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Monday, July 27, 2009

The noblest guy I ever met

This is probably the last in the series of essays from five years ago which I'll post (a number of you have complained about the length of the "ever met" posts). I've kept in touch with this guy through an institutional association of sorts and I'm happy to report that he hasn't changed:

Look up “noble” in the American Heritage Dictionary and it says: “(a) lofty and exalted in character, (b) showing greatness and magnanimity.” (The other meaning, with its implications of birthright and royalty, doesn’t sit right in a country as resolutely small-d democratic as the US, but that’s not what we’re analyzing here.) What does such nobility imply? A certain self-sacrificial element to one’s personality. The ability to divorce oneself from one’s ego. An appreciation for others. A higher purpose, a calling in life that transcends one’s own personal needs and desires. And a certain straightforwardness that leaves no room for ulterior motives.

The word has a curiously anachronistic feel to it. But think back to the early and middle parts of the twentieth century, remember who our heroes were back then, and contrast them to today’s heroes. It immediately becomes clear that what’s missing from today’s pantheon is any sort of nobility.

Roger Bannister was celebrated for having run the first four minute mile in May of 1954. He was an old-style student athlete, who trained while studying at Oxford to become a doctor. Today’s version of Bannister would be a professional athlete whose only medical aspirations would be to enhance his athletic performance pharmaceutically.

Edmund Hillary was celebrated for being the first man, along with Tenzing Norgay, to conquer Mount Everest. If you ignore the rich dilettantes who basically pay to be escorted -- with oxygen -- to the top of a famous peak, mountain climbers are still a hardy, independent, heroic breed. The difference now is, they are no longer celebrated. (Try to name two world class mountain climbers.)

Audie Murphy was a WWII hero who risked his life many times to save fellow soldiers. Today’s closest equivalent is Pat Tillman, also a genuine hero. But Tillman was only known because he gave up a lucrative NFL contract to join the Army. (Somehow his death also seems more in keeping with the times: he was killed by “friendly fire,” which was then covered up by the Army.) There have undoubtedly been individual heroes in Afghanistan and Iraq other than Tillman, but they’ve gotten no publicity.

And so on. Chuck Yeager begat Evel Kneivel, Jonas Salk begat Sam Waksal, Jackie Robinson begat Deion Sanders, and Winston Churchill begat George W. Bush.

Perhaps the old-time heroes were never as heroic as we like to think. Perhaps human nature hasn’t changed that much; perhaps their feet of clay would have been more visible in the Information Age. Some might have ended up as paid spokesmen for various corporations. And you couldn’t really blame them if they had. But the fact is, they didn’t.

There has certainly never been a more entertaining time to be alive, given the proliferation of news sources. One result of this surfeit of information is that it’s harder for heroes to hide their warts. And the upshot of that is the mass crass-ification of society. We actually seem to have gotten to the point where we celebrate moral warts. We look up to people who win a million dollars by successfully manipulating their fellow contestants on Survivor.

Perhaps the changing nature of our heroes has something to do with the fact that no generation in history had ever been more pampered than the generation now in charge – the Baby Boomers. And pampered children rarely grow up to be noble – or heroic. Instead they grow up spoiled, selfish, and narcissistic.

Those of us who entered college with the pampered class of 1976 were right in the middle of the Baby Boom generation. And almost all of us had similar mindsets: we were self-indulgent, self-important twits with very little perspective on ourselves.

Against this competition it is easier to appear noble. But having long since departed this environment, I’d still have to say the noblest guy I’ve ever met is Hess Yntema, a teammate on my college swimming team.

The first impression one gets from Hess is that he has the face of an enthusiast (this may be partly due to the fact that he often seems to be wearing an appreciative look). His eyebrows are set right above his eyes, giving his bright eyes an intense look. He has full lips, and a short but jutting chin. If you were to liken him to a movie star, it would be Ronald Reagan; if you were to liken him to an animal, it would be a squirrel.

At the time I met him, his enthusiasm was directed mostly towards swimming. Hess’s reputation as a swimmer had preceded him to campus. He had missed the 1972 Olympic team by less than a second in the 100 meter butterfly, one of the seven events won by Mark Spitz that summer in Munich.

