10 Events and People in History Which Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity

10 Events and People in History Which Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity

Larry Holzwarth - April 6, 2018

Bad news is everywhere and it’s easy to understand why many people believe it’s only going to get worse. The human race is headed for its own destruction, according to the doomsayers. For seventy years the human race has possessed the ability to destroy most life on the planet, and to the most negative among us it has been stumbling along in that direction for all of that time. Basic human decency is considered by many to have become a thing of the past. Faith in the human race to resolve its differences and save itself is waning among many.

It shouldn’t be. There are many examples throughout history where basic human decency and compassion for others has prevailed over dark times. They should be studied, understood, and their lessons applied in similar situations. Compassion and understanding has proven again and again to prevail over the darker side of human nature, and it can prevail again. Each person does have the power to make a difference and there are examples in history of just how they can do so, some famous and others much less well known.

10 Events and People in History Which Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
The parable of the Good Samaritan and its message of compassion has seen its application in many examples throughout history. Wikimedia

Don’t agree? Here are ten examples from history which should restore your faith in humanity.

10 Events and People in History Which Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
FDR, himself a victim of polio, purchases a March of Dimes ticket enrolling him as the founder. Library of Congress

Dr. Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine

Polio epidemics in the United States struck with increasing and frightening intensity in the United States, especially in the years following the Second World War. In 1952 58,000 Americans were stricken with polio, more than 3,800 died and more than 20,000 suffered some form of disability for the rest of their lives. Researchers at multiple locations struggled to come up with a cure for the disease while others concentrated on developing a vaccine to prevent it from occurring. Parents of young children in particular were terrified of the disease, which seemingly struck at of nowhere with a will of its own.

Beginning in 1947, Dr. Jonas Salk worked on developing a vaccine for polio at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine. He was funded beginning in 1948 by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, known as the March of Dimes to most. The March of Dimes had been established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself a victim of polio. After surviving the first onslaught of the disease FDR had been confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, able to walk only with the support of heavy braces and another party or crutches to lean on.

Jonas Salk was one of those doctors who decided early on in his medical training that he did not want to practice medicine, but instead wanted to concentrate on medical research. During his medical training he concentrated in virology, studying in particular the relatively recently discovered flu virus. As Salk worked on the three known polio viruses at Pittsburgh, he was presented with an option of using a live polio virus as the basis of a vaccine or a much safer so-called killed virus. Salk chose the killed virus because he knew that it would be much safer as far as the public was concerned, who would then be more likely to accept the vaccine.

By 1952 Salk had a vaccine which had tested safely on laboratory animals and human testing began. Salk’s testing began with children who were already physically disabled and expanded to children with mental health issues. In 1954 the vaccine was tested on a group which became known as the polio pioneers, just under 1 million children. The vaccine was declared both effective and safe the following year, after the research Salk pioneered nearly bankrupted the March of Dimes. It was the first effective weapon against polio and Salk became famous. But he didn’t become rich.

Salk refused to patent the vaccine, believing that if he did not the vaccine would be more affordable, since drug manufacturers would not have to pay licensing fees. When asked by Edward R. Murrow who owned the patent, Salk replied, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” The conscious decision not to patent his invention has been estimated to have cost Jonas Salk more than $7 billion dollars in fees over the years. When Albert Sabin completed the development of his oral vaccine for polio he too refused to patent it and refused compensation from drug companies for it, continuing to support himself as a Professor at the University of Cincinnati.

10 Events and People in History Which Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
A passport photograph for Raoul Wallenberg, who survived and thwarted the Nazis only to die at the hand of the Soviets. Wikimedia

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish born and American educated businessman who studied architecture at the University of Michigan, remaining in the United States to travel during the summer breaks. After completing his studies he worked for a time in South Africa and Haifa after learning that his American training was insufficient for him to obtain an architect’s license in Sweden. By 1936 he was working as an importer-exporter in Stockholm, at the Central European Trading Company. The company was owned by Kalman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew, who soon found his ability travel to Hungary restricted by increasingly harsh anti-Jewish laws.

