A number of years ago, while living in the Washington, D.C. area, I was driving into work and had two teenaged girls with me, who also worked for our company. As we drove, I asked them: “Who are your heroes? ” Their answers were as different as night and day. The first named several movie stars as well as two popular Latter-day Saint entertainers (the latter two, at least, certainly being “reasonable” role models, but certainly no “heroes” in any sense of the word). The second thoughtfully said, “My greatest heroes are the Savior and my parents.” Over the decades since that conversation, I have watched the progress of these two fine young women, and it has become apparent to me that the identity of their heroes has had an impact on who they were and who they have become.
Years later, while serving as a mission president in Germany, I had a missionary who was struggling with issues of self-worth. He was a wonderful, hard-working missionary, but was thinking that he had little value and should go home. As I met with him, I had the impression to ask him who his heroes were. As I did, he indicated that he really couldn’t think of any. I then asked him to ponder the question for a week and select just one hero or role model. In a week I asked him who his first hero was. His response surprised me (though it really should not have). He said, “Bruce R. McConkie.” I asked why, and he really didn’t have an answer, only that Elder McConkie seemed like someone that he should look up to. I asked him what he knew about Elder McConkie and, again, his answer was a bit vague. Still, as he had pondered, the name of Elder McConkie had come to him clearly. So together we set out to begin to build his personal Hall of Heroes – suitable for framing, complete with a photo of his hero and a brief paragraph stating why he had selected that particular person. I told him that I would contact Elder McConkie and get a photo, as well as some biographical information that might not be publicly known. In the meantime, his next assignment was to select a second hero. Suffice it to say, as we worked through this process (See sample in the sidebar), all the feelings of self-doubt seemed to evaporate and this wonderful missionary completed a full and honorable mission.
As I look at today’s world, I think there has never been a time when our youth need heroes or role models more than they do today. And it is clear that some of the most obvious public figures in politics, sports and business do not qualify as “heroes” as much as they do “fallen heroes” – those have fallen from and deviated from basic principles of goodness that have traditionally been identified with heroes historically. However, there are still plenty of men and women to whom our youth can look as heroes or role models to help them make decisions in difficult times. President Kimball often quoted Walter MacPeek in referring to heroes:
“Boys need lots of heroes like Lincoln and Washington. But they also need to have some heroes close by. They need to know some man of towering strength and basic integrity, personally. They need to meet them on the street, to hike and camp with them, to see them in close-to-home, everyday, down-to-earth situations; to feel close enough to them to ask questions and to talk things over man-to-man with them.”
–Kimball, Spencer W., General Conference Address, April 1976.
Building a Personal Hall of Heroes
As you are looking for activities for your Latter-day Saint Scouts during these challenging times, you might consider helping them identify their heroes – but not before discussing with them what it means to be a hero and what heroes look like. I think many will be surprised to know that most of those who adorn our personal Halls of Heroes are not those found on the front page of the newspaper or featured on network or local news. Rather, they are the ones who have a profound but quiet impact on the life of another and often carry the simple moniker of “Dad,” or “Mother” or “neighbor” or “Scoutmaster” or “Friend.” My personal Hall of Heroes has both, and includes individuals like President Gordon B. Hinckley, President Thomas S. Monson, President David O. McKay and other prominent Church and community leaders, as well as my father, my wife and our 5 daughters, my grandfather, a former law partner and a former Scoutmaster.
Guidelines for Selecting Heroes
Because a person makes the news regularly, earns $10,000,000 a year playing a professional sport or is the head of a company (or a country), is no reason for them to qualify as a hero. A hero or role model is someone to whom we can look to help lift us to higher ground when the challenges of mortality seem to drag us below the murky surface of daily living. A hero is someone who inspires, who motivates and to whom we can look with emulating eyes in time of struggle. A hero doesn’t need to be divine or perfect. Thomas Carlyle wrote, “There needs not a great soul to make a hero; there needs a god-created soul which will be true to its origin; that will be a great soul!” There are certainly differences between a role model or hero and a skills tutor. If you need to improve your golf swing, you can get a golf pro, a coach or a swing tutor to help you. If you want to improve your dribble or presence on the basketball court – or improve your touch with watercolors, or your ballet skills, you don’t need a role model – you need a skills tutor. But if you need a life change, if you are faced with a difficult life decision, you need to have someone there to whom you can look – someone who has built their life with character, honesty, integrity and virtue. You need someone to whom you can relate. Someone who loves you and whom you love and respect. So, as you help your youth select heroes for their personal Hall of Heroes, may I suggest the following:
- Focus on Becoming. Before you begin to select your Hall of Heroes, ask yourselves, “What do I want to become” – in 5, 10, 20 or 50 years?” Tutors normally help us “do better,” while Heroes and Role Models general help us “become better.”
