Carnegie Commission Honors Those Who Risk Their Lives : More Than a Medal, Heroism Award Helps Pay Bravery’s Costs

Associated Press

When petite Gail Mazzetti Hooks saw two thugs beating a Houston police officer and going for his gun, she attacked with uncharacteristic fury--scratching, kicking and punching--until the two men fled.

“I thought they were going to kill him,” said Hooks, who had been watching from the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. “He had the prettiest face, but he was purple. I kept thinking, ‘That could be my brother.’ ”

Hooks ran after one of the bad guys until reality caught up with her on that warm, humid evening of April 20, 1986. Alone and shaking in an alley, she abandoned the chase, threw up in the bushes and hurried home to bed.


Nevertheless, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission proclaimed her a hero, and a forever-grateful Officer James Whitley sent her flowers.

Hooks is one of 7,313 adults and children who have been honored by the commission since its founding in 1904 by industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who was moved by the bravery displayed following a mine explosion near Pittsburgh.

Cash and a Medal

Carnegie heroes receive $2,500 and a bronze medal on which is inscribed the New Testament verse: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The self-effacing Hooks, who moved out of Texas shortly after the fracas because one of the attackers remained at large, says she is uncomfortable being called a hero.

“That was the way I was brought up,” said Hooks, now 31 and living in Charlotte, N. C. “If you saw someone who needed help, you just helped them. You don’t think about it, you just do it.”

To Whitley, however, Hooks and another waitress who came to his rescue deserve the honor.


“I couldn’t believe they tried to help me like that, when they could have easily gotten killed or hurt,” said Whitley, 28, who is still on the Houston police force.

“I probably wouldn’t be here today if not for them.”

In establishing the fund, which he endowed with $5 million, Carnegie said he wasn’t trying to “create heroism . . . knowing well that heroic action is impulsive.”

Insurance for Courage

He also said he wanted to make sure heroes or their survivors would not “suffer pecuniarily” as a result of their deeds.

Paying for pensions, scholarships and funeral expenses “is where Carnegie has its real punch,” commission spokesman Walter Rutkowski said.

In 85 years, more than 63,000 people have been nominated for heroism awards, but just 7,313 of them, or about 11%, were chosen to receive them.

“We are up to our whatever in nominees,” said Rutkowski, whose office in downtown Pittsburgh is watched over by a somber portrait of Carnegie. “We give away as many awards as we have cases that meet our requirements.”

Nominees are scrutinized by three investigators before the commission’s 21-member executive committee votes.

Just the Facts

Like Sgt. Joe Friday of “Dragnet,” the Carnegie investigators want to know just the facts.

“In a drowning case, we go for the water temperature, the distance of the swim, the current and the rescuer’s swimming ability,” Rutkowski said. “We don’t get into a person’s psyche.

“You cannot get emotionally tied up with these cases. You just don’t have the capacity to see these cases other than clinically. It’s like a doctor in the operating room. You don’t want him to weep over the pain you’re in.”

Candidates are excluded from consideration if they are obligated to act because of their occupation, such as lifeguard or firefighter. A rescue of a family member also is excluded, unless the rescuer was severely injured or killed.

Above all, the saved person must have been in imminent danger of losing his life, and the hero must have risked his life in performing the rescue. Also, the deed must have taken place in the United States or Canada.

Posthumous Honors, Pensions

More than 1,500 Carnegie heroes, or roughly 21%, died performing their rescues. Most of the heroic acts involve drownings or fires.

Surprisingly, perhaps, a nominee can still be chosen for the honor even if the life-saving attempt failed.

“It may sound crass, but we’re not interested in the victim so much as the rescuer,” Rutkowski said. “We’re not a lifesaving award. We give awards to those who risk their own lives to save others.”

Carnegie heroes range in age from 8 to 80 and 91% have been males. Most are modest people who are hard-pressed to explain what prompted their actions, the investigators say.

“I don’t think anyone can truthfully claim to understand why anyone stands by or gets involved,” said Marlin Ross, a Carnegie investigator since 1983.

Acting by Instinct

To Carnegie hero Robert Jameson, a heroic act is done by instinct.

“If you don’t react immediately, you’re going to be overwhelmed by what happens. You’ll just freeze,” said Jameson, 36, of Roebling, N. J., who last April saved a woman from a knife-wielding attacker.

“It has nothing to do with bravery,” said Andrew Mathieson, 60, of Pittsburgh, who was shot three times while defending his secretary, Jane Celender, on Feb. 19, 1986.

“If you ask if I would attack a 210-pound man holding a gun, I would say, ‘No, not consciously,’ but if the circumstances would develop the same way again, I would probably do the same thing,” he said. “I think the real brave people are those who have time to consider what they’re going to do and still do it.”

Mary Ann Anderson, whose father, John, died trying to save a boy from drowning in Lake Michigan on July 17, 1987, said she has met several Carnegie heroes and all share one trait.

Concern for Others

“They all have this fundamental concern for people, that what you do in life does matter and affect others,” said Anderson, 24, of Baldwin, Mich.

“Everyone wants to believe the best of them will come out, but no one knows what you are going to do in a situation like that. You either panic or you do something. It’s your inner soul taking over.”

Anderson’s death left not only an emotional void in his family’s life but also a financial one. His three children were in college at the time, and there was little money to pay the bills.

The Carnegie commission stepped in, paid the funeral expenses, set up a monthly stipend for Anderson’s wife, Louise, and contributed scholarship money.

“It was a blessing,” said Louise Anderson, 42, a schoolteacher in Baldwin. “There were many bleak times when I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make the bills.”

Of the 105 beneficiaries currently receiving pensions, Evelyn Sponsler of Everett, Pa., has been on the books the longest.

Pension Saved Family

For 58 years she and her disabled daughter have been supported by a Carnegie pension awarded when her husband, Clarence, died trying to rescue a man who was overcome by fumes when he fell into a gasoline storage tank.

“I probably would have had to live on welfare without it,” said Sponsler, 82, who had three young children at the time her husband died.

Last year, the commission gave out $236,000 in pensions. About $372,000 went toward the $2,500 hero awards, funeral expenses and to 20 scholarship recipients.

What the hero often does not receive is praise from the person saved, commission investigators say.

Jameson said the woman he saved never thanked him, but he can understand why.

“This was a very violent thing that happened to her,” he said. “She just wants to put it in her past and forget about it.”

Jane Celender, 42, the Pittsburgh secretary who owes her life to Mathieson’s quick actions, said that thanks seemed inadequate.

“How can you say thank you for your life?” she asked.