unknown, who helped strangers and co-workers escape from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we could fill volumes with stories of courage and self-sacrifice. Nor does any of this diminish the bravery of professional first responders, who also rushed to assist strangers in these instances and countless others.

Tragedies like Newtown tend to confirm our worst fears and most strongly held beliefs about what is wrong with the world. If we believe in the need for stricter gun controls, we see last Friday’s events as proof of our position. If we think the system of mental health care is at the root of the problem, we see its role in this tragedy. The same is true of calls for armed security (or even armed teachers) at schools, or for God to play a greater role in American public school classrooms. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee contributed the observation about God, in case you were wondering.

Tempting as it is to look for instant answers and quick solutions, I think the discussion of those issues, important as they are, can wait.

Right now I find my thoughts coming back to the reservoir of goodness, empathy and love that so many people around us seem to carry. It can, in an instant, turn an ordinary person into a hero. I find this knowledge comforting at a moment of unfathomable sadness.

About Larry M. Elkin 551 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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