As I have gained in maturity and wisdom over the years, I have come to be impressed with the quiet valor with which most people tackle the routine of their daily existence. The world is full of unsung and unappreciated stalwart types who quietly cope with whatever happens and deserve more credit than they get. From my own perspective, I have to include my own parents in that group of those unsung heroes Another major contender for the title was Aunt Lorna’s husband, Heman Powers.
The name “Heman” is Hebraic in source and means “Faithful” — and if ever there was a case of nomenclature, that was it. Faithful is just what Uncle Heme was. His personality was a paradoxical blend of quiet dignity and sly mischievous humor, an easy-going almost cuddly demeanor and expression combined with a dynamic, forceful personality. By the time I was ten years old, Cousin Tom, Aunt Lorna, and Uncle Heme were a successful, well-heeled trio ensconced in a suitably elegant mansion situated on what was then four acres on President Street in Wheaton, IL.
After my own mother died, my life came to include visits and sometimes prolonged stays at the Powers household. Every evening, Uncle Heme would quietly show up after a day’s work, sitting at the head of the table as he combined meat-carving responsibilities with asking the rest of us how our day had gone, if anything exciting had happened, and if we wanted light or dark meat. He never seemed to talk much about himself and died of pancreatic cancer when he was only 50 years old in 1960, so it wasn’t until recently that I learned that Uncle Heme had once been a real, authentic hero — the type they write newspaper stories about.
He Had a Good Chance to Stay Out of It
August 30, 1924, was a beautiful day in the Fox River valley. There was at that time a camping area known as Oak Ridge (not to be confused with Oak Ridge, TN) situated along the river. Now the Fox River usually appears to be quiet, almost placid as it rolls along but looks can be deceiving. On this particular day, the river was higher than usual and possessed of swift, potentially deadly, undercurrents. This was the sort of situation which had claimed the lives of unsuspecting swimmers before — victims whose bodies sometimes were never even recovered — but apparently it all looked reassuring to a young lady named Ruth Sherman and her boyfriend who cast caution to the winds and waded in for a dip. Within a matter of seconds, swift currents had knocked them off their feet and swept them away. As the Fox River hurtled them along downstream, Ruth desperately clung to her companion, almost pulling them both under. At this point, they made their first sensible decision of the day and began to holler for H*E*L*P*! Onlookers responded but only lined the shore, wondering helplessly what to do.
I’ve heard people warn in a good-natured way “Hey, YOU had a good chance to stay out of this!” Well, I guess my definition of a real, authentic hero is someone who has a good chance to stay out of something but who jumps in anyway. Among those who joined the crowd to see what was going on was young Heman Powers, then only 14 years of age, dressed in tennis clothes. He was just a young kid and certainly not an Olympic hopeful when it came to swimming. Nobody expected him to do anything except join the crowd of those who looked around helplessly, wondering what to do. It would have been no discredit to the young boy if he had just run off, looking for his parents. Yes, on this unhappy occasion, Heman Powers had a good chance to stay out of danger but — to the electrified excitement of the crowd — he nevertheless raced over to the river’s bank and plunged right in (literally speaking).
It staggers the imagination but within minutes, young Heman Powers had not only rescued the foolish young couple from their potential fate but also managed to save himself as well. Still wearing his soaking wet tennis clothes, the heroic young boy stood up, went home, and with the passage of time grew up to become Uncle Heme … who sat at the head of his table and asked us how our day had gone and never once said a word about the time he had a good chance to stay out of danger and had jumped in anyway to save somebody else.
This Was News Ten Years Ago, St. Charles (IL) Chronicle, Aug. 30, 1934