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Called Heroes by President, They Bask in Fleeting Fame

January 27, 1988|DAVID DEVOSS | Times Staff Writer

From his first days in office, Ronald Reagan's vision of America--"this shining city on a hill"--was of a country peopled by heroes. "We speak with pride and admiration of that little band of Americans who overcame insuperable odds to set this nation on course 200 years ago, but our glory didn't end with them," he said in his first State of the Union address in 1982. "Americans ever since have emulated their deeds.

"We don't have to turn to our history books for heroes. They are all around us."

Certainly they have played prominent roles in the President's annual State of the Union messages.

Intended originally as examples of private initiative and volunteerism, Reagan's annual designation of American heroes has become the domestic equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Though the honor brings no financial benefit, the resulting publicity has been a boon to those in social services.

In 1984, the Rev. Bruce Ritter, founder of the New York-based Covenant House, was praised for his efforts on behalf of about 12,000 abused and abandoned children in New York and Houston.

"On the morning after the speech every television station in New York sent a camera crew to our headquarters," Covenant House spokesman Tom Manning recalled. "In the months that followed we were deluged with letters; most of them contained financial contributions."

Over the past four years the Covenant House's budget has increased by 30% to $36 million. The organization, which has added a national child abuse hot line, now also provides runaways with medical care, legal counseling and a job placement service in a network of shelters extending from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Toronto and Panama.

In 1984 also, Charles Carson, the paraplegic founder of the Spinal Cord Society in 1978, was honored for his pioneering the field of computer-controlled walking that someday may allow 500,000 paraplegics to regain their mobility.

"Presidential recognition brings a great deal of popular credibility and doesn't hurt in the scientific community either," said Carson, 53, of Fergus Falls, Minn. "For a researcher needing funding, the recognition is just what the doctor ordered." Carson is directing a $650,000 research program on electronic regeneration of damaged spinal tissue at Purdue University.

Nancy Reagan Cited

This week for the seventh time Reagan took his measure of the nation, and declared the "Just Say No" drug abuse campaign of his wife, Nancy, seated in the House gallery, was in the best heroic tradition.

"Nancy, much credit belongs to you," he told the joint session of Congress, "and I want to express to you your husband's pride and your country's thanks."

Reagan's selection of his wife to the status of hero is a departure from the past. Only once before had a "public" personality, former Alabama Sen. and Vietnam POW Jeremiah Denton, been designated a hero. Indeed, of the 12 Americans praised for their courage since 1982, 10 have been ordinary citizens of uncommon accomplishment.

Several gifted students, three social workers and an Army medic cited for bravery during the U.S. invasion of Grenada have basked momentarily in the presidential spotlight. So, too, has a 12-year-old musical genius from Washington, D.C., and Vietnamese immigrant Jean Nguyen, a 1985 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Initial Acts Scantly Noted

Ironically, Reagan's recognition of American heroes often has prompted more attention than the original act of heroism. In January, 1982, Lenny Skutnik dived into the icy Potomac River to rescue a drowning flight attendant after the crash of an Air Florida jet. His act of bravery produced the day's top story and a handful of laudatory editorials.

Two weeks later, after being praised by Reagan, the Congressional Budget Office errand boy found himself standing beside Nancy Reagan accepting a standing ovation from Congress.

"I got on 'Real People,' 'That's Impossible' and 'AM Chicago,' " he remembered. He was feted by New York's Red Cross and given the Golden Plate Award in New Orleans. The Carnegie Foundation awarded him $2,000, and honorariums poured in from the Veterans of Foreign Wars. And then it all ended.

"I never actually got to meet the President personally, but it was still a proud moment," he said. Today Skutnik, now 34, hustles envelopes up to Capitol Hill when not repairing copiers.

Another Life Changed

"I just hope that if my job is ever threatened that praise from the President will help me keep my job." If Skutnik's life was left relatively untouched, that of Trevor Ferrell changed forever after Reagan lauded the "joyful compassion" with which the 13-year-old teen-ager distributed food and blankets to Philadelphia's homeless in his 1986 State of the Union.

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