What does it mean to be "the best"? In honor of Independence Day, NEWSWEEK launched a nationwide search for people and projects that exemplify American values. Not partisan or political values, but values as they were originally framed by the Founders. We were looking for visionaries who make the life, liberty and happiness of others their priority. We found them. Everywhere. In the private sector and the public sector, in the professions and suburban kitchens. In Seattle and Mississippi--and in Wheaton, Ill., where an entire town (right) got together to build a five-bedroom house for a local man who was injured in Iraq. Wheaton is just one reason to be proud of America.
A town bands together to build a house for a local man, injured in war.
The son of immigrant parents, Joel Gomez did not take the American Dream for granted. He fought for it. After high school at Wheaton-Warrenville South in Illinois, he joined the United States Army and later went off to serve in Iraq. In March 2004, his tank crashed in the Tigris River, and Sergeant Gomez was paralyzed from the neck down. Gomez, who will never walk again, assumed that after treatment he would go back to his little basement apartment in Wheaton, just another forgotten casualty of war.
His hometown saw it otherwise. This 24-year-old native son deserved better--and he was going to get it. Michelle Senatore, a civic volunteer in Wheaton, spearheaded a campaign to raise money to build a big house for Gomez, a place that would be state-of-the-art for the disabled. Senatore, the daughter of a Vietnam vet who faced disdain when he came home from that war, vowed, "I'm not going to let that happen to Joel." The house-building dream would cost $400,000, a seemingly tall task, and require a massive amount of donated labor. "If everyone works together in just a little way," said Senatore, "things can happen."
The townspeople of Wheaton, a community known for its rock-ribbed patriotism and deeply religious values, jumped at the chance to help Gomez. Volunteers came from some 50 groups: firefighters and carpenters, contractors, physicians, store owners, the local VFW and the PTA, school sports teams, cheerleaders and Cub Scouts. To raise money for a van that could accommodate a wheelchair, the group approached Dick Portillo, the owner of a chain of restaurants, and asked if he would let them hold a fund-raiser. Portillo simply wrote a check to pay for the van. "When our country needed him," said Portillo, "he was there." Ryan Altiere, 17, a high-school baseball player, worked at a chili-dinner fund-raiser. "There's not much of a better cause," he explained. Dr. Scott Kolbaba, whose son played on sports teams with Gomez, went to other physicians and asked them to provide special care during Gomez's rehabilitation without charge. "Here's a hometown kid who needed some help," said Kolbaba. "The least we can do is give a little back." Firefighters organized a wheel-chair basketball game to raise money. They sometimes drop by to visit him. "It's almost like we've known him forever," said firefighter Jeff MacKay.
The house, on Washington Street in Wheaton, will be completed in a few weeks. It has five bedrooms and five bathrooms, and it is equipped with technology that will make doors open and lights switch on and off at the sound of Gomez's voice. The soldier's father, Algimiro Gomez, speaking through an interpreter, has tears in his eyes as he talks with appreciation about the town's efforts. "I never thought or hoped anyone could help us the way they did," he says.
Gomez is still a patient at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton, which has waived all fees for care. If his progress continues, he might be released in several weeks. From a hospital bed, he struggled to speak without a device that aids his tracheotomy, expressing his thanks. "I don't think I paid for anything," he said one day last week. Senatore, who spearheaded the effort, gazed into his eyes and told him: "You paid your price, sweetheart." And then some.
At his camp, kids learn about baseball--and manners and joy.
Summer mornings in the quiet northwest corner of Washington, D.C., Home Run Baseball Camp starts when the neighborhood church bells ring. Coach John McCarthy begins each new weeklong session by introducing his teenage deputy coaches to the fidgety little campers ages 4 to 15 packed into the bleachers. He praises one coach for having shined his shoes. He compliments another for always saying thank you. Then Mac asks each coach what book he or she is reading.
"The Iliad," says one.
"Want to or have to?" Mac wants to know, his voice booming like a drill sergeant's.
"Want to!" says the junior coach.
"I love it!" says Mac.
Between intros he lauds one of the campers, too, clinking fists with him Wonder Twins-style. "Hey, good listening skills. I like the eye contact. If you observe, you learn." Coach Mac clearly teaches a whole lot more than baseball. At Home Run camp, winning really isn't everything. What matters here is hustling, sharing your bat with a teammate, tucking in your shirt and, of course, having fun.
For McCarthy, who spent one glorious year in the minors, baseball is about joy. And if you treat it with respect, it will pay you back in character. "When you're competing, it should be from the heart," says McCarthy. (His father, Colman McCarthy, was a writer for The Washington Post, parent company of NEWSWEEK.)
The camp he runs today evolved from a program he started 11 years ago, which taught baseball and its values to inner-city kids. McCarthy still recruits those kids to come here on scholarship, but more-privileged kids sign on, too. And six years ago, he cofounded an after-school baseball program in the Dominican Republic. McCarthy sends his coaches down to train Dominican coaches for their school teams. The local kids get to play as long as they go to class.
Back in Washington, Daniel White, 17, takes a break from coaching the 4-year-olds. A former camper himself, he pitches for his high-school team and hopes to play in college. McCarthy's lessons have stayed with him. White doesn't get overly competitive and he enjoys the game. And to this day, before every game, he sits down and buffs his shoes to a bright shine.
His news stories about the South's old secrets helped convict the killers.
Jerry Mitchell walked into the Neshoba County, Miss., Courthouse last Tuesday, dead tired and filled with anxiety. A day earlier, the judge in the Edgar Ray Killen murder trial had polled the deliberating jury and found it split six to six. A chilling thought kept Mitchell up all night: Killen, charged in the murder, 41 years ago, of three civil-rights workers in Neshoba County, could walk free.
The stakes were high for Mississippi and for Mitchell. An investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, he has for 16 years published story after meticulously sourced story on the 1964 murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, uncovering decades-old, secret documents that shine light on the darkest corners of Mississippi's past. He's reported other landmark cases--uncovering the truth behind the murders of black activists Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer, among others--but the '64 case has always been his obsession. So when the jury announced its guilty verdict last week, Mitchell felt only relief.
Jerry Mitchell, 46, wasn't always a civil-rights crusader. He grew up in Texarkana, Texas, in the dying days of Jim Crow, but as the child of quiet churchgoers, he lived "a universe away" from the frontline fire hoses and barking dogs. The people around him "simply didn't talk about" the civil-rights conflict that defined the '60s. Mitchell never thought about it much either, until 1989, when the film "Mississippi Burning" struck him "like a blow to the head." He was mystified: "I just couldn't believe that people allowed that to go on."
Vowing to reveal what had really happened that night, Mitchell sweet-talked courthouse sources, and by August of '89 had loaded up his red Honda CRX with more than 2,400 sealed, top-secret documents from the ominously named Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. "I'm someone who when you tell me I can't see something, I need to see it about a hundred times more," Mitchell says. Convinced all Mississippians needed to see it too, he spent the next decade and a half publishing stories on the state's systematic suppression of evidence in civil-rights-era cases.
With Killen sentenced to 60 years in prison, Mitchell can move on from those murders but not from the ghosts of Mississippi. Next on his list: the infamous Emmett Till lynching case. He scoffs at the notion that he, and the state, have already atoned enough. "Mississippi deserves a lot of credit," he says, "but there's always justice to be done."