Hess took swimming as seriously as anyone (he didn’t miss a practice all year), but also seemed to take himself less seriously. The rest of us were forthcoming about our goals, but if I ever asked Hess what he hoped to do at a dual meet for a particular event, he would reply, “I just hope I can finish the eight laps.” He would often jokingly claim to be a sprinter, although it was obvious he had little talent in that direction. What did become obvious through the course of freshman year was that Hess had tremendous talent in the 200 yard butterfly.

That March, Hess got third in the 200 fly at the NCAA championships. He also got third at the AAU championships in early April, qualifying him for the US national team which was to compete later that month at London’s Crystal Palace. There, Hess won both the 100 and 200 meter butterflies, beating many of the Olympic finalists from the year before. His 100 meter fly of 56.5 seconds then ranked him seventh on the all-time world list.

After a big international triumph like that, it would be easy to forgive a little bit of strutting. Most 19-year-olds would certainly have been beating their chests. But there was never even a hint of that from Hess. After each of these meets, I could find no indication of pride in his demeanor. He never even wore his USA team jacket around campus; he simply put it in a drawer and left it there. (Had it been mine, that jacket would have been threadbare by June.)

If it was just an act, it was a perfect one. Usually when someone is full of false modesty, it’s fairly obvious; the mask will slip at some point. But Hess’s mask, if that’s what it was, was attached quite firmly.

Hess went on to make a total of four separate national teams, including the US squad which met the East Germans in the summer of 1974 (though he never made an Olympic team). And his act never changed. The only indication of pride I could ever detect was while he was actually swimming, when he would occasionally seem to add a little extra flair to his stroke; but this could have been my imagination.

At the end of freshman year, the college newspaper ran an article in its sports section about Hess, saying that he had “exhibited maturity beyond his years, trudging down to the pool every morning” for the first of his two daily workouts. I showed him this article, which he hadn’t yet seen. When he came to that part, he snorted and put it aside. In fact, the paper had it wrong: it wasn’t that rare for an athlete to attend workout every day. What was rare, however, was for an athlete to show that much perspective on himself.

More than his modesty, it was the way Hess treated others that was most revealing of his character. I’ve simply never known anybody who was more skilled at making people feel good about themselves.

One of the swim team managers, Ric Heller, once asked Hess, whose father was in the Foreign Service, about job opportunities there. Ric was a nice guy who happened to be blind in one eye; when he said to Hess that he thought this might hold him back, as some people might find it offensive, Hess managed to look completely disgusted with Ric for asking such a silly question – in a way that made Ric feel good – and then said dismissively, “Ric, I’ve met plenty of people in the Foreign Service. Some of them are offensive.”

I once heard another swimmer complain about how he hadn’t swum well that day, then recite his times for a set of repeats which in fact were quite fast (it was an obvious boast in disguise). Hess replied in mock concern, “You should see a doctor!” -- underscoring the impressiveness of the set.

One time I edged out a swimmer from another college in a 100 yard butterfly; a few minutes later, one of his teammates came up to inform me that “Lance would have beaten you if he hadn’t had a bad third turn.” I just nodded; there was nothing else I could do without looking foolish. The teammate then walked off. A few seconds later I heard Hess’s voice behind me sarcastically saying, “Lance would have beaten you if he hadn’t had a bad third turn.” I hadn’t even realized that Hess had overheard the comment; it was typical of him to have the perfect response for the situation.

As a big time swimmer, Hess would spend his summers training with some club, but most of us weren’t that good, so for us it wouldn't have been worthwhile. Nonetheless, he would always ask his teammates where they’d be training that summer, as if he assumed that they too would be in full time training.

Hess was the only guy I’d ever met who simply never said anything bad about anybody behind their backs. Once an unpleasant fellow cattily asked him how a certain monkish swimmer’s sex life was. Hess shrugged, “It seems to suit him.” It was a typical Hess answer: he didn’t lie about his friend, yet he managed to put a positive slant on it.

If Hess did dislike someone, he managed to convey that with faint praise, which somehow spoke more eloquently than snideness ever could have.

