When most people think of a hero, they picture Superman swooping through the air to save the day in its most dire moments. But these 21 real-life heroes have saved the world in much more realistic, admittedly less grandiose, ways.
21. Frank Serpico
This New Yorker is known for whistleblowing on police corruption in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His actions prompted Mayor John V. Lindsay to appoint the landmark Knapp Commission, which investigates corruption within the NYPD. As a result of Serpico's efforts, the NYPD was drastically changed. Michael Armstrong, who was counsel to the Knapp Commission and went on to become chairman of the city's Commission to Combat Police Corruption, observed in 2012 “the attitude throughout the department seems fundamentally hostile to the kind of systemized graft that had been a way of life almost 40 years ago.”
Much of Serpico's fame came after the release of the 1973 film Serpico, which was based on the book by Peter Maas and which starred Al Pacino in the title role, for which Pacino received an Oscar nomination.
20. Lassana Bathily
Lassana Bathily, a Muslim shop assistant, was hailed as a hero in the hostage crisis known as the “Hypercacher kosher supermarket siege” in the city of Paris in January 2015. During the gunman situation, Bathily helped hide people in a cold storage container in the basement of the store. After Bathily was able to escape the store himself, he was immediately arrested by police who suspected him of playing a role in the attack. He was released an hour and a half later and provided the officers with a key to open the store’s metal blinds, assisting them in looking for the gunman and saving the rest of the hostages.
19. Candy Lightener
Candy Lightner is the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in September 1980. She transformed a personal tragedy—the death of her young daughter—into a noble mission against drunk driving by forming this grass-roots organization dedicated to curbing alcohol-related traffic deaths. Lightener’s daughter was senselessly killed by a repeat drunk driving offender. According to the organization’s reports, they have saved over 300,000 lives.
18. Danielle Gletow
This passionate children’s rights advocate had spent nearly twenty years of her life living in familiarity with the disheartening state of the foster care system. A past emergency placement guardian and now adoptive parent, Danielle was a witness to the circumstances surrounding the “forgotten children” of the system. She saw babies, toddlers and adolescents robbed of their blissful innocence, and this led her to seek to bring love, hope and joy to each child through the work of her foundation, One Simple Wish. By empowering everyday people to grant a child’s wish through the organization’s website, as well as through programs, initiatives and community partnerships, she is working to make a difference in the lives of children who are less fortunate.
17. Marc Patterson
Mark Patterson saved 12-year-old Colton Reed from a cougar attack after the boy was targeted by the predator near a vacation lodge in south-central British Columbia where his family was staying. Patterson, who owns the lodge, kicked, choked and wrestled the cougar, but when his kicks were not enough to make it let go, he put a chokehold on the animal and squeezed as hard as he could until it gave up. He then drove the boy to a nearby hospital where he made an excellent recovery.
16. Richard Nares
Nares' inspiration is his son, Emilio, who was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just 3 years old. Months of chemotherapy followed, and Nares met other families who were struggling to get their children to the hospital for treatments, which often occur several times a week.
After Emilio passed away shortly before his sixth birthday, Richard and his wife, Diane, founded the Emilio Nares Foundation to honor his memory and to help other children in need. The children and families he served often lived in poverty and had no car or money for transportation. At first, Nares was a one-man show, doing all the driving himself. The requests kept coming, and today, 15 years after the nonprofit was founded, Nares and his group have provided more than 33,000 rides.
15. James Persyn III
14-year-old James Persyn III helped save a college student's life when she showed up pleading for help on his family’s doorstep in January 2013. James was home alone with his siblings when he heard a loud banging on the door paired with cries for help. He let the young woman, a Central Michigan University student, into his home and quickly secured her and his two younger siblings in an upstairs bathroom. The woman had been assaulted and managed to escape her attacker’s car. Her rampaging attacker found out where she was and lit the house on fire after failed attempts to break into the home. Luckily, the boy’s father arrived home in time to put out the fire. The 30-year-old attacker was shot and killed by police later that day.
14. Dr. Georges Bwelle
In Cameroon, there is only one doctor for every 5,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. For comparison’s sake, the ratio in the United States is one doctor for every 413 people. Bwelle became a doctor himself, working as a vascular surgeon in Yaounde’s Central Hospital in Cameroon. He started a nonprofit that travels into rural areas on weekends to provide free medical care. Bwelle and a crew of up to 30 people jam into vans, tie medical supplies to the roofs and travel across rough terrain to visit villages in need and perform free surgeries. Since 2008, he and his group of volunteers have helped nearly 32,000 people.
13. Rajinder Johar
Johar suffered six years of depression after a bullet injury left him paralyzed and bedridden, but he eventually decided to help other disabled individuals become self-sufficient and founded the “Family of Disabled,” which looks after the betterment of disabled persons in Delhi. FOD’s mission is to build and nurture persons with disabilities through different sustainable interventions for improving their quality of life, making them self-reliant. Johar's service of the disabled over two decades has won him several awards and accolades.
12. Dale Beatty
Beatty, an Army veteran from Statesville who lost both legs beneath the knees in Iraq, co-founded Purple Heart Homes in 2008 to help provide injured veterans with new homes when they return from conflicts. The organization also helps veterans who need improvements to their homes, especially as they age and can't do the repairs themselves. The organization has assisted veterans in the Carolinas and other states coast to coast, often with volunteers providing everything from donations to labor. Purple Heart Homes completed its 300th housing project in November 2018.
