The Aviatrices

 

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“Don’t touch that plane, little girl.”

 

Millicent Young took the money she earned from farming and told her mother she was going to buy clothes. Instead, she bought flying lessons.

During World War II she flew an AT-6, towing targets for (male) pilots learning how to shoot. According to her obituary in The Gazette of Colorado Springs, “She liked to say our side shot at her.”

After victory her war effort continued, this time to gain military status for her fellow (female) pilots. Her success is all the more notable because she wasn’t otherwise unoccupied:

Millicent Young worked various jobs, parking cars at the Antlers Hotel, selling encyclopedias, even penning a food column for The Gazette … She spent more than two years working for the El Paso County Department of Human Services, being named “Working Woman of the Year” by the state in 1985.

 

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“Where’s the pilot?” someone on the ground crew asked.

“I am the pilot,” she responded.

 

Mary Ellis was shot at by her own side too, but by mistake. It was, she said – with sterling British understatement  – “not an experience I ever want to repeat.”

Her Washington Post obituary records that friendly fire, fog, the Luftwaffe, landing gear, and Nazi rockets were among her hazards ferrying Spitfires to combat pilots.

After the war, Ms. Ellis became a rally car driver. Then she (more or less) settled down:

She was thought to be the first woman to run an airport in Europe, and over the next two decades, she did everything from working the control tower to running out to shoo away sheep and wave the aircraft in toward the terminal. She even cut the grass and helped the airfield grow into a busy airport handling flights between the Isle of Wight and many mainland English cities.

 

The Businessmen

 

In 1963, Jack Dohony testified before the Baltimore City Council in favor of desegregating a local amusement park. When he arrived at work the next day, he was booed and spat at. That didn’t prevent him from continuing his work: soon his employer’s bathrooms and lunchrooms were desegregated.

As his Baltimore Sun obituary notes, he knew what was important: “John was gracious. He was always a gentleman. He used his talents for others.”

The amusement park no longer operates, but its carousel does. It’s now on the National Mall, which is where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

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Smithsonian Carousel by RL Bolton (via Flickr)

 

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Once, a homeless woman in Harvard Square told him her life would be better if she had a red wagon to cart redeemable bottles. She burst into tears the next day when he showed up pulling a red wagon.

 

Tom White made a fortune in the construction industry, but died with this regret: “I didn’t have more money to give away.”

Mr. White helped found Partners in Health, a global public health charity. “No matter where he was,” a co-founder said, “every morning he would wake up and start his day thinking about the suffering of the poor.”

A family receives medical attention at one of PIH’s Port-au-Prince-based clinics after the 2010 earthquake, CJ Madson (via Wikipedia)

According to his Boston Globe obituary, Mr. White “set out to die as close to penniless as possible.” He got there at age 90, having given away over $75 million.

 

The Veterans

 

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“This is an historic day,” he told the Washington Post, after handing one of the last remaining U.S. soldiers a goodbye package that included Ho Chi Minh postcards and a bamboo scroll painting. “It is the first time in 100 years that there are no foreign troops on the soil of Vietnam.”

 

Colonel Bui Tin went to Saigon in 1973 to verify the departure of the last American combat troops. Two years later he returned, this time in combat, to the presidential palace.

It had been a long struggle for Col. Tin. He had fought against the French, who wounded him at Dien Bien Phu. After they left, he fought the next foreigners. When they left, he continued fighting. According to his Washington Post obituary, upon accepting South Vietnam’s surrender he proclaimed:

Between the Vietnamese, there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy. The war for our country is over.

 

Col. Tin later grew disillusioned with his government and became a harsh critic. In 1990 he sought exile in France, where he died this year.

 

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When Beilke started up the ramp, a North Vietnamese colonel stepped forward and presented him with a gift – a straw place mat decorated with the picture of a pagoda.

Master Sergeant Max Beilke  was, officially, the last American combat soldier to leave Vietnam. He had gone there to help conclude what was, up to then, America’s longest war.

Beilke [was] a quiet, friendly man who never talked about his military experience. The kind of man who loved his flower beds and flourishing crepe myrtles, who audited the books of the homeowners association for free … The kind who kept doing so even after the association turned down his request to put a flagpole by the driveway.

 

After his retirement from the Army – he’d been drafted during the Korean War – he continued his service, helping other veterans. He was working in the Pentagon when he became one of the first to die in America’s longest war.

