A few days later on the evening news, Brian Williams updated the status of the repair work for the Washington Monument. Damaged by a 5.8 earthquake on Aug. 23, 2011, the monument closed indefinitely.
After thorough examination inside and out, the repair bill estimate totaled $15 million. Congress approved payment of half the cost with the requirement that the balance come from private sources. Completed in 1884 and built entirely from private donations, this universally familiar landmark’s re-opening would depend on private generosity.
A National Park Service spokesperson in Washington noted that almost before the ground stopped shaking from the earthquake, billionaire David Rubenstein had called to ask what he could do to help with damage costs. Currently the co-founder and managing director of a global asset management firm, Rubenstein has previous experience in a Washington law firm and served as President Jimmy Carter’s Deputy Assistant for Domestic Policy. Described by many as a history buff, Rubenstein gave $13.5 million to the National Archives in 2011 in addition to large donations to the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress in recent years. Last year he also contributed $4.5 million to the National Zoo giant panda project.
The angels in our lives appear in countless sizes, forms, and shapes, and assume an endless list of roles. The smallest flower and the man rich beyond imagination are joined by others who fly, live a life of service, perform incredibly heroic acts, or simply bring happiness with unassuming acts of kindness.
The Tuskegee Airmen — angels in the air
As part of the recent celebration of Martin Luther King’s life and work, the movie “Red Tails” was previewed at Tuskegee University, just prior to opening in theaters all over the country. This movie tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen who trained there in the early 1940s to become pilots, bombardiers, and navigators. Commanded by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, 450 pilots fought in the aerial war over North Africa, Sicily, and Europe. This group of men rose above the pervasive racial prejudice of the era years before the Civil Rights Movement, shattered stereotypes, and helped pave the way for President Harry Truman’s 1948 desegregation of the armed forces.
The Tuskegee Airmen expertly provided fighter escorts to bombing missions while flying 15,553 sorties and completing 1,578 missions. They also demolished 250 enemy aircraft in the air and 150 on the ground, a German destroyer, and 1,000 rail cars.
One of these airmen, Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Dryden, visited Jasper in the late 1990s as a part of Bevill State Community College’s Read Alabama series. In his book about his experiences, “A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman,” he explained that white American bomber crews “reverently” referred to this group of African-American pilots as ‘The Black Redtail Angels’ because of the identifying red paint on their tail assemblies and because of their reputation for not losing bombers to enemy fighters as they provided fighter escort to bombing missions…”
In 2007 the Congressional Gold Medal was presented to the Tuskegee Airmen. This award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom are the highest civilian awards in this country. As President George W. Bush made the award to the 300 aviators who were present, he saluted the men and stated, “For all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities… I salute you for your service to the United States of America.”
Last week Gov. Robert Bentley signed a proclamation honoring the Tuskegee Airmen’s accomplishments. Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Carter, 94, attended the ceremony along with fellow pilot Oscar Gadson, 91. Colonel Carter flew 77 combat missions, had a twenty-seven year career in the Air Force, and has the distinction of being one of the only men in the country to be a fighter pilot as well as the squadron maintenance chief. His wife of 70 years, Mildred Hemmon Carter, an aviation pioneer in her own right, was the first African-American female pilot in Alabama.
Former President Jimmy Carter — global angel
At 87, former President Jimmy Carter has written more than twenty-five books. The most recent, “Through the Year with Jimmy Carter: 366 Daily Meditations from the 39th President,” centers around his 70 years as a Sunday school teacher. On several Sundays each month, visitors to his hometown, Plains, Ga., can sit in on his Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church. Held in the packed sanctuary, the overflow crowd watches the class in the fellowship hall.
President Carter’s humble, gentle manner, combined with his wide grin, puts visitors at ease and they forget they are in the presence of a former president, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and sincere humanitarian who unselfishly devotes much of his time and boundless energy to improving the lives of others. A simple, but thought-provoking lesson, a prayer or two, one often led by a visitor, and President Carter’s friendly reminder not to turn over the collection plates he carved by hand to see where he carved his initials, provide an unsurpassed, unforgettable experience for those who make the journey to this tiny, remote town.