Wallenberg began to travel to Hungary to conduct business on Lauer’s behalf. He learned the Hungarian language and by 1941 was the International Director of the company and a frequent traveler to Germany and occupied France, as well as Budapest. Sweden remained neutral as the war engulfed Europe. Wallenberg’s business dealings gave him deep insights into the Nazi bureaucracy and business practices. In 1943 the declining fortunes of the German armies on the Eastern Front brought about a change in the Hungarian regime and German troops occupied the country. The following year the Germans began the deportation of Hungarian Jews and Roma peoples to the death camps.

Wallenberg went to the Swedish legation in Budapest in the summer of 1944 and using funds raised for the purpose by the Swedish government rented more than 30 buildings. He declared them part of the Swedish legation, rendering them neutral territory under international law. About ten thousand Jews and Roma people were eventually housed within these buildings, which were labeled as libraries, research facilities, recreation buildings, and so forth. Eventually well over 300 Hungarians and Swedes were employed to assist Wallenberg and some were caught by the Gestapo or SS and executed for their efforts. Most of the executed were Hungarian Catholics, including clergy.

The Hungarian Nazi Party, known as the Arrow Cross, actively pursued the Hungarians and Swedes involved in the rescue effort, and Wallenberg countered them by changing his whereabouts daily, sleeping in a different location every night. As the Russian Army approached Budapest Wallenberg used bribes and negotiations with Adolf Eichmann to prevent the remaining Jews in Budapest not already under Wallenberg’s protection from being driven east from the city on a death march. One of the many Jews sheltered in the Swedish enclave was Tom Lantos, who later became a US Congressman from California. Lantos worked for Wallenberg as a courier.

Wallenberg was arrested by the Russians following their occupation of Budapest in 1945. After that his fate is uncertain, with many conflicting reports. Some say he died in a cell in Russian custody, others that he was murdered while being transported between Russian facilities. Still others claim that he was executed in Lubyanka Prison in 1947, one report having him shot and another poisoned. Conflicting reports have him surviving in Russian prisons into the 1980s. In 2016 the Swedish government declared him dead. His efforts succeeded in saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews and Roma people from the Germans, ultimately at the cost of his own life to the Russians.

10 Events and People in History Which Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
Nicholas Winton was eventually Knighted for his efforts to shelter the refugee children of Prague. Wikimedia

Nicholas Winton and the refugee children

In November 1938 the Nazi pogrom known as Kristallnacht finally sounded alarm bells in Britain over the plight of the Jews in Europe. At the time the Germans were finalizing and tightening their grip on Czechoslovakia, despite the promises made at Munich that the Sudetenland was Adolf Hitler’s final territorial ambition on the continent. The British House of Commons agreed to a modification of Britain’s refugee policy, deciding to allow the entry of youths under the age of 17. The policy mandated that those entering Britain must have a pre-arranged place of residence. It also required the deposit or guaranteed promise of fifty pounds sterling to ensure their return to their home country.

Nicholas Winton was a stock broker in London, with experience working as a banker in Hamburg and Berlin. His political position, somewhat strangely for a banker and investment specialist, leaned towards socialism. He opposed the Nazis and those in England who supported appeasing rather than taking steps to contain Hitler’s ambitions. In December 1938 Winton was planning a ski trip to Switzerland when he received a request from a friend in Prague, Martin Blake, who asked him to come to that city to assist him with a new project. Blake worked for the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia.

Winton faced two immediate problems when he arrived in Prague to assist in relocating refugee children to Britain. The first was finding families willing to take the children in Britain. The second was getting them there. The normal route was by train to the Netherlands and then by ferry to the United Kingdom. Following Kristallnacht the Dutch had closed their borders to refugees, and any found attempting to slip past the border guards were returned to Germany. Trains and the ferry landings were searched for refugees. Winton established an office in his Prague hotel room and went to work.

