The East Harlem neighborhood in which New York City's P.S. 121 is situated was poor when Eugene Lang went there (class of '28). It still is. But Lang, now 66 and a multimillionaire businessman, is offering a way out. At the elementary school's 1981 commencement, he was invited to offer a few inspirational words.
Lang did better than that. On the spur of the moment, he shucked the speech he had prepared and instead offered each of 61 graduating sixth graders a $500 annual scholarship for each of four years of college; they get added stipends for every year they remain in junior and senior high school. His audience gasped. Cheering and hugging followed.
"You can't hand out money and just walk away," Lang says. He hasn't. He and a part-time assistant he hired keep close tabs on the children's progress. In a community where college is an improbable dream, 52 of his original group still live in the neighborhood, and all are still in school. "He watches over us like a father," says Aristides Alverado, 16. Lang was a child of immigrant parents and attended college (Swarthmore) on scholarship before establishing Refac Technology Development Corp., which licenses and promotes new technologies (1984 revenues: $10 million). Lang figures to spend about $250,000 to fulfill his pledge. "The amount doesn't matter," he says. "The important thing is that all these kids now have a goal."
Cub Scout Billy Joe Thomas, 9, of Seattle, is one determined salesman. Working daily six-hour shifts (12 hours on weekends) outside supermarkets and at bus stops—even in pouring rain—he sold 800 tickets to a regional scout show (to the runner-up's 250) and copped the grand prize: a trip for two to Disneyland. But earlier Billy Joe had seen a TV program about dying children. "Those kids aren't going to have any fun," he thought. "Wouldn't it be great to send them to Disneyland?" So he gave his prize to two sick youngsters chosen by the Children's Orthopedic Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle. When word of his selflessness became known, Billy Joe was flooded with awards and letters of praise, including two from the White House. In addition, a mystery benefactor saw to it that Billy Joe and his parents, who are both disabled, got their own trip to Disneyland. Through it all, Billy Joe remained unfazed. Says his pack's activities director, Andy Wangstad: "Billy Joe thinks that sharing is what scouts do all the time."
A year has passed since Benji Wilson, ranked at 17 by some as the nation's top high school basketball talent, was shot and killed in a sidewalk robbery attempt. He was one of 94 Chicago youths murdered in suspected street-gang related violence last year. Time hasn't eased the pain of Benji's mother, Mary Wilson, 46, but she has channeled her grief into a mission to prevent the senseless violence. Many credit her as a force behind Mayor Harold Washington's move to set up a $4 million Youth Crime Prevention Task Force. Since then, police note, violent gang activity has been reduced by about 13 percent. Her Benji Wilson Youth Foundation seeks to raise $200,000 for scholarships and a new youth center. Wilson, a registered nurse, speaks frequently, urging kids to aim for the top. "My son wasn't just a ballplayer," she says. "Ben was a leader. I can't let him down."
For most of his 18 years, Allen Pepke of New Haven, Mich. dreamed of one day flying military aircraft, maybe helicopters. Since a college diploma is needed to become an Air Force pilot, Pepke chose the Army. Soldiers, however, also do a lot of marching, and Army doctors didn't like his feet—he has a skin condition on his soles. "They told me I couldn't walk 20 miles in combat boots," Allen recalls. But on Oct. 13 he set out dramatically to prove the Army wrong by walking from his home state all the way to Washington, D.C. With his mom, Noreen, scouting the route in a car to locate overnight campsites and provide logistical support, Allen—toting a 30-pound pack—trudged alongside the highways of Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland, covering 535 miles in 13 days. "My feet hurt as anyone's would," he allowed, "but nothing came close to stopping me." He was 90 miles west of his goal when a state highway patrol car arrived with lights flashing ("I knew I wasn't speeding," Pepke quips). The trooper brought good news: The Army, after reviewing various medical records from specialists, had decided to execute an about-face. Pepke and his mom drove to Detroit for his induction Oct. 28. He has orders to report for basic training at Ft. Knox, Ky. on Jan. 9.
Vigdis Finnbogadottir, 55, a former schoolteacher, divorcée, mother to an adopted 17-year-old daughter and President of Iceland since 1980, is the world's first democratically elected woman head of state. But on Oct. 24, when tens of thousands of Icelandic women went on a one-day strike in part to demand equal pay for equal work, Finnbogadottir (inset) had an ironic problem: A new law passed by Parliament banning a strike of Iceland-air's flight attendants, most of whom are women, came to the President for signing that same day. Had she known, she would have taken the day off too. As it was, she summoned the Prime Minister and asked for a delay, an unprecedented move in Iceland's history and traditions. In the end, the constitution required her to sign, but she had—icily—scored a point.
Are watermelons good listeners? Jason Bright, 10, of Arkadelphia, Ark., might say so. "I talked to mine a lot," says Jason, the young scion of a family of champion watermelon growers. "I told it, 'Get fatter!' "
It did, and when Jason's 46-inch-long Carolina Cross went on the scale on Sept. 7, it weighed in at 260 pounds. That's five pounds heavier than the current "biggest watermelon" entry in the Guinness Book of World Records and about 180 pounds more than Jason himself. No wonder, then, that on his record day, Jason said he felt "more important than President Reagan." He has since been feted at the state fair and collected $400 in prize money. What's more, the Brights plan to offer for sale the 1,000 to 1,200 seeds that came from Jason's melon, charging $20 a dozen. (He plans to use the money to help buy his own four-wheel All-Terrain Vehicle.) Does he hope for an even bigger melon next season? "I do," says Jason. "I plan to go for 300 pounds, maybe more." Does he have any advice to offer American youths? "Yes, try for a goal; it might work." And by the way, would he like to grow up to be President? "No," says Jason. "I want to grow up to be a veterinarian."
One of Ausbon Sargent's boyhood haunts was a three-acre-plus green on Main Street in his hometown of New London, N.H. It was part of the campus of Colby Academy (now Colby-Sawyer College) from which Sargent graduated in 1910 and for which he worked 25 years as a maintenance man. New London has since grown into a popular summer resort, and rumor had it the financially strapped school might sell the land for condo development. "I felt it ought to be saved," says Sargent, 94, a widower with no immediate family. He took his life savings of $150,000 and bought the property, then deeded the land to the town on condition that it will never be built on. "I don't care one cent about any fanfare," he says of the green, since renamed Sargent Common. "The main thing is to keep it the way it was."
They range in age from 9 to 94, and outside their communities none are especially well-known—most not at all. They did not seek fame, and most are surprised, even embarrassed, to be hailed as heroes. Still, because of special insight in one instance, selfless generosity in another or stubborn determination in a third each of the seven people profiled on this and the following pages deserves applause. Singly and together they make us all glad to be a part of the human family.