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Around the Foothills

'Someone who sees something that needs to be done and does it.'

December 28, 1989|DOUG SMITH

It's been a good year for heroes in Glendale.

They were brought out by calamity and suffering abroad, which 1989 produced in plenty.

First was the earthquake in Armenia. Though technically an inheritance from the last days of the previous year, it set the tone for things to come. Hurricane Hugo, in September, was America's worst natural disaster of the decade. It had hardly quieted down before the cities of Northern California were battered by earthquake.

All three events, scattered though they were across the globe, brought heroes forward.

They were not exactly heroes in the standard sense of the person of uncommon valor, strength or fortitude, a warrior, a doer of perilous deeds with no concern for personal safety.

I favor a more modern definition of hero as someone who sees something that needs to be done and does it. It's a broader, more forgiving role allowing even the weak and timid to be counted as heroes sometimes.

One of my heroes of 1989 didn't have a very good year, unfortunately. He was Edson Johnson, the La Canada Flintridge bachelor who used to lead whimsical Sunday walks through his community. Johnson obviously didn't have a lot of raw material to work with, but contributed to the world with what he had. Then the county sealed his house as a health hazard and hauled Johnson off to Olive View for observation. It's too bad he didn't have a hero of his own when he needed one.

There was a happier conclusion this year for one Glendale hero who had gone unsung for 19 years. Sgt. Melvin Barnes of the Glendale Police Department had earned a Bronze Star Medal in Vietnam for going to the rescue of a group of buddies under fire.

Barnes never got the star until Republican political consultant Allen Brandstatter heard his story and started a letter campaign. Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R-Glendale) finally pinned the medal on Barnes this September.

By that time, Barnes had won the Silver Certificate and the Gold Star of the Glendale Police, one for going inside a burning automobile to save a man and the other for disarming a deranged man who was waving a gun.

Barnes is pretty much your classic hero. Obviously, their services are always in demand.

But 1989 was a year that called upon simpler heroes. And plenty responded.

The first, and still most stunning was Varkis Najarian, the Glendale orthopedist. Najarian was coincidentally attempting to set up a medical mission to Soviet Armenia when the Dec. 7, 1988, earthquake shattered his native country.

He immediately mustered $50,000 in medical supplies from the community and flew in the plane with it to Armenia. He brought back the first live reports and, from his later trips, brought back injured children who needed medical attention not available in their home.

As the year wore on, Najarian's action became an example followed in lesser ways by thousands who remain anonymous. When Hurricane Hugo hit, Bill Dutton, executive director of the Glendale chapter of the Red Cross got an urgent call from the national organization.

Its disaster relief fund contained only $18 million of the $94 million that would ultimately be spent on food and housing for the victims. The rest would have to be made up by local chapters. The Glendale chapter was given the assignment of raising $32,150. A real estate agent was set up as head of the effort. He began the hard way, crafting donation boxes to take to the local service clubs. He had no idea how easy the job was going to be.

The San Francisco earthquake on Oct. 17 would require only a small fraction of the Red Cross disaster funds consumed after Hurricane Hugo. But apparently its nearness and the urgency of its television imagery turned loose a welling impulse to give. Within days, spontaneous contributions had pushed local Red Cross collections to $175,000, six times the original goal.

Dutton has a list of 15 who gave $1,000 or more. But most of the donations were $100 or less and came without solicitation.

Some organizations simply passed the hat. The Glendale Board of Realtors gave $5,000 collected from its members. Equal amounts came from the United Childrens' Fund of Glendale and the Glendale Police Officers' Assn. The students and staff of Glendale College gave $2,680.

The most impressive group donation was the $25,000 turned over by the Glendale Unified School District, which had made no formal campaign. The money came in small donations from students, parents, faculty and staff. Those at Mark Keppel Elementary School alone donated $4,253.

The heroism of 1989 concluded with poetic symmetry when seven Armenian organizations held a dinner to show their gratitude for the $14 million in help the Red Cross sent to Soviet Armenia. The $50,000 they raised will stay right in Glendale, to buy an emergency response vehicle.

Let's hope that when the next earthquake strikes, we can remember clearly how we got it.

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