My father’s brother died in World War II in a particularly ironic way. He had been stationed in Italy when Germany finally surrendered, but rather than go directly home, Billy decided to visit Naples for a few days. His family had taken a wonderful trip there years earlier, and he wanted to see how the city had fared during the war.
It was there, in the place of his favorite childhood memories, that he contracted meningitis, and died. My grandparents were devastated. Billy was their oldest and much-favored son, and while his absence was something they could mourn, the thought of him suffering and ultimately dying, alone and terrified, made it nearly impossible for them to go on.
One day, a number of months later, they got an unexpected call. An Army nurse who remembered Billy had tracked them down in Chicago, and wanted to visit. The nurse was in her mid-twenties with bright red hair and green eyes that made my grandmother think of Christmas. She smiled for the first time since his death. Billy had liked redheads.
The nurse not only remembered Billy fondly, but she felt compelled to find his parents and share her account of his last days. She had been there when he came to the hospital and spent a lot of time with him as his condition worsened. The nurse described Billy’s kindness and the way he never lost his sense of humor even when he was in terrible pain. She talked about staying with him long after her shifts ended, and when he died, she was right there telling him it was OK. “He was such a nice person,” she said. “I knew he had a family that really loved him and I wanted to come tell you that he was all right at the end.”
My grandparents never saw the nurse again, but she remained a huge figure in our family for the relief and sense of closure she gave them. Her kindness is right out of a movie, but the film has never been made. She is an unsung hero. The world is full of people like her who do amazing things to make life better for others, and no receive recognition.
That’s why we decided to focus a section of this issue on unsung heroes who affect the industry. These professionals are creating positive change, whether it’s increasing awareness of swimming and history, teaching scuba to wounded vets, helping dig wells in Africa or educating legislators about water usage. Their quiet heroism functions much like the nurse’s: seemingly small acts that have a profound ripple effect. Many of the people benefitting aren’t aware of it yet — for that matter, they may not even be born.