As 1939 unfolded, Winton managed to persuade the Dutch to allow the trains carrying refugees, backed by assurances to the Dutch from the British government that German reprisals on the Netherlands would be opposed by the British. Finding homes for the children was done through advertisement in the British press and on the BBC, in churches and synagogues, and wherever Winton could find a response. In many cases the families accepting the children provided the fifty pound bond. Winton managed to move 669 children to safety in the summer of 1939. The last train, carrying 250 children, was scheduled to depart Prague on September 1, the day the Germans invaded Poland. The Germans stopped that train and the children went to the camps.

Winton did little to advertise his own achievement rescuing so many children, not all of whom were Jewish, following the war. In 1988 his wife found papers detailing the work, including the names of the children and the families which took them in. After she passed on the material to Holocaust researchers the world learned anew of Winton’s role in saving the lives of so many. He received a Knighthood, among many other honors, all of which he felt were too much for what he had done. He died at the age of 106 in 2015, 76 years to the day after the departure of one of his rescue trains carrying 241 children left Prague.

10 Events and People in History Which Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
Ludlow Street in downtown Dayton, Ohio during the Great Flood of 1913. The water had not crested when the photo was taken, eventually the street lights were completely submerged. Library of Congress

John Patterson and the Great Dayton Flood

In 1913 as the Easter weekend approached, a series of three severe storms raised the rivers and creeks of the Great Miami River watershed to dangerous levels. On Monday, March 24, the day following Easter, the levees which protected the city of Dayton Ohio from floods were reported to be weakening. City officials could do little other than issue warnings. That morning Colonel John Patterson, founder and owner of Dayton’s National Cash Register Company (NCR) inspected the levees. Upon his return to the NCR campus, which was elevated above the flood plain, he mobilized the company.

Patterson stopped all production work and had the company carpenters and laborers begin building flat bottom boats. He had the company’s cafeterias begin baking loaves of bread and storing food. From the National Guard he demanded and received cots and blankets. He sent couriers to nearby St. Mary’s college (today’s University of Dayton) to warn them to expect refugees from certain flooding soon. He sent other couriers to area hospitals and pharmacies downtown to ensure that NCR’s infirmaries were stocked with bandages and medicines.

That afternoon, the waters of the Great Miami and Stillwater Rivers overtopped the levees, which still held. By midnight the levees were beginning to give and warning sirens were sounded by the police and fire companies. Before dawn the levees to the south of the city gave way. Those to the north soon followed. The waters rose throughout the downtown area for the rest of that Tuesday. Houses washed away, with families clinging to their roofs. Others huddled on upper floors of homes and businesses. The flood would crest on Wednesday at a level of over twenty feet. Fire and train engines were lifted and driven into buildings by the flood. Broken gas mains exploded.

By Tuesday afternoon NCR had built and deployed more than 300 boats, manned by company employees and other volunteers, to pick up stranded citizens and bring them to the NCR campus, where they were fed, sheltered, treated for injuries, and clothed. As the waters receded after Wednesday, Patterson led the efforts to clean up the devastated city, continuing to shelter those left homeless until suitable arrangements for their relocation could be made. Patterson allowed the Dayton Daily News to publish using the NCR corporate presses, and provided facilities for the Red Cross and other relief agencies.

Over 360 people died in the flood, a number which would have been much higher had it not been for Patterson and NCR. More than 20,000 homes were destroyed. After the flood Patterson led the efforts to establish the flood control system on the Great Miami and Stillwater Rivers which has protected Dayton from floods ever since. Patterson and NCR absorbed the expense of the rescue effort. When Patterson died in 1922 his estate, despite his enormous business success, was relatively small, mostly because of the social reforms he initiated in his company. He lived with the belief, as he put it, that, “shrouds have no pockets.”