My favorite Hess story took place one day in the spring of his freshman year. There were around eight of us sitting around his dorm room, when one of the guys asked Hess what had happened to his relationship with a girl named Kim he had dated that winter. Hess just shrugged and said, “I guess she doesn’t want to see me anymore.” I remember being surprised that Kim would break off with Hess. By coincidence, a month later I happened to be talking with a mutual acquaintance, who happened to mention that he had been talking to Kim, who had happened to mention to him that Hess had simply stopped asking her out.

Most guys at age nineteen are doing well enough not to embellish their exploits. But Hess, in front of a roomful of fellow college freshmen, actually lied the other way – to make the girl look good, and himself bad. I’d never seen anything like it before.

Hess encouraged others to be discreet as well. If a guy ever started to relate the physical particulars of a conquest, Hess would wave a hand and say, “Ah, details….” in a way that made it clear he didn’t want to hear them.

Once, I started to say, “I don’t know if I should tell you this, but--” when Hess quickly cut me off with “Then don’t tell me.” That was another first for me; most people love being told secrets.

At the beginning of our sophomore year, a mutual friend asked, “Well Hess, are you going to be getting a waterbed for all your amorous exploits this year?” I remember wondering how he could possibly respond to that. Saying yes would sound presumptuous, while saying no would be tacit acknowledgment of failure. Hess put on an offended look, and replied, “You mock me” – effectively saying no but putting a humorous spin on it.

On several occasions I heard Hess say – with a big sigh -- to other guys, “You have more experience with girls than I do,” even though the opposite was probably true. He would also frequently -- and ruefully -- refer to how he had been “spurned many a time,” though I had never seen it happen.

Another way Hess was different was that he seemed to have no social climbing instincts. While he was on his spring trip to London, Hess had a fling with Keena Rothhammer, the 1972 Olympic champion in the 800 meter freestyle. Keena, while not famous in any arena other than swimming, was a star in our world. So while it wasn’t as if Hess had dated Ursula Andress, he had still acquired boasting rights of a sort. Yet he never even mentioned it. We only found out about it when his roommate told us that Hess had been receiving letters from her.

The two greatest swimmers of our era were Mark Spitz and Gary Hall. Hall never achieved Olympic glory the way the Spitz did, so he never became a household name (although his son and namesake gained Olympic fame a generation later). But those of us in swimming knew of his achievements. Hall had set world records in the 200 and 400 meter individual medleys, the 200 meter backstroke, and the 200 meter butterfly on numerous occasions, as well as breaking many American records (which are set in yards). When the Harvard swim team took its Christmas vacation training trip to the Canary Islands that year, the University of Indiana team, with Hall in attendance, was also there. Indiana had won the NCAA Championships for five years in a row at that point. We were all in awe of the Indiana team, many of whom were big name swimmers. (I’m not sure what they thought of us. At the time I thought they must have considered us a particularly scruffy, wimpy-looking bunch.) In any case, when Hall saw Hess, who had trained at the same club the summer before, his face lit up. He yelled out, “Hess!! How are you?!!” and came over and pumped Hess’s hand enthusiastically. In our world, it seemed as if a God from Mount Olympus had descended to earth and singled out a mortal for acclamation. Afterwards I said to Hess, “Wow, he really seems to like you!” Hess just shrugged.

On every college campus there are some very visible people – athletic heroes, beauties, and other campus notables. And there are the invisible people: students who never seem to attract anybody’s attention, and people who work on campus. Hess never curried favor with any of the campus stars, although they sometimes approached him. Yet he often went out of his way to be nice to the less visible. There was a janitor (that job title was still used then) who worked at the pool; his name was Pete Forrester. None of the other swimmers paid him any attention, but Hess would always joke around with him in a way that made Pete feel good.

There was one black swimmer on the team, a classmate of ours named Michael Pinckney. He was tremendously muscular, and had been a decent high school swimmer, but wasn’t good enough to make the varsity. Michael was nice, but was by and large ignored by the other swimmers. You could tell that as the only black swimmer, he never felt that he fit in. He quit in December after overhearing our 47 year old coach refer to a basketball player at his former college as “a colored guy.” (Michael didn’t make a fuss about it, but I happened to notice the connection.) That February, he came to one of the meets as a spectator and sat way up in the stands with two friends. Hess saw him and in the middle of the meet, pointed straight at him, and bellowed “Pinko!” Michael practically squirmed with pleasure at that acknowledgment as he excitedly pointed out to his friends that the star swimmer had just called out to him.