Unfortunately, Beatty passed away unexpectedly last February at age 39, but Purple Heart Homes lives on, continuing to change lives.
11. Peter Tabichi
Peter Tabichi is a Kenyan teacher. He joined Keriko Mixed Day Secondary School in 2016, where he teaches math, science and physics. It is a school belonging to a village in the Rift Valley Province, which is a region impacted by famine and drought. The school population is made up of seven different tribes, with around 95% of students living in poverty and one third live with only one parent. This selfless educator donates 80% of his salary to support pupils in the Pwani Village. He also established a peace club, uniting representatives who have been involved with violence. He engages with local communities, teaching residents how to grow crops that can resist famine. Tabichi is the winner of the 2019 Global Teacher Prize and, in just a couple of short years, has doubled the number of his students who attend university.
10. Robert Cooke
Cooke was a 22-year-old skydiving instructor who put the life of his student before his own when their plane experienced complications and was heading into a deadly crash. He remained calm, despite knowing they were in free fall and would likely die. Cooke explained to the student what would happen and what she could expect. He attached their harnesses together, putting himself closely around her to protect her and instructed her to ensure that she was on top of him when the plane hit the ground so that he would take the majority of the impact, rather than her. Cooke, who did not survive the ordeal, took the entire impact of them both, undoubtedly saving her life.
9. Kyle Carpenter
On November 21, 2010, while joining his team to fight off a Taliban attack in a small village, he suffered severe injuries to his face and right arm from the blast of an enemy hand grenade, which he dived on top of to save his fellow Marine and friend, Lance Cpl. Nick Eufrazio. His injuries were severe and even included the loss of an eye due to shrapnel wounds. On June 19, 2014, former president Obama presented Carpenter with the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House, making him the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient.
8. Roy Madril Jr and Chris Martinez
Roy Madril Jr. and Chris Martinez were at a gas station filling their car with gas when they heard a panicked woman screaming for help during a carjacking. “He has my kids! He’s stealing my car!” they heard the 27-year-old mother screaming. A man had forced her out of her car and drove off, her six-year-old and a two-year-old still inside. Madril and Martinez wasted no time in taking action. They hopped back in their own car and pursued the carjacker themselves while calling 911. Thanks to them, the police were able to apprehend the carjacker and save the kidnapped children.
7. Eli Cohen
Cohen was an Israeli spy best known for his espionage work in 1961–1965 in Syria during the Syrian War. His bravery and ability to develop close relationships with the Syrian political and military hierarchy—even becoming a chief adviser to the Minister of Defense—helped the Israeli forces triumph during these war efforts.
Cohen was eventually uncovered as a conspirator by Syrian counterintelligence. He was convicted under pre-war martial law, sentenced to death in 1965 and executed on national television. Cohen has become a national hero in Israel, and many streets and neighborhoods have been named for him.
6. Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks, who was born in 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia, is indirectly responsible for creating the polio vaccine. She died of cervical cancer in 1951, and cells taken from the tumor in her body were used to form the HeLa cell line, which has been used extensively in medical research since that time.
After her death, the cells made their way to the laboratory of researcher Dr. George Otto Gey, who noticed an unusual quality in them—they were very durable and survived much longer than expected. Gey isolated and multiplied a specific cell, creating a cell line. He dubbed the resulting sample HeLa, derived from the name Henrietta Lacks. The HeLa strain revolutionized medical research and was used to develop the polio vaccine, no doubt saving thousands of lives.
5. Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks was a black seamstress who became an infamous civil rights activist after she refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Her defiance sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, launching nationwide efforts to end racial segregation of public facilities. This woman can be credited with helping to initiate the civil rights movement in the United States.
4. Witold Pilecki
He was a Polish cavalry officer, intelligence agent and resistance leader who, during World War II, volunteered for a resistance operation that involved being imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp in order to gather intelligence. He informed his Western Allies of Nazi Germany's Auschwitz atrocities as early as 1941, exposing such conditions that stunned those who were a part of the resistance in Warsaw. He escaped from the camp in 1943 after nearly 2½ years of imprisonment but was arrested a few years later and thrown in jail. His trial was organized and held on March 3, 1948. He was handed a death sentence and killed two months later. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the White Eagle in 2006, which is Poland’s highest military honor.
3. Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov and Boris Baranov
Thirty-three years ago at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the city of Pripyat in Ukraine, a late-night safety test went wrong and caused the worst nuclear accident of all time. It released 400 times more radiation than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and contaminated millions of acres of surrounding land, killing hundreds of people in the days and years following.
A few days after the initial disaster, mechanical engineer Alexei Ananenko, senior engineer Valeri Bespalov and shift supervisor Boris Baranov stepped forward to bravely undertake a potentially suicidal mission to keep the power plant from melting down. They swam through radioactive waters and opened sluice gates beneath the power plant, potentially saving millions of lives. The three heroes survived the harrowing experience. As of 2015, it was reported that two of the men were still alive and still working within the industry. The third man, Boris Baranov, passed away in 2005 of a heart attack.