Heroes You Should Know: Biddy Mason




Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1818 without a last name.  At 18, she was given as a wedding present to Robert Smith.  By 1848 Smith and his household had become Mormon, and decided to journey to Utah with a 300 wagon caravan.  Biddy and her three daughters—a 10 year-old, a 4 year-old, and an infant (all three probably fathered by Smith himself)—walked the 1,700 miles.  Biddy helped to break camp, cook, herd cattle, and serve as a midwife for the caravan.


Although the Mormon Church did not have black members at the time, they did encourage Smith to free his slaves (including Biddy and her daughters), but Smith refused.  When Brigham Young sent Smith and his household to San Bernardino, California to establish a Mormon settlement, though, Biddy saw her chance for freedom.  California was a free state, so she escaped with several other slaves.  However Smith captured her and her party and quickly decided to move to Texas, a slave state, to protect what he considered to be his property.  But before the family could leave California, the Los Angeles county sheriff—tipped off to Smith’s illegal activity—stopped them on the El Cajon pass and prevented their exit.  Biddy then filed a petition in district court for her freedom, the freedom of her daughters, and 10 other slaves held by Smith.


After three days of deliberation, Judge Benjamin Hayes handed down a ruling in favor of Biddy and her extended family.  Free, Biddy took the last name of Mason, the middle name of the mayor of San Bernardino, and moved with her daughters to Los Angeles.


She began working as a nurse and midwife for physician John Griffin, earning $2.50 per day. Within ten years Biddy was able to save enough money to buy a parcel of land on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles for $250, becoming the first black woman to own land in Los Angeles.  Her parcel was one block from the heart of the financial district.  She then sold part of the land, and on the remaining property built several homes and a commercial building.


As Biddy Mason’s wealth began to grow so did her generosity.  She supported many charities that provided food and shelter for the poor of Los Angeles, and often visited inmates in county jail. Additionally she built a school, and helped African-Americans start businesses. In 1872, Biddy financed the establishment of the Los Angeles branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and became a founding member.


By the time of her death in 1891, Biddy had become one of the wealthiest women in Los Angeles.  But despite her prominence Biddy Mason was buried in an unmarked grave in Boyle Heights, and for reasons that defy logic it took 100 years for the city she’d blessed so significantly to officially celebrate her life.


Finally on November 16, 1991 Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles, and the City Council proclaimed “Biddy Mason Day” in Los Angeles and a tombstone was placed on her final resting place.  The next day a mixed-use building named the Broadway Spring Center was opened on the site of her original home.  The site contains an 8-by-81 foot memorial wall honoring this remarkable woman.


Biddy Mason is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Jerrie Cobb




Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb was born the right sex at the wrong time to be an astronaut, but that didn’t stop her from flying.  The daughter of a Lieutenant Colonel and pilot, Jerrie first flew with her dad for the first time at age 12, was flying for a circus at 16, and by 18 had her commercial pilot’s license.


She wanted to fly for a living, but because of the flood of pilots returning from World War II, and discriminatory attitudes toward female aviators, Jerrie ended up with the less exciting jobs of crop dusting and pipeline patrol.


So she worked harder.  And by 19 she was teaching men to fly, having earned her Multi-Engine, Instrument, Flight Instructor, and Ground Instructor ratings, and Airline Transport license.  At 21 her flying skills were respected enough that she was delivering fighter planes and bombers to foreign air forces all over the world.


In her free time Jerrie set new world records for speed, distance, and absolute altitude.


1959 was her breakout year, as Cobb was named Pilot of the Year by the National Pilots Association, became one of the few female executives in aviation (taking a position with Aero Design and Engineering Company), and took part in a privately funded research program that came to be known as ‘Mercury 13.’


Could women be astronauts?  The records of 700 veteran women aviators were reviewed by Dr. Richard Lovelace who had helped develop the physiological tests for NASA’s astronauts.  In the end 13 women pilots passed the Phase 1 testing, three of those were able to take and pass Phase II, but only Jerrie Cobb was able to pass all three phases of testing the male astronauts had been given—including tests typical to a physical exam, exhaustion and respiration tests, response to electric shock and induced vertigo, and aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft.


In other words, Jerrie could do what any male astronaut could do.


She wrote to President Kennedy and then flew to Washington to meet with Vice President Johnson, to advocate for women being allowed to join NASA.  In 1962 women were still barred from entrance to Air Force training schools, preventing them from becoming test pilots of military jets—a requirement for NASA astronauts.   A special congressional sub-committee was convened in July of 1962, two years before the Civil Rights Act, and the issue of discrimination was debated.  However, in the end no action was taken by Congress.


