When words are overused, their definitions tend to become so stretched as to render them useless -- like the elastic band in a saggy old pair of socks. The word "hero" certainly has been pulled out of shape, applied to everything from people who have simply survived a serious illness, to athletes doing well on the field.
In a more restrained sense, the word hero applies to someone who takes personal risk to benefit others. Firefighters, emergency medical technicians, police officers and soldiers fit that definition just by coming to work every day; ordinary citizens have to do something extraordinary to meet it.
In the news lately have been several high-profile stories about personal acts of heroism -- two of them involving criminals, and the other involving the courtroom. Though plenty has been said about all three, we highlight them here because of a common thread: All three are from Columbia County.
Lakeside High School graduate Dana Putnam, while reading The Augusta Chronicle, recognized Steven Stanko as a man she'd befriended in Augusta.
Stanko is accused of killing two people and raping another in Myrtle Beach, S.C. But rather than keep herself safe by staying silent, Putnam called the police and even arranged a fake date with Stanko so that he could be captured April 12.
The U.S. Marshal's Service recently cut Putnam a $10,000 reward check, and she's sharing part of the money with the young rape victim.
Ashley Smith (then Copeland) graduated from Lakeside High School and previously attended Augusta Christian. On March 12, Atlanta courtroom shooting fugitive Brian Nichols accosted her in her apartment's parking lot and held her hostage.
Smith kept her cool even though Nichols had already murdered a judge and four other people the day before. With references to her faith and family, she talked Nichols into surrendering to police. Smith has since collected $70,000 in reward money and is entertaining dozens of movie and book offers.
There probably won't be any rewards for Columbia County resident Duncan Wheale. In fact, he continues to take professional risks serving as a judge in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, especially now that he has taken on the circuit's leadership -- and won.
Augusta is the only circuit in Georgia with its horribly inefficient system of cattle-call trials. It can be a lucrative system for attorneys who spend dozens of billable hours cooling their heels in court, but it's disastrous for prosecutors, victims and witnesses who never know when their cases will come to trial.
Wheale, elected judge in 1998, has worked since then to have the system changed. Inexplicably, Chief Judge William Fleming Sr. wouldn't budge. Tired of banging his head against the bench, Wheale wrote a letter to the Georgia Supreme Court, which ordered Augusta modernized.
It's hard to describe the importance of this change -- and it's difficult to convey how risky it is for a sitting judge to rebel against the circuit's chief judge. Wheale did it, and won.
Interestingly, Wheale knows what heroism is: he started his career as a police officer.
As Memorial Day nears, we'll soon pause to reflect on those heroes who have fallen in service to our country. But in addition to the emergency workers and soldiers still serving, it's good to remember the heroics of ordinary people among us.
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