Piacenza column: What ever happened to humility?

Once upon a time in America, many of the icons we admired in sports, movies and real life were “the strong silent type.” Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and John Wayne, Dwight Eisenhower – these were not guys who did a lot of chest-beating. They let their strengths and talents speak for themselves, so they didn’t have to.

These days, some say that their silence was the result of bottled up feelings that men were not permitted to express in those days. Or that it was a kind of counter-intuitive strategy for controlling the conversation and those around them. Somehow, we find it a little beyond belief that they might have possessed that currently out-of-fashion trait, humility.

Lou Gehrig’s talent as a baseball player was so prodigious, he was voted the greatest first baseman of all time by the Baseball Writers’ Association in 1969. In 1999, he received the most fan votes for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Yet, he spent his farewell address to the sport and its fans praising the talents of others who he was “lucky” enough to work with and thanking his family for their support. In the face of a devastating disease, he opened that speech by declaring he considered himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” and punctuated his praise for and gratitude to others with the simple statement, “Sure I’m lucky.”

Gary Cooper, a veteran of 84 films and winner of three Academy Awards, starred as Lou Gehrig in the movie “Pride of the Yankees.” It was an appropriate choice for the role. Cooper was known for projecting quiet strength in films such as “High Noon,” “Sergeant York,“ and “Friendly Persuasion.” His third Academy Award was an Honorary Oscar for his life and body of work. In his presentation speech, William Wyler said of him, “Gary Cooper represents the type of American who is loved in the four corners of the earth. Contrary to popular belief, Coop is not a shy man, he is a humble man. He has humility, a great lost art and not to be confused with weakness.”

Dwight Eisenhower was considered weak by many despite his success as a General in World War II. He became the 34th President of the United States, not because he was a charismatic orator with a sweeping vision. Rather, he was more interested in working with others to get things done than in advancing his own ego. Some examples of Ike’s wise humility: “Always take your job seriously, never yourself,” and “… learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do.”

Like Cooper, John Wayne was also hugely popular beginning with his starring role in “Stagecoach” in 1939. He was a “natural” actor, saying as much with expressions as with words. Of more florid acting styles he said, “Let those [other] actors … get all the dialogue, just give me the close-up of reaction,” on the night he won his Best Actor Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit” (1969). Richard Burton had been nominated for playing King Henry VIII in “Anne of the Thousand Days.” After the ceremonies, Wayne knocked on Burton’s door and thrust the Oscar statue at him: “You should have this, not me.”

All heroes are bound to have feet of clay. As the Duke once said, “Each of us is a mixture of some good and some not so good qualities.” Nevertheless, humility allowed them to collaborate with and appreciate the talents of others, and they showed us that we can too.

Alexandra Piacenza is a 10-year resident of Prescott, retired from a career in technical writing and strategic planning. Your comments are welcome at apiacenza@cableone.net.