 

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Below is a television interview with Master Sgt. Beilke upon his departure. Col. Tin can be seen toward the end.

 

 

The Defenders

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In March, a terrorist group in Nigeria captured two midwives, Hauwa Mohammed Liman and Saifura Hussaini Ahmed Khorsa. Both are now dead.

Midwives help pregnant women have healthy births. The murders of Ms. Liman and Ms. Khorsa are devastating in a country that has, as National Public Radio reports, “one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world as well as one of the highest infant mortality rates.”

Violence against health workers in conflict zones is a terrible problem; according to a report NPR cites, there were 701 attacks last year. But violence against health workers extends beyond war zones. In the United States, it can be more dangerous to be a nurse than a police officer.

Even without their violence, keeping people healthy is risky. The obituary page of The Economist pays tribute to Lini Puthussery, a nurse in India dedicated to patient care:

For the virus to spread between humans, contact had to be intensive and direct. That was exactly what Lini, with her tireless nursing, had provided. On May 16th she felt feverish, but insisted to [her husband] that she would go to work because “lots of patients are there”, as always.

 

The Amateur

 

 

In 1949, Zhou Youguang left his Wall Street job and came back to China to teach economics. His academic career would take a turn, however:

[T]he Communist government was seeking to make Mandarin Chinese the national language and to boost literacy throughout the country. In 1955, it convened a committee to create an alphabetic system, based on Mandarin, that would be easier to use than existing Romanization systems.

Knowing that linguistics was a hobby of Mr. Zhou’s, [foreign minister] Zhou Enlai drafted him to come to Beijing and lead the committee. Mr. Zhou’s protests that he was a mere amateur were to no avail.

“Everyone is an amateur,” he was told.

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“Amateur” is a French word that means lover. But not in the romantic sense: it means someone who loves a pursuit, like a game or a hobby.

 

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Most of China’s population – then, as still, the world’s largest – was illiterate. So Mr. Zhou’s team created Pinyin, which uses the Roman alphabet, to write Chinese characters.

As his New York Times obituary puts it, “Pinyin was designed not to replace the tens of thousands of traditional characters with which Chinese is written, but as an orthographic pry bar to afford passage into the labyrinthine world of those characters.”

For an amateur, Zhou Youguang was pretty good:

Today, Pinyin is used by hundreds of millions of people in China alone. Schoolchildren there first learn to read by means of the system before graduating to the study of characters. As a result, the country’s illiteracy rate today is about 5 percent.

 

The Americans

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When Rusty Staub joined the brand new Montreal Expos in 1969, something bothered him. “I couldn’t talk to a child,” he told the Montreal Gazette.

I took about 24 French classes after the first season, and the next year I took longer classes… There’s not a question that my making the effort is part of the reason that whatever Le Grand Orange represented to Montreal and all those fans, they knew I cared and tried. I tried to be part of their community and I always tried to do that wherever I went – it’s what you should do. 

Le Grand Orange carried that spirit with him to New York, where the Rusty Staub Foundation raised millions for the hungry and homeless, as well as for the families of fallen police officers and firefighters. As he explained in the New York Daily News, it was personal:

My mother’s brother was a policeman killed in the line of duty in New Orleans. I was just a little kid, sitting on my bed with my mom and my brother saying the rosary, and I never got over that.

 

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While Rusty Staub was learning French, halfway around the world Sachio Kinugasa was learning English.

Kinugasa’s father, a US soldier stationed in Japan, was African-American. As his New York Times obituary recounts, Kinugasa’s mixed race had made him the object of torment as a child, and remained “a sensitive subject that was not mentioned in two unauthorized biographies and that his teammates did not discuss.”

For him, it was personal:

Years later, a Carp teammate told a Japanese newspaper that he once asked Kinugasa why he stayed up late studying English. Kinugasa replied that he wanted to go to America to search for his father, whom he had never met. “If you become the No. 1 player in Japan,” the teammate said, “he’ll come to see you.” Kinugasa nodded, with tears in his eyes.

According to his Japan Times obituary, that reunion never occurred. But Kinugasa did become a top player, legendary for his endurance. The Iron Man – as he was known – eventually broke the consecutive game record of the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig.

Nine years later Kinugasa traveled to America to personally congratulate – as one Iron Man to another – the new record holder.

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