We had another teammate named Ivor Gordon, a breaststroker from South Africa. All of the other swimmers knew that South Africa was an apartheid country, but I’d never heard anyone take issue with him about it; most of us were more concerned with his breaststroke times. One night Hess had dinner with Ivor and a few others after practice. Hess drew him into a long discussion about apartheid. Ivor made the standard arguments defending it – that blacks were better off in South Africa than they were in the rest of the continent, there was no justification for forced integration, etc. Hess kept saying in different ways that it was unfair: the whites sat in cushy offices drawing big salaries while the black miners worked for a dollar a day, etc. Hess wasn’t a liberal, and he wasn’t posturing to impress any nearby blacks – there were none – he was simply arguing for what was right. In terms of the points made, it was probably a standard argument of its type. What was different about it was that Hess was so polite. Political arguments, especially those touching directly on race, often turn nasty. But Hess made his points effectively, without ever turning the argument personal or sounding the least bit strident. (That same sense of fairness, by the way, keeps Hess from being a supporter of affirmative action these days.)

One thing that Hess did very well was laugh at other peoples’ jokes. I, like many, made a lot of jokes; a few hit, most missed. Hess would laugh at all of them. It always made me feel good, although whenever I really thought about it, it was a bit discomfiting.

Hess’s attitude towards others extended to animals as well. He was a vegetarian freshman year, though he later gave it up, partly because he disliked always having to ask for special meals.

Such sensitivity is all the more impressive when housed in a world class 200 meter butterflyer, an event requiring a quality the opposite of sensitivity – toughness.

A lot of the students seemed to be defined by one of the traditional identities: preppy, wonk, jock, or freak (greasers were in short supply on campus). But such identities are self-limiting, and the closer people identify with them, the less imaginative – and interesting – they tend to be. Hess rebelled against his identity as a jock. He had been typecast in high school, and wanted a change; but he was such a good athlete that he never really had any choice. However, the more you got to know him, the more you realized how loose-fitting the label was.

The other swimmers generally limited their dinner table conversations to swimming, girls, drinking, parties, and gossip. If any of the swimmers did bring up academic subjects, it was only to complain about how much work they had to do. Hess was the only one who ever brought up intellectual topics. He was majoring in social anthropology, and enjoyed learning about other cultures; another interest was social theory.

I took a course on Freudian psychology with Hess sophomore year; Freud was still being taken seriously at the time. At one point, towards the end of the semester, Hess explained to me how utterly useless Freud's way of analyzing the human psyche was. I don’t remember the particulars of what he said, but I do remember thinking, wow, he’s absolutely right.

Nobility without humor can be stultifying, but Hess was also the funniest guy I had ever met at that point. The few stories he told about his life almost inevitably turned into jokes at his own expense. One time he told me about how as a soccer player in his youth he had accidentally hurt the star of the team, and how mortified he had been about it, but then, how a week later, he had started exhibiting a “Don’t mess with me” attitude.

One time he described how he had gotten slightly sick before a big meet, and had had to have some blood drawn for a medical test (in effect reverse blood doping, the last thing an endurance athlete would want): “I didn’t mind getting sick, but watching that blood level rise in the test tube was like something out of a Hitchcock movie. It was as if there were [200 meter butterfly] times written along the side of the test tube reading, 2:04, 2:05, 2:06, 2:07………”

When the subject of big meets came up once, Hess told us that we could always tell when he was nervous because “that’s when the little dark spot appears on the front of my bathing suit.”

When we were in the Canary Islands during December of 1972, we competed in a meet on Gran Canaria (the Indiana team was not in attendance that evening), and a fairly large crowd turned out to watch. Hess drew a moustache on himself with a magic marker, and asked the meet announcer to tell the crowd he was Mark Spitz (whose Munich triumphs had occurred just three months previously). In the evening light, the crowd fell for it. After each of his swims, they roared in approval, chanting, “Mark! Spitz! Mark! Spitz!” Hess held up his arms in acknowledgment each time.