Less than a year later, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. NASA would take sixteen years to catch up, finally opening its doors to women in 1978 with six astronaut candidates, including Sally Ride.


Jerrie Cobb would go on to work for over thirty years flying humanitarian missions—delivering supplies to indigenous tribes, and surveying remote areas to facilitate aid.  Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, France, and Peru have all honored Jerrie for her service, and in 1981 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her charitable efforts.


At 95 years-old, this trailblazer doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.  “I have this feeling that life is a spiritual adventure, and I want to make mine in the sky.”


Jerrie Cobb is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Pere Jaques de Jesus (Lucien Bunel)



A Roman Catholic priest in the Carmelite Order Pere Jacques de Jesus (born Lucien Bunel) founded and served as the Headmaster of the Petit Collège Sainte-Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus, a boarding school in Avon, France for boys, in 1934.  When World War II broke out, he was conscripted into the French Army, but after France’s surrender he returned to his school—and joined the French Resistance.

Because of his authority as Headmaster, he was able to hide young men from being conscripted into the Nazi labor force.  And in 1943 he began hiding Jews as well.  Three Jewish boys were accepted as students under assumed names, and a fourth was added as a worker.  Jacques also arranged for a local Jewish botanist, Lucien Weil, to be added to the school’s faculty.

However, a year later the Gestapo learned of the priest’s efforts from an informant and arrested him along with the four boys.  As Pere Jacques was led away by the soldiers, he turned to his students and smiled, ”Au revoir, et a bientot”  (“Goodbye, and see you soon”).  The students, in a remarkable act of bravery, applauded their Headmaster even as the Nazis shouted for them to stop.

A month later the Gestapo took the botanist and his family into custody as well.  The boys and the Weil family were sent to Auschwitz where they died.

Jacques was sent to several different concentration camps, before finally ending up at Mauthausen-Gusen, a notoriously sever labor camp where he ministered to all the prisoners.  When the Nazis attempted to round up the priests in the camp to send them to Dachau, reportedly less demanding then Mauthausen-Gusen, Jacques hid his priestly identity.  Thus he was able to continue his pastoral work and help lead the resistance efforts in the camp.  He was the only priest for the 20,000 prisoners.

Mauthausen-Gusen was one of the last concentration camps to be liberated by the American forces in May of 1945.  By then Pere Jacques, his body compromised by tuberculosis, weighed only 75 pounds.  He was immediately hospitalized but died less than a month later.

In 1985 Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, honored Père Jacques de Jesus as “Righteous Among the Nations” for his efforts to save Jews as Headmaster of his school.

The film director Louis Malle, who as an eleven year-old student at the Petit Collège Sainte-Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus actually witnessed Pere Jacques’ arrest, memorialized his story in the 1987 movie Au Revoir Les Enfants.

The cause for the canonization of Pere Jacques de Jesus, who lived up to his name, was opened by the Catholic Church in 1990.

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

Bob Fletcher:  My brother’s keeper




In a day and age where anger too often separates and divides, it’s important to remember someone who used anger for good.


Bob Fletcher was a California agriculture inspector, working in Florin, California (in Sacramento County) in 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast into relocation camps.  These families, many of whom had farmed the area since the 1890’s had no choice but to abandon their farms.  One of these farmers, Al Tsukamoto, approached Fletcher, who had earned the trust of the farming community because of his integrity and kindness.  Would this agriculture inspector, an employee of the State, become the steward of two large farms owned by soon-to-be relocated families?  Tsukamoto told Fletcher he could keep all the profits and live in the main house in exchange for paying the mortgages and taxes, and managing the work.


Accepting this responsibility, meant that Fletcher not only had to quit his secure job in the middle of a world war, he’d need to face the long-standing bigotry in the region toward Japanese-Americans—deeply entrenched enough that Japanese-American children for decades had been required to attend segregated schools.


Fletcher disagreed with the President’s decision, and was angered to see injustice and fear institutionalized.  So he not only agreed to save the two farms, and risk personal loss by leaving his job and becoming a target of the bigotry in his community, he only took half the profits.  The other half he deposited in accounts he set up for the families so they’d have working capital when they returned.  Further, he and his wife lived in the bunk house, instead of the main house, out of respect for the rightful owners.


For three years, Fletcher worked 90 acres and averaged 18 hour work-days.  And when the families were finally allowed to return to their farms, and store owners would refuse to fill their orders, Fletcher would make the purchases for them.