- Establish your Lifetime Goals. Write down five lifetime goals to help direct you in the next 5-10 years.
- Select, as your Heroes, individuals that will help you achieve your goals. Make a list of potential heroes for each goal, and select one (not more than two) hero for each goal. (Initially keep your Hall of Heroes limited to about five.) Look not only at their accomplishments, but the quality of their lives, the level of their integrity, and their devotion to their divine nature. Each Hero should have some specific qualities that you desire to emulate; but their entire character should be worthy of emulation. For example, one of my heroes is President Thomas S. Monson; not because of his amazing photographic memory (which I will never have), but because of the quality of his ministering to those in need. He was said to have the largest personal ministry list of all the General Authorities. Personally, I have met him at hospitals where he has come to give a blessing, as well as at funerals, when he has come to give hope and show kindness. That is why I chose President Monson for my personal Hall of Heroes – long before I had the opportunity to work closely with him during my service as Young Men General President of the Church. That experience only amplified my reasons for including him.
- Avoid “skill tutors.” I can name a hundred professional athletes or skilled individuals that I could use as models to help me improve my golf swing, improve my dribble in traffic (or my jump shot), learn to swim more effortlessly or improve my fly tying. But they are not in my Hall of Heroes – simply because that is not the role of heroes. That is the role of a skill tutor. As you are selecting your Heroes, look for individuals who have not only been successful in their professions, but who have been successful in life.
- Consider, as your Heroes, individuals you know. Look for those in your family and neighborhood, ward and stake or community whom you know and to whom you can turn for help and support in times of need. These are the individuals whose love and example will stay with you for a lifetime – and whose lives are worth emulating. You may also include those you don’t personally know, but whose lives are worthy of emulation.
- Seek for Diversity in your Heroes. We are a composite of those with whom we associate. If our heroes are all the same, we will miss the blessing of developing our own composite strength and character – and merely work toward becoming a clone of a subset of persons who are the same. The strength of American culture lies, in great part, in the diversity of its origins. It takes the strengths of many who passed through Ellis Island over the past centuries, many of them refugees, and molded their cultures, characteristics and abilities together into a wonderful composite American culture. Recently, my wife and I watched a musical at a local theater entitled “The Million Dollar Quartet.” This wonderful musical is the story of Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, and how he began the careers of four very successful musicians: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. In the musical, when Elvis first comes to Sam Perkins for an audition, he sang and played several Dean Martin songs. Sam Phillips said something like, “We already have a Dean Martin.” Go home, see what is inside of YOU, and then come back and I’ll give you another shot!” – and the rest is history. Each of us is like no other creation, not only because of our genetic makeup and divine creation, but because of the diversity of people that touch, inspire and mold each of us. In some ways, 20 years down the road, we may look a lot like a composite of our goals and the heroes we select TODAY. We need to choose wisely.
- Do not require “perfection” in your heroes. While character flaws or flawed values should be considered in selecting our heroes (often the reason for eliminating them), we need not require perfection from our heroes. There is only one Perfect Man who ever walked the earth; and while He may be in your personal Hall of Heroes, we need to cut the rest of our mortal heroes a little slack. For example, my mother and father are both in my Hall of Heroes. I am sure they were not perfect, although they were two of the finest and most loving individuals I have ever known. Though they have both passed on (Dad in 1994 while we were in Germany and Mom 7 years ago), I still find myself wishing they were here to just listen and provide counsel. I often ask myself, “I wonder what Dad (or Mom) would do in this circumstance.” They are both, obviously, in my personal Hall of Heroes.
- Decide the format for your Hall of Heroes. I have found that it is helpful to have my Hall of Heroes where I can see and review it regularly. Because of space, you might put your photos and the descriptive paragraph in a 5×7 frame to hang on the wall, smaller frames to sit on a shelf or even a three-ring notebook. Do what works for you. You can get inexpensive frames at the “dollar store” or even have your youth make their own frames from scrap lumber.
- Once you have your goals and your list of heroes, focus on one hero at a time. Identify one hero, get a photo of that person and then work on drafting a descriptive paragraph including several facts about that person, but including, most importantly, why you chose him/her for your personal Hall of Heroes.
- Review your list of heroes from time to time. Your goals and heroes will change as you mature and your life situation changes. Review your goals and heroes periodically and make any additions or deletions that are warranted. You might also find that things happen in the lives of your selected heroes that would occasion your decision to delete them from your Hall of Heroes.
Finally, as you work with your youth to develop their personal Hall of Heroes, let me know how it went and send me some photos of your youth either working on their Halls of Heroes, or with the finished project. I’d love to hear from you. Send your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
 The term “hero” in this article is used to denote a hero of either gender, as it is commonly used in literature to refer to persons of either gender who are admired or revered.