10 Events and People in History Which Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
A returned US Air Force C-130 is scanned for radiation levels at Yokota Air Base in Japan, March 25, 2011. US Air Force

The Fukushima Senior Volunteers

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was a disaster born of another disaster. It was made worse by a prior failure to take the necessary safety precautions in the face of foreseeable events by the plant operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). It was the second worst nuclear accident in history, surpassed only by Chernobyl. Although there were no immediate radiation exposure deaths, the expected number of deaths from cancer caused by radiation exposure in the incident is more than 600, and possibly much more. The evacuation from the area resulted in an estimated 1,600 deaths, mostly among the elderly who were deprived of immediate care and medications during the evacuation.

It began with the Tohoku earthquake of March 11, 2011, which caused the plant’s operating reactors to shut down automatically as designed. Backup diesel generators began providing power to the plant, which went offline, no longer providing power to TEPCO customers. Then the plant was hit by the nearly 50 foot tsunami triggered by the earthquake. The wall of water shut down the diesel generators, the cooling pumps lost power and the reactor cores in several of the vessels began to melt down. Both sea water and the atmosphere absorbed significant amounts of contamination.

Initially both TEPCO and the Japanese government tried to report the situation as being far less of a disaster than it was, issuing false reports of the damage and underestimating the amount of radiation released. They denied that there was damage to any of the cores in the plant and later, once international monitoring reported the much higher radiation levels they were detecting, denied that any of the cores had experienced a meltdown. Workers attempting to control the damage and initiate a recovery were working under extremely high radiation.

As the truth of the extent of the disaster and the dangers of working in the plant and its environs became known, a group of volunteers emerged, offering to take the place of the workers in the plant. These men were all engineers, technicians, and specialists, trained in the plant’s operation, but retired. They offered to take the place of the younger men because they were less likely to have their lives adversely affected by the effects of radiation. How many actually volunteered is unknown, but it was well over 200 and possibly many more. None were suicidal, but they knew the risks and when TEPCO, tired of bad publicity, turned them down they changed tactics.

The Fukushima senior volunteers argued that cells of the body divide more slowly in the elderly than they do in younger people, making them less susceptible to radiation damage. The press labeled the volunteers the “suicide squad” and some called them kamikazes. The negative connotations caused both TEPCO and the Japanese government to reject their offer. They then asked the US government to put pressure on Japan to allow them to replace the younger men at work and at risk in the plant. As of 2018, some are still pressuring the government in Japan to allow them to assume the risk being borne by a younger generation.

10 Events and People in History Which Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
The Battle of the Bulge was fought in severe weather conditions which took a toll on both sides as Christmas approached. US Army

Fritz Vincken in the Battle of the Bulge

December 1944 did not portend a Merry Christmas for the American troops who had been placed in the Ardennes for rest following the Battle of the Huertgen Forest. The German Ardennes offensive, known as the Battle of the Bulge, was raging that December, the weather was bitterly cold and snowy, and the Americans were engaged in heavy combat with the attacking Germans. In the midst of it all a 12 year old German boy and his mother were sheltered in a cabin near the Belgian border with Germany, sent there by the boy’s father, a cook in the German Army.

Three American soldiers arrived at their door on Christmas Eve, one of them wounded. Mrs. Vincken, the boy’s mother, let them in and sent the boy, Fritz Vincken, to get a bucket of snow with which to rub the soldier’s numb hands and feet (then an accepted treatment for frostbite). None of the Americans could speak German, but one could converse in French, as could Mrs. Vincken. Soon she was preparing a meal of potatoes and chicken for the Americans. As they were just about to sit down for what was likely the first hot meal the Americans had in days another knock on the door and a quick glance through the window revealed four German soldiers outside.

The Germans politely requested shelter for the night, having lost their unit and their bearings in the darkness. Mrs. Vincken considered their request, and then told them that she had other guests. When the Germans asked if they were Americans Mrs. Vincken replied, “There will be no shooting here.” When the German soldiers hesitated she took charge, demanding that they leave their weapons on the nearby woodpile and come in the cabin. After a moment, the Germans complied, undoubtedly the aroma of roast chicken helping them to come to their decision.