Though he never betrayed secrets, Hess didn’t shy away from off-color humor. One time we were having drinks with the swim team captain and his girlfriend in a bar called Casablanca. The talk turned to bars in general, and the girlfriend eagerly volunteered that she had worked in a bar once. Hess, without missing a beat, very solicitously asked, “Was this in an official or….unofficial capacity?” Neither of the two seemed to get it, which was just as well.

There were two somewhat attractive girls who lived in our dormitory whom most of the male students felt obliged to ooh and aah over, mostly to demonstrate their heterosexuality in the manner of nineteen year olds. Both girls had large breasts, wore more makeup than was normal on campus, and wore sexy clothes as well. One evening a few of us were having dinner when one of the guys made the obligatory statement about how much he’d like to bed them, or words to that effect. Hess just winced slightly, and said in a tremulous voice, “There’s something…unclean about those two.” He was making fun of himself more than he was making fun of them, but his comment did capture something about them perfectly.

Once at dinner, a girl at the next table was using profanity very liberally. Hess, who was sitting with his back to her, would wince and convulse slightly every time she swore. Again, he was mocking himself as much as her, but the effect was quite funny.

One time while we were in that Freudian psychology class he told me how when he had been in high school, if he had a teacher he didn’t like, he would sit near the window on a sunny day and see if he could get his watch to reflect the sunlight directly into the teacher’s eyes. Then he said he wanted to do the same to this teacher. (He would never have actually done this.)

Hess was also a master of the wry aside. In the fall of 1973, the Bobby Riggs – Billie Jean King tennis match took place. Riggs had claimed that even an old has-been like himself could beat the best woman pro, and an entire summer of well-publicized trash-talking then took place. We happened to watch the match in a large roomful of guys, most of whom were rooting volubly for Riggs. Hess’s only comment during the match was, “I just hope they don’t make the mistake of interviewing the winner.”

During his sophomore year, Hess briefly coached the women’s water polo team. I heard two girls on that team say that practice was never as much fun before or since. And I would often hear from other people that Hess had been “in good form” at various occasions, although they usually couldn’t recall the particulars.

The people who knew Hess best liked hanging around him just to see what would come out of his mouth next. In the most telling tribute, I would often hear other students ape some of his pet expressions from time to time. I heard a few people say that the more you got to know him, the more you liked him. It was true. He seemed to just grow and grow on you. I also knew that if I was depressed, his company would almost always lift my spirits.

I remember telling people who barely knew him how great he was, and having some of them basically accuse me of admiring him just because he was a great swimmer. Part of the reason they would say this was because whenever he met someone new, he would always let the other person be the star. It wasn’t exactly playing dumb, but given his wit and intelligence, it came close. And I would often be left thinking, if only they knew what he was really like.

But most of the people in our circle got to know him fairly well. And not unexpectedly, Hess was quite popular. He was elected captain of the swim team his junior year, and was also elected President of dormitory association that year. There were a number of woman in our dormitory who seemed to like him quite a bit, though for some reason he didn’t go after any of them.

Hess was the closest thing to Frank Merriwell I’d ever seen. (Merriwell, a fictional character from the first half of the twentieth century, was the original all-American boy at Yale. He was a star athlete, a good student, and respectful to others.) But Hess had one thing Merriwell didn’t: a sense of humor.

The mere mention of Merriwell makes this essay – and Hess -- seem somewhat dated. But there was always something a little anachronistic about Hess. He represented the ideal of a sound mind in a sound body, a phrase already out of date by 1972. He was also a gentleman, a word that had fallen into disuse, if not outright disfavor during the Sixties. (The concept has never fully returned, either: when was the last time you heard the word “gallant”?) Hess was actually more than just gentlemanly – he was downright chivalrous (a word that started falling into decline roughly five hundred years ago).

What made him this way? I’m not sure, and I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess. (No man is a hero to his psychiatrist.) In any case, if someone’s actions are consistently admirable, they don’t really call for analysis.

It is typical that I never once heard Hess mention his long term ambition to go into politics when we were in college; he never talked about himself unless asked, and if anyone did ask, he would say vaguely that he wanted to go to law school. (Another term one almost never hears these days is “noblesse oblige”, with its intimations of hereditary noblemen extending a helping hand to the benighted peasantry. But as originally conceived, the word had good connotations, and was meant to convey a certain self-sacrificing sense of obligation; it is another term Hess brings to mind.)

