“Tell me your heroes and I’ll tell you how your life will end up.”
We often look outside our own local realm when we speak of “heroes,” those from whom we have drawn inspiration or become familiar with within our educational experiences. For me, that would include Eleanor Roosevelt, surely the most empathetic and socially-conscious, effective “First Lady” who worked tirelessly on behalf of the most dispossessed during the Great Depression and World War II; former President Jimmy Carter who continues his human-rights efforts around the globe, and stays committed to the organization most dear to his heart: Habitat for Humanity; naturalist John Muir, responsible for Yosemite National Park and many other American environmental treasures; photographers Edward Curtis, who spent a lifetime chronicling Native American life from Alaskan and Northwest Coast cultures, to Plains Indians and Natives of the American Southwest (one of his most magnificent photographs displayed at Canyon De Chelly in Arizona), and Lewis Hine, who gave us the most poignant images of immigrants entering Ellis Island at the turn of the century (including my Swedish-Norwegian grandmother), as well as revealing, through his camera, the evils of child labor to a shocked American public, and producing his famous “Men at Work” photographs, including those who built the Empire State Building; former NBA star and soft-spoken humanitarian Karim Abdul Jabbar, who has spent a lifetime giving back to the black community; legendary UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden, famous not only for his basketball prowess but for his life wisdom as well: “I believe we are most likely to succeed when ambition is focused on noble and worthy purposes and outcomes rather than on goals set out of selfishness.” And last, but certainly not least, the late Senator and war hero John McCain, who spent 5½ years as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton, rejecting an “out-of-sequence” early release due to prominent family connections (his father and grandfather both Navy Admirals), but who refused to leave his comrades in line before him, and as a consequence was held in isolation and cruelly brutalized and tortured for another two years.
Thus, history is replete with heroic figures from all ethnicities, religions and genders to emulate and admire. However, we often overlook or lack awareness of those closest to us who really impact our lives, except perhaps in retrospect. For example, Arden (Kelly) Rayson was one of the first significant young adults in my life. Not only were the Rayson’s valued neighbors on Libby’s South Side, but Arden patrolled our area seeking out anyone who bullied younger kids (God help anyone who did). He was also one hard-nosed football player, an “old school” logger, and with his “tough guy” persona and propensity to protect young kids (I was eight years younger than Arden), he was a “larger than life” figure and remained so for me throughout his life. Occasionally attending the church in which I grew up, Arden, along with Ardell Filler and Delbert Bowe would be the first to greet me, radiating a warmth that was the Arden I knew and admired as a child.
Outside of my own father, Frank Peck was the most significant adult in my young baseball life. As a coach, he was a master technician and tremendous motivator. Living in the same proximity of Montana Avenue, Frank would urge me to engage in weekly pitching sessions with him. We coaches always ask our kids to “practice with a purpose,” and with Frank Peck one didn’t simply expect a game of “purposeless” catch, so to speak. Since he could see that I would have neither the size nor arm strength to overpower hitters, we worked on deception, changing speeds, and location, location, location. (One could surmise that Frank was my first Realtor). Once warmed up, our routine was as follows: Three consecutive fastballs, “up and in.” Three “down and in.” Three consecutive fastballs, “up and out.” Three “down and out.” Three consecutive curveballs “down and in.” Three “down and out.” Etc., etc., etc. Always the same routine. And since Frank required all curveballs to be down in the dirt, he emerged from his house for our sessions virtually encased in Medieval Armor.
Most importantly, he followed the careers of his former players with great interest, always offering words of encouragement along the way. On many occasions, we would see Frank and Carolyn out at the MK Steakhouse, and he never failed to mention that Babe Ruth State Championship and “near-miss” to the World Series. He was a remarkable man, coach and friend to so many who had the opportunity to be coached by him.
A large number of us were taught in Junior High by Francis Pettit. The old adage that “there is no such thing as a dumb question,” was quickly destroyed by our class. It wasn’t the case of a group of wise-cracking kids; in fact, we were a very good group of kids who asked, well, dumb questions that always brought a bemused smile to Mr. Pettit’s face. He was a very kindly man who had been a three-sport star in college and one who stressed fundamentals in each. We immensely enjoyed his classes, and later in life I had the opportunity, at his request, to take him in to Mt. Henry Lake and Lookout. He was very interested in the view of the McBride Ranch (of Wagon Train fame) from the trail, and the exchange of lantern light between the McBride’s and the lookout occupant each evening. Thus, Mr. Pettit, his son George (one of my closest and dearest friends) and I reached the lake at the 1½ mile mark with 2 ½ miles to go to the lookout. Mt. Henry lake is located in a beautiful, but typical, high mountain lake cirque, in this case surrounded by large scree and boulder fields at the head of the lake. As George and I watched in horror, Mr. Pettit carefully surveyed that boulder field and we knew immediately that we were going to be fighting brush around one side of the lake and tackling that route up to the lookout. And so we did, reaching the lookout and then catching the trail back down to the lake and thence down to our rig. A sore, scratched up, and dog-tired George and Tony piled into the car, while Mr. Pettit had that wonderfully kind glow on his face that we experienced in his class, as if to say that hike was the most fun he ever had. Surely it was.
Right up to years before his passing and I was able to have contact with him, Mr. Pettit would ask me, “Tony, remember Mt. Henry?” In the most enthusiastic voice I could muster I replied, “Oh, Mr. Pettit, how could I ever forget Mt. Henry?”
“He who saves one life saves the world.”
George Pettit and I coached Libby Legion baseball together for two years, and one summer hiked the 27.3 miles across the Grand Canyon, spending three nights at the bottom, camping along the Colorado River. Many of our conversations were concentrated on injustice and wealth disparity in the world. The Pettit family took commitment to others very seriously, and George, after teaching for a period of time on the Crow Reservation in Eastern Mont., joined the Casa Maria Catholic Workers House in Tucson, Ariz. where he cared for “the least among us.” He was truly an “angel on earth” with a lifelong selflessness. George tragically lost his life to cancer on July 26, 2011, at age 56. Rest in peace, my dear friend.
“I think a hero, Is any person, Really intent On making this A better place For all people.”
Tony Smith has been a longtime member of the Libby and Troy communities. He is a teacher, a coach, and a friend to many.