After returning to the cabin Mrs. Vincken requested that the Americans give up their weapons and they too, handed them over. One of the German soldiers spoke English and he examined the American’s wound, pronouncing it to be clean, and that the man needed rest and nourishment to recover lost blood. As they sat down to dinner another German soldier produced a bottle of wine from his knapsack, undoubtedly looted earlier in the day. Two of the German soldiers were but 16 years old, another only 17. As the dinner went on the tension evaporated as Mrs. Vincken insisted on the toasts and traditions of a German Christmas Eve, not unlike an American one.

In the morning, Christmas Day 1944, Mrs. Vincken fed her guests a breakfast of oatmeal, using her last egg to prepare an egg whip for the wounded American, with some wine she had saved from the night before. The Germans provided the Americans with directions back to the American lines. Mrs. Vincken bestowed a blessing on all of them and the German soldiers, after promising that they would get word of her well-being to her husband, shook hands with their American counterparts. Mrs. Vincken provided the Americans with a tablecloth from which they fashioned a stretcher, and the soldiers went off in opposite directions.

10 Events and People in History Which Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
US Coast Guard Air Station Detroit crew cut the ribbon for the Habitat for Humanity home behind them they participated in building. US Coast Guard

Millard Fuller and housing the homeless

Millard Fuller was a lawyer, a businessman, and a self-made millionaire by the time he was 29 years of age. But it wasn’t enough for him. In 1965 his wife and he visited the Koinonia Farm in rural Sumter County, Georgia. There Fuller met the farm’s founder, Clarence Jordan. Impressed, Fuller decided to give up his wealth and dedicated his life to service to others, a decision supported by his wife, Linda. Fuller and Jordan developed a model system through which houses would be built for the poor using volunteer, unpaid labor and as much as possible, donated materials.

In 1973 Fuller moved to Zaire, where he tested the model in that emerging African nation. Fuller found that although some materials were donated and many recycled, not all were and there were still costs involved in building the houses, including the price of the land. Fuller revised the model to sell the house for no more than the costs, without interest, and the recovered costs would be used to purchase additional land and materials for new houses. In 1976 he returned to the United States and Koinonia Farm. There the new model was introduced as Funds for Humanity.

Soon it was changed to Habitat for Humanity, building its first houses in San Antonio, Texas, and quickly spreading throughout the United States. San Antonio endorsed the idea as a means of converting the city’s burgeoning slum neighborhoods into clean, livable areas where increased home ownership meant increased pride in the home and the area. The San Antonio experiment was studied by community leaders from across the country, particularly the poor areas of Appalachia. By 1981 Fuller had started or helped start Habitat for Humanity groups in 14 states.

His work starting more organizations internationally and domestically achieved a huge boost when he recruited the former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, to endorse Habitat for Humanity. Fuller had hoped to use Carter simply as a spokesman for the program, but the former President went in wholeheartedly, working on construction sites alongside other volunteers. Carter initiated the Jimmy Carter Work Project. This week long annual event has focused on construction of a home in one week, simultaneously at sites in the United States and internationally.

After Carter became involved, which also included significant financial donations from his own pocket, Habitat for Humanity became a focus of charitable donations from construction and hardware suppliers, plumbing companies, and the manufacturers of appliances, paints, carpets, windows, and more. By 2013 Habitat for Humanity had built more than 800,000 homes around the world, sheltering more than one million people in 92 countries. Millard Fuller was fired from the Habitat for Humanity board in 2005 for inappropriate sexual conduct, but a subsequent investigation cleared him of all charges. He died in 2009.

10 Events and People in History Which Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
Union troops cross the Rappahannock River under fire on the morning of December 13, 1862 during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Library of Congress

Richard Kirkland and Marye’s Heights

In a war which in known for the bloodiness of its battles and its lengthy casualty lists, the Battle of Fredericksburg, fought in December, 1862, stands out. Union casualties outnumbered those of the Confederacy by about three to one. The Union commander, Ambrose Burnside, ordered one assault after another on fortified positions on high ground, and could not grasp the devastation being wrought upon his army as a result. A Cincinnati newspaper wrote of the battle, “It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor or generals to manifest less judgment than were perceptible on our side that day.”