After his presidency ended, Jimmy Carter created multiple roles for himself, assisted by the development of the Carter Center in Atlanta. He works as an advocate for human rights, attempts to prevent and resolve conflicts, addresses health issues, and strives to improve the quality of life for the world’s citizens. When he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, President Carter summed up his evaluation of his roles with these words, “The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices. God gives us the capacity for choice. We can choose to alleviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make these changes and we must.”
President Carter’s role as a “man on a mission” has taken him all over the world. Most recently, he traveled to Egypt to observe the elections. He schedules “every minute of every day,” refusing to be slowed down by the torments of old age, such as knee replacements. In November of last year he and Rosalynn traveled to Haiti with Habit for Humanity to help build one hundred safe homes in the community which was the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake. April 2011 found him in North Korea working on a nuclear arms agreement. President Carter also travels regularly with the Elders, an independent group of global leaders, led by Nelson Mandela, who work to provide solutions to problems in places that might otherwise be overlooked.
Colonel Stone Johnson —
civil rights angel
In Dec. 1956, Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church, pastored by civil rights leader the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, was bombed. As the violence aimed toward African-American leaders like Shuttlesworth and their homes and churches increased, Colonel Stone Johnson stepped up and organized a group of security men who watched the churches and protected the leaders involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Always calm and unselfishly humble, Johnson possessed nerves of steel and unquestionable courage as he and another man, in June 1958, removed a five-gallon bucket filled with 16 sticks of ignited dynamite away from Bethel Baptist before its powerful blast exploded with a force which destroyed windows as far as five blocks away.
After he retired from the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company, Johnson continued to be a voice of the Civil Rights Movement as he helped found and then led tours of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, always wearing a wide-brimmed hat. In an interview for the institute, he described the basic foundation of his courage. “One of my really top motivations was Fred Shuttlesworth. He could explain God’s idea of freedom so well, that it would just take away the fear from your heart.”
Johnson was born in Lowndes County and moved to Birmingham with his family when he was four. So he lived most of his life in the city which came to be the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, witnessing the horrendous violence, and participating at a level where his own life was on the line every day. Late last year when a street in Birmingham was named for him, Johnson continued his lifelong habit of desiring no attention for himself as evidenced in his comment, “Give God the glory, mankind don’t need no glory. Just a servant, that’s all I was.” After Johnson’s death last week, Birmingham City Councilwoman Carole Smitherman, who knew him all her life because her father worked with him on the railroad, commented to The Birmingham News, “I know the angels are jumping and dancing now that he’s home because he did so many things for so many people. He wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone except God almighty.”
Finding everyday angels
Quite often we discover our angels thriving on a much smaller scale. They pop up in our day-to-day lives, performing unexpected acts of kindness that bring welcome joy or elicit smiles simply because they exist. This past holiday season anonymous benefactors who paid off lay-aways for strangers became angels for these families who were struggling to make payments for Christmas gifts. Some of these angels paid off large amounts while others shared smaller gifts by simply paying the last twenty dollars of the balance.
A neighbor found a stray puppy and planned to find her a home. But when the puppy developed health problems, the finder became the owner and the puppy became Daisy. She is now her owner’s constant companion and he has an extra spring in his step and a bigger smile on his face as they take walks together and Daisy accompanies him in the car, riding with pride in the front passenger seat. Only one question arises in that mutually beneficial relationship. Which one is the angel?
With wing spans that cover the earth and wing spans that are barely noticeable, our angels include heroes who soar, statesmen who serve, fearless believers in a dream, silent friends we never meet, puppies who need a home, and homes that need puppies. On a daily basis, we welcome each one into our lives with quiet amazement and unending appreciation.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890