So what has become of him?

Hess spent a couple years coaching swimming in (pre-cartel) Medellin, Colombia, then entered law school and business school at the University of New Mexico in 1979. He married a girl from El Salvador in 1980, and got his combined degree in 1983. He started a small law firm and got elected to the Albuquerque City Council for two terms. Among his accomplishments, he sponsored and was able to get passed a bill legalizing the use of the cleaner-burning ethanol as motor fuel one day a week in the city. He also instituted Albuquerque’s first recycling initiative, encouraging homeowners to separate their plastic, metal, and paper.

Hess gained a reputation as an unfailingly polite Councilman who sometimes took up causes unpopular with the entrenched powers, such as trying to stop their self-dealing. This has hurt him politically. (It has even resulted in death threats, which he ignored.) Partly because of that, and partly because he ran as a Republican in a district that was seventy-five percent Democratic, he has been stymied in his political career. He ran for County Commissioner and lost, and has also run for the Public Regulation Commission and lost. (None of this has come as a total surprise to him; at age 30 he once shrugged, in reference to his ambitions, “I’m taking a long shot.”) There is something Quixotic about his approach to politics, tilting at corrupt windmills and running against the odds. But there was always something Quixotic about Hess: trying to make the Olympic team was another quest with high odds.

To meet Hess today, you wouldn’t know that he has been frustrated in his life’s ambition. On the surface at least, he exhibits the same equanimity. He continues to work as a lawyer; I heard recently that he had won a case regarding a disputed life insurance policy in which he was entitled to a contingency fee of $25,000, but refused the money because he felt that the widow whose case it was needed the money more than he did. He also does pro bono work for the Navajos.

Hess has started a swim club, which both of his sons belong to. At age 40 he made a brief comeback in swimming, and set a slew of masters world records, but now mostly concentrates on his sons’ swimming. His elder son is about to enter Harvard and would like to eventually go into politics. The younger son seems well on his way to becoming a world class swimmer.

In a way Hess’s life has played out almost exactly as one might have predicted from having known him as a young man. That a guy so solicitous of others would go into public service is not a coincidence. That a guy so honorable would not sell himself to various interests in order to further his political career is consistent. That a guy so gracious as a young man would not carry himself with any discernable bitterness after a frustrating career is not surprising. It is perhaps least surprising that both his sons want to emulate him.

One could say that if Hess had prostituted himself just a little bit, he might have accomplished greater good. After all, what good does it do to be virtuous when your virtue remains private? Bill Clinton sold himself early on (to both Stephens, the local investment bank, and Don Tyson, of Tyson Chicken), he got to be President, and was able to accomplish greater good – depending on your point of view -- than he would have otherwise. But if Hess had cut corners in an effort to get elected, he wouldn’t have been Hess; and anyway, by definition, true virtue remains private.

Sometimes I think, as I did in college, “If only they really knew him.” If only the electorate knew what type of person he was, they would surely vote for him. But if many of his college classmates didn’t know him well enough to appreciate him, one can hardly expect an entire electorate to do so. Nobility doesn’t advertise itself. (True nobility not only doesn’t advertise itself, it won’t even acknowledge itself. Hess proved that once again when the thrust of this essay was mentioned to him: he blanched.)

Maybe everyone has a similar story to tell of a high school or college acquaintance who seemed too good to be true. Maybe one only has the freedom to act like that before adult responsibilities begin to weigh one down. All I can say is I’ve never met anyone else like that, even in school.

This essay sounds suspiciously like the sentimental ramblings of an old man. I recall Hess himself saying one evening in the dormitory dining hall, “I wonder what good old days these will be, eh John?” I’m pleased to report that I don’t feel the least bit sentimental about college. But I do think that Hess’s words and actions, as repeated here, speak as well for themselves as ever.


Anonymous said...

I hesitate to be the first one to leave a comment, but thank God that people like Hess exist. They're great role models for the rest of us.

- Susan D.

John Craig said...

Susan --
I appreciate all your comments, especially the ones which show you're going through the archives.

Yes, I always found Hess's presence to be somehow reassuring when I was in college. He was/is a great role model.