The acme of the battle was the Union Army’s assault on the Confederate positions on Marye’s Heights, which overlooked the city of Fredericksburg. The advancing Union troops had to cross open fields, a canal which forced them to bunch up to use the bridges over it, around scattered houses and outbuildings, and finally up the slopes themselves. The Confederates had placed scattered abatis’ and other obstacles to impede the assault, and the Union would be under artillery fire all the way, absorbing musket and rifle fire as they became to climb the slope.

The slaughter was frightful. Approximately 8,000 casualties were absorbed by the Union Army as Burnside stubbornly refused to change his tactics. Divisions were sent forth individually to be wrecked by the Confederate fire. Only the coming of nightfall, which comes early in December, brought the destruction of the Union army to a halt. When it became dark those wounded lying in the field and the slopes who were able to walk withdrew. They left behind thousands of other wounded, who screamed in pain and cried out for water throughout the night.

The cries for water were particularly disturbing to Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the Confederate Army as he tried to sleep atop Marye’s Heights. The morning of December 14 revealed the thousands of wounded who still lay under the Confederate guns. Kirkland informed his superiors that he wished to aid the wounded. He was not allowed to display a flag of truce. Nonetheless he grabbed several canteens and leapt over a wall to reach some of the wounded men, immediately drawing sniper fire from Union sharpshooters in Fredericksburg. Ignoring the gunshots, he began distributing water to the wounded men.

As it became apparent what he was doing the sniper fire ceased. Kirkland went back and forth from the Confederate lines to the wounded men most of that day, providing water, blankets, and what other comforts he could. Kirkland’s efforts were not mentioned in his unit’s official reports of the battle and he was never cited for his humanitarian effort, but those wounded he helped that survived never forgot him and he became known as the “Angel of Marye’s Heights.” It would be nice to report that he survived the war, but he did not. He was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863.

10 Events and People in History Which Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
Danny Thomas in 1957, the year funding for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital was established. Wikimedia

Danny Thomas and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Thanks to the number of commercials broadcast on television soliciting financial support, most people are aware that St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital turns no one away because of the inability to pay for services. St. Jude’s does charge those with insurance for payment but it does not deny services because of the inability to meet deductibles, co-payments, and other fees. Because of the refusal to turn away any medically eligible patients it costs about $2.4 million per day to operate the facility, which began because of a promise made by a struggling comedian.

Danny Thomas was trying to make a living as a stand-up comic and actor under the name Amos Jacobs in Detroit when a friend told him about his wife’s miraculous recovery from cancer, which he attributed to the intercession of St. Jude. In turn Thomas began praying to the saint regarded by many as the Patron Saint of Hopeless Cases, promising that if he received help and guidance he would create a shrine in St. Jude’s name. In a short time he moved to Chicago and his career as a nightclub performer began to blossom. One Sunday morning he attended Mass and found in the pew a Novena to St. Jude card, reminding him that he had completely forgotten his promise.

Before long Thomas was in the big time as an entertainer, appearing in the top clubs, movies, and television, eventually appearing in his own television show, Make Room for Daddy in 1953. Thomas began looking for ways to make his promise to St. Jude a reality. One friend of his, Lemuel Diggs, was the Director of Medical Laboratories at the University of Tennessee in Memphis. Another was Anthony Abraham, a Florida based automobile dealership magnate who agreed to provide financial support and business acumen. Thomas also created the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) in 1957. Thomas was a Lebanese-American with roots in Syria.