Mr. Fletcher would eventually buy his own parcel of land in Florin, raised cattle, worked as a volunteer fire fighter, helped start the Florin Water District, eventually became the Fire Chief, and lived to the ripe old age of 101.  Like so many heroes, Fletcher never considered himself to be one.  “I don’t know about courage…it took a devil of a lot of work.”


Yes, I imagine propping up humanity does take a lot of work.


Bob Fletcher is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Mildred and Richard Loving:  If Loving You is Wrong



A man and woman fall in love, and decide they want to marry.  Sounds like an everyday occurrence, no?  No.  Not if the man was white and the woman black in 1958 Virginia.  Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter knew this, so they travelled to Washington D.C., to avoid the anti-miscegenation law in their home state that prohibited a person classified as “white” from marrying someone classified as “colored.”

This anti-miscegnation laws had been in effect since Virginia was a colony, and had never been challenged.

After their marriage, the newlyweds returned home to their small town of Central Point, Virginia without fanfare to start a family.  But acting on an anonymous tip, police raided the Loving home one night and found them (not surprisingly) asleep together in the same bed.  Mildred presented the officers with their valid marriage certificate, and that was taken into evidence as proof of the Loving’s illicit act.

Richard and Mildred were charged with the crime of cohabiting as a married interracial couple, a felony punishable by a prison sentence of one to five years.

On January 6, 1959, the Lovings pleaded guilty, and sentenced to one year in prison.  The judge agreed to suspend their prison sentence for 25 years if they moved to another state.  Mildred and Richard agreed and moved to Washington D.C.

But after five years of frustration about not being able to travel back home to see their families in Virginia, Mildred wrote to Attorney General Robert Kennedy for assistance.  He in turn referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union, who filed a motion in 1964 to have the case vacated based on the 14th amendment (citizenship rights, and equal protection under the law).

However, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the anti-miscegnation law—that people of different races should not, must not be allowed to marry, and to do so would be a crime.

Thankfully, the Lovings refused to accept this judgment and filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of the United States.  And on June 12, 1967 love won.  In a unanimous decision the Supreme Court overturned the Lovings’ conviction, and dismissed the Commonwealth of Virginia’s argument.  Further, the Court concluded that anti-miscegnation laws were inherently racist.

The ruling forced seventeen states (all the former slave states plus Oklahoma) to remove the prohibition against interracial marriage.

Richard and Mildred would go on to have three children, and live peacefully in Virginia until 1975 when Richard was killed by a drunk driver.  Mildred never remarried, and died in 2008.

In the United States, June 12th, the day of the Supreme Court’s ruling, has come to be celebrated as Loving Day…the day love won.

Mildred and Richard Loving are heroes you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Jason Brown:  From football to farming



Professional athletes are often held up as role models for our youth, and on occasion they actually should be.

After a stellar collegiate career at North Carolina and four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, 6’3”, 320 pound Jason Brown signed with the St. Louis Rams in 2009 and became the highest paid center in the National Football League.   As one of the best linemen in the game, he’d seemingly reached the pinnacle of his career at 26.  But it didn’t give him the satisfaction he desired. And three years after his record setting contract, Jason chose to walk away from the game.

He was not injured, he was not in trouble, he was not out of options.  But he’d reached the conclusion that seven seasons of football, too much time away from his family, and life in the spotlight had distanced him from his values.  Brown, a deeply religious man, felt God calling him to something else…something totally different. Even a new contract offer from his hometown Carolina Panthers could not tempt him to stay.  His agent told him he was making the biggest mistake of his life, but this gentle giant disagreed.

And Jason Brown, professional football player, became Jason Brown, farmer.

Farming.  Not the typical second career for a multi-millionaire, let alone one who had no prior experience farming.  O.k., so he’s going to be a ‘gentleman farmer’, right?  Own the property and hire laborers to do the dirty work?  No.  Jason is out there on a tractor, and occasionally on his knees working as hard as any of his crew.  And here’s the real kicker—he’s not even doing it for the money.  He sees this as a ministry opportunity.  Again, not typical—but you’ve probably figured out by now that Jason Brown is not typical.

After he’d decided to make a difference for the good in a profession he knew nothing about, Jason threw himself into this new venture with as much passion as he had his football career.  He began by watching Youtube videos, and then talking to farming friends in Louisburg, North Carolina, where he’d decided to open “First Fruit Farm.”

