Heroes You Should Know: Hugh O’Flaherty


Hugh O’Flaherty grew up on a golf course, and dreamed of being a professional golfer.  He was good enough to receive a college scholarship offer, but decided to pursue his other great love, religion, instead.  And the world should be forever grateful.


O’Flaherty had planned on being a missionary priest, but because of his interpersonal and language skills (he was fluent in several languages), his superiors decided that he would be more useful as a diplomat.  Between 1925 and 1938, he served in Egypt, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Czechoslovakia, gaining invaluable experience and contacts that would come in very handy when he was transferred to Rome as a Vatican official in 1939.


By then, Italy—allied with Nazi Germany—had set up Prisoner of War camps around Rome, and O’Flaherty was assigned to the papal nuncio as an interpreter and assistant.  He visited the POW’s, ensured that they were receiving proper care, and contacted their families to update them on their loved ones.  But O’Flaherty got himself in trouble with the Italian government when he began broadcasting on Vatican Radio not just news about the POW’s, but the poor conditions in the camps.  The Italian government pressured the Vatican to remove him from his POW assignment, and keep him silent in Rome.  This turned out to be providential.


In 1943 Mussolini was ousted from power and thousands of prisoners were released.  However the Nazis quickly moved into Italy and the direction changed radically.


Immediately they sought to round up the just-released POW’s as well as the Jews.  O’Flaherty responded by setting up Vatican-sponsored underground networks that provided false identification papers for refugees, and employed churches, monasteries, convents, and private homes as escape routes and hiding places for men, women, and children.


Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, head of the Gestapo in Rome, did learn of O’Flaherty’s activities.  He had a white line painted on the pavement at the opening of St. Peter’s Square, where Vatican City became Italy—and one left the protection of “neutral” soil.  He promised to torture and kill the priest if he ever caught him on the wrong side.  This did not prevent O’Flaherty from making his pastoral rounds, disguised as a street cleaner, a laborer, a postman, and even a nun.  This was described by one saved prisoner as “The most gigantic game of hide-an-seek you’ve ever seen.”


It is estimated that of the roughly 9,700 Jews in Rome, only 1,007 were caught by the Nazis and shipped to concentration camps.  O’Flaherty alone was responsible for saving 1,700 Jews, as well as 6,500 other refugees.


But Hugh O’Flaherty’s most unlikely “save” came years after the war.  Month in and month out, year in and year out O’Flaherty visited his old nemesis—the former head of the Gestapo in Rome Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler—in a Roman prison cell.  O’Flaherty challenged the hate and the fear, and slowly the walls came down in Kappler, and a light shone in the darkness.  And in 1959, fourteen years into his life sentence—and with O’Flaherty as witness—the former Nazi accepted a Jew as his Lord.


Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction…and more inspirational.


Hugh O’Flaherty is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Welles Crowther


Welles Crowther was working on the 104th floor of the South Tower on the morning of September 11, 2001 when the plane hit.  Crowther, with a red bandanna covering his mouth and nose to protect him from the smoke, sprang into action—finding and leading traumatized and disoriented people to safety.  He is directly responsible for saving at least 18 lives.


The fact that he made it out of the inferno three times when so many didn’t make it out at all is remarkable enough.  But that he went back three times to help others is the epitome of heroism.  Six months after the South Tower collapsed, Welles’ body was finally recovered.


Courage?  Crowther was the very embodiment of it.  But I want to focus on another virtue he displayed that day:  prudence.


Prudence is about putting “first things first”; it is the virtue that guides sound judgment.  Now, some might quietly and respectfully question the “sound judgment” of a man who would go back into a collapsing sky scraper three times.


But prudence isn’t about playing it safe.  We’re talking about virtue here, not the basic rules of accounting.


Crises don’t make or break people, they reveal people.  And long before that fateful morning of September 11, Crowther was figuring out what it meant to make good decisions, judgments that were based on more than just emotion, and ease, and self—at home and in the classroom, as a Boy Scout and a member of the Boston College lacrosse team, as an emergency fireman and eventually as an equities trader for Sandler O’Neill and Partners.


It seemed like for the 24 year-old Crowther it was always about others.  The last call he made, nine minutes after the first plane hit the tower, was to his mother.  She wasn’t home, so he calmly left her a message.  “Mom, this is Welles. I want you to know that I’m OK.”


And then he pulled out his red bandana one final time and went to work.


In the last hour of his life, Welles Crowther made the sound judgment that saving lives was what he was supposed to do…first things first.  Not because he had to, but because he could.


Welles Crowther is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.