The ALSAC became and remains the fundraising organization for St. Jude’s. As funds began to gather, slowly but steadily, Thomas, Diggs, and Abraham hit upon the idea of a Children’s Research Hospital, to be located in Memphis, which would be dedicated to the development of treatments for catastrophic illnesses. St. Jude’s was not and is not affiliated with the Catholic Church, nor any other church, despite the fact that its founder, Danny Thomas, was a devout Maronite Catholic.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital opened its doors in 1962. Research at St. Jude’s has changed the way many childhood diseases are treated and increased survival rates dramatically. In 1962 the survival rate for the most common childhood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, was 4%. Today it is 94%. The overall survival rate for childhood cancers has increased from 20% in 1962 to 80% in 2015. St. Jude’s staff is called upon for consultation from childhood cancer treatment centers and researchers from around the world. And no child is ever turned away because they can’t pay for care.

10 Events and People in History Which Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity
Ironically the town of Gander was founded because of the need for a refueling base for airplanes crossing the Atlantic in the 1930s. Wikimedia

The People of Gander, Newfoundland

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 one of the first orders issued to try to get a grasp of the situation was to order all non-military aircraft in the air over the United States or heading there to get on the ground immediately, using the closest available airfield. For 38 aircraft from multiple countries that choice meant Gander, a town of about 10,000 people on the island of Newfoundland. As the planes quickly landed, the little airport was overwhelmed. Just finding ways to park the aircraft of differing types was a challenge.

Knowing that it would take many hours for all of the passengers to get through customs, Gander town officials and residents took extraordinary steps to accommodate their needs. Luggage remained on the planes, meaning prescriptions and other medications in checked baggage needed replacement. As the passengers slowly moved through customs Gander officials were so precise in their efforts to accommodate everyone that they purchased and distributed nicotine gum to the smokers among them. Gander’s pharmacists called their counterparts in many countries in order to get prescriptions filled.

But it was after passing through the gates for what became a five day stay for most passengers when the true kindness and compassion of the residents was felt. People seen walking on Gander streets were immediately asked if they needed assistance. Strangers opened their homes to others for a meal, a drink, a shower, or just to visit. Most of the deplaned passengers slept in makeshift shelters created by the town in schools, gyms, and church basements. The people of Gander fed them, casseroles and stews and soups and more arrived at the shelters on a steady pace.

They were accompanied with toiletries, candy and toys for children, offers of clothing and always with the question of; what else do you need? As the stay lengthened the residents of the town offered to take passengers on jaunts to entertain them, berry picking, sightseeing, or just strolls around town. Several barbecues were held for the passengers. Nobody in Gander would accept any money from the stranded passengers, not for any necessities, and not for any kindnesses.

The people of Gander made sure that kosher food was available for their Jewish “guests” as they called the stranded passengers, and arranged quiet places for their Muslim guests to pray in privacy. That alone was extraordinary given the circumstances which dictated their visit. On the tenth anniversary of the terrible events of 9/11 many of the stranded passengers returned to Gander and were astonished to learn that the people of the town were truly surprised at all the publicity they had received for their hospitality and graciousness. They had done everything they had because they truly believed that’s what people should do for each other.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our source:

“How Much Money Did Jonas Salk Potentially Forfeit By Not Patenting The Polio Vaccine?”, Forbes Magazine, August 8, 2012

“The Story of Raoul Wallenberg”, by Penny Schreiber, Wallenberg Legacy, University of Michigan, online

“Sir Nicholas Winton Obituary”, by Stephen Bates, The Guardian, July 1, 2015

“John H. Patterson: Pioneer in Industrial Welfare”, by Samuel Crowther, 1923

“Japanese pensioners volunteer to tackle nuclear crisis”, by Roland Buerk, BBC News, May 31, 2011

“Truce in the Forest”, by Fritz Vincken, online

“Millard Fuller”, The Fuller Center for Housing, online

“Richard Kirkland, the Humane Hero of Fredericksburg”, by J. B. Kershaw, letter to the Charleston, South Carolina News and Courier, January 2, 1880

“Danny Thomas and St. Jude”, The National Shrine of St. Jude, online

“An oasis of kindness on 9/11: This town welcomed 6,700 strangers amid terror attacks”, by Katherine Lackey, USA Today, September 8, 2017