Here, on his 1,000 acre property, Jason has committed himself to the mission of eliminating hunger in North Carolina.  He donates the first fruits of every harvest to local food pantries.  And in his very first harvest he gave away 46,000 pounds of sweet potatoes and 10,000 pounds of cucumbers. His motto is, “Never stop giving, never stop loving, never stop growing!”

In explaining his decision to leave football for the farm, Jason smiles, “When I think about success I think about a life of service.”

From success to significance…

Jason Brown is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

James Harrison:  The Man with the Golden Arm



James Harrison is a typical 79 year-old man in most every way.  A widower now, he likes to spend time with his daughter and grandson, take walks, and collect stamps.  But just below the surface, literally, he is very unique.  He first learned this at age 14, when he needed to undergo an emergency surgery to remove a lung—and then needed roughly three gallons of donated blood over the next three months of recovery.  In gratitude he made a pledge to give blood himself as soon as he could.  He says it was the second most important pledge he’s ever made, behind only his marriage vows.


So at 18 years-old, James started donating blood.  It was then that doctors realized his blood contained very rare antibodies that could fight Rhesus disease, which caused women to miscarry or give birth to brain damaged babies. At the time, this disease was affecting thousands of babies in Harrison’s native Australia alone.  So, he agreed to undergo further tests in addition to giving blood, and sure enough doctors were able to use James’ plasma to develop a life-saving Anti-D vaccine.


Since then, Harrison has donated plasma on average once every three weeks—possible because one can give plasma more often than blood.  That’s more than 1,100 donations over the past 61 years, and counting.  And what does that mean in lives saved?  Doctors estimate that Harrison’s generosity has saved over two million babies—including, ironically, his own grandson Scott, when his daughter Tracey ended up needing the vaccine herself.


James loves to travel around Australia in his camper, but always knows where the nearest donation center is so that his giving routine isn’t affected.  Although he holds the world record for donations, Australian law says he’ll need to stop giving at age 81.  Harrison is disappointed that he’ll fall short of his goal of 2,000 donations but is hoping others will step up when he is no longer allowed to.


In 1999 Australia awarded him the Medal of the Order of Australia for his incredibly consistent generosity, but for Harrison the knowledge that he’s saving lives is all he needs.  “I’m in it for the babies.”


So, the next time you hear about a quarterback or a pitcher with a “golden arm,” remember the man who has truly earned that nickname!


James Harrison is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know:  Robert Smalls

robert smalls

Robert Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina.  And at age 12, his master hired him out to business associates in Charleston where Smalls worked in a hotel, and later as a lamplighter.  But his real love was the sea, so he found a way to work on the docks, then as a rigger and a sail maker, and eventually as a wheelman (basically a pilot, although slaves were not allowed to hold that title).


Although a slave, when the Civil War began Smalls was assigned to serve on the CSS Planter, a lightly armed Confederate transport.  And on May 12, 1862, the three white officers of the Planter decided to spend the night on shore.  Smalls, and seven other enslaved sailors, decided to steal the ship and sail it to freedom.  So, dressed in the Captain’s uniform that included a straw hat, he sailed out of the harbor, and then stopped at a nearby wharf to pick up his wife, children, and the families of the other crewman who were hiding there.  Having learned the secret Confederate codes and signals, Smalls, sailed the Planter past five different Confederate forts that guarded the harbor without ever being stopped.  And by morning, flying a white bedsheet as a sign of surrender to avoid being fired upon by Union ships, Smalls was home free.  He turned the ship over to the United States Navy, along with the valuable cargo that included canons, artillery pieces and ammunitions earmarked for Confederate forts, and the secret Confederate signal book.


For his exploits, Smalls was celebrated in Union newspapers and was invited to a private meeting with President Lincoln.  There, he was able to persuade the President to allow African-American men to serve in the Union Army as soldiers.  When Lincoln agreed, Smalls joined the Army.   He was later transferred to the Navy where he would be named the first black captain of a vessel—ironically the same one he’d commandeered two years before, the Planter, now a ship in the Union Navy.  By the end of the War, he had been involved in 17 different battles.

Now if he did nothing else for the rest of his life, Robert Smalls would be a hero.  But there was more.


After the war, Smalls returned to Beaufort and purchased the home he’d been a slave in.  And in an amazing act of charity, he allowed the aged widow of his former slave master to live there with him and his family until her death.


Smalls would go on to become a successful businessman, opening a store where former slaves could work, and was elected to the South Carolina State House of Representatives and State Senate, and finally the United States House of Representatives where he would serve for five terms.


This legend of a man would die at 75 years-old in the same town he was born in as a slave.  But because of his life Beaufort, South Carolina, and indeed America, had become a very different place.


Robert Smalls is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Richard Kirkland:  “The Angel of Marye’s Heights”



Richard Kirkland was a young man of eighteen when he enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861.  He was assigned to the 2nd South Carolina infantry and would survive some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, including the First Battle of Bull Run and Antietem.  But it was at the battle of Fredricksburg that Kirkland’s courage and humanitarian actions guaranteed him a lasting place in American history.

There, at Marye’s Heights on December 13, 1862 Kirkland’s unit withstood a fierce Union attack, and by morning of the next day hundreds of Union soldiers lay wounded or dead on the other side of the great stone wall the Confederate soldiers had used for protection.  Both sides listened helplessly to the cries of agony from the wounded, but no one dared to do something about it.  At some point, however, Kirkland approached Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw and requested permission to help the Union soldiers.  At first Kershaw refused, stating that Kirkland would almost certainly be shot by Union soldiers.  However Kirkland insisted, and eventually was granted permission.  However, Kershaw forbade him using a white handkerchief to signal the Union army not to fire on him.

Quickly Kirkland gathered all the canteens he could find and filled them with water.  Then, as his unit watched, he left the safety of the wall and ventured out onto the battlefield to care for the wounded.  Again and again he went back to refill the canteens and then return to the battlefield and the wounded.  He also brought warm clothes and blankets to the soldiers, to combat the frigid winter temperatures.  No one from either side fired a shot as this amazing scene unfolded.

For two hours Kirkland worked tirelessly and alone until each and every one of the Union soldiers had been ministered to.  Six weeks later the great poet Walt Whitman, who at the time was working in a Washington D.C Hospital as a nurse and a war correspondent reported being told this story by a Union soldier who had been wounded at Fredricksburg.

Kirkland continued to distinguish himself for bravery at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and was eventually promoted to Second Lieutenant.  However, less than a year after he became “the angel of Marye’s Heights”, Kirkland was shot and killed at the Battle of Chickamauga.  He was 20 years-old.

In 1965 a monument was finally erected in front of the stone wall at Marye’s Heights, memorializing Kirkland and his singular act of compassion there….given not to enemies, but to brothers.  He embodies for all time the “better angels of our nature.”

Richard Kirkland is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes you should know:  Gino Bartali



“One does these things, and that’s that…” -Gino Bartali



Gino Bartali (July 18, 1914 – May 5, 2000), known affectionately as “Gino the Pious,” was an international cycling champion.  He won the Giro d’Italia three times, and the Tour De France twice (1938 and 1948) —the ten year gap between Tour victories being the largest in the history of the race.  He was also personal friends with Pope John the XXIII, to whom he gave lessons on how to ride a bike.But what he did on and with his bike, was about so much more than athleticism.


Bartali was already famous for his racing success when the dark clouds of Nazism and Fascism began to shadow his world.  Because of his standing as a national sports hero, though, he could have easily avoided the politics and suffering around him and waited out the war.  But Bartali loved what was best about his country and humankind too much to avoid engagement.  And when a friend asked him to become involved in the Italian Resistance, he agreed…aware that his choice would put not just him in jeopardy, but potentially his wife and newborn son as well.


He began using his cycling workouts as a cover for his new calling.  He’d don his racing jersey with his famous name emblazoned across the back and ride hundreds of miles between Florence and Rome carrying secret messages and documents to the network of safehouses, churches, and convents in the resistance.  This included counterfeit identity documents which Jews were able to use to hide their true identities and avoid deportation to concentration camps.  His fame allowed him to ride without harassment by the fascist police and the Nazi soldiers, who didn’t want to face the potential public relations nightmare.


In addition, Gino Bartali also hid a Jewish family in an apartment he’d purchased with his cycling prize money until the end of the war.


In 1943, one of the Italian resistance groups was discovered, and Bartali was brought in for questioning by the fascists.  He was interrogated and threatened with death, but admitted nothing and was eventually released.  Soon after, he literally pulled a number of Jews to safety by attaching a wagon with a secret compartment to the back of his bicycle and riding for the Swiss Alps.  He told patrols that stopped him along the way that it was part of his new training regimen.


Gino Bartali was a remarkable athlete who cycled for Italy…but even more for humanity.  And that’s what made him not just a true champion, but an eternal champion.


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