They Did the Right Thing

updated 10/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tom Wolfe called the '70s the Me Decade. What came next seemed all too often the Gimme Decade. People going along to get along. Scandals erupting in politics, business, entertainment, sports. And yet, quietly, moral choices were being made. In the '80s the locale of courage was no longer the playing field or the battlefield. It shifted to the streets of the ghetto, to the town meetings of worried communities, to the quiet homes and offices where the next sound you heard was the buck screeching to a stop. These seven men and women made those kinds of choices. They—and their views—were not popular with everyone. But they were willing to stand by their values, regardless of consequences. As the '80s came to a close, they had to be considered nothing less than heroic.

Carrie Barefoot Dickerson

With a name like Barefoot (it's old Irish), you've got to be good. And Carrie Barefoot Dickerson, 72, is terrific. Up to 1973 she had enjoyed a series of modest careers: farmer's wife, schoolteacher, baker, nurse. Then one day she saw a newspaper story about a nuclear power plant named Black Fox coming to Inola, not far from the family farm. That did it. Nurse Dickerson vowed to protect the unpolluted future of Oklahoma. She organized a group called CASE (Citizens Action for Safe Energy), attracted 800 members and started fund-raising. "I couldn't pick a guitar and give benefit concerts like Jackson Browne or Bonnie Raitt," she says, "but I remembered that when I was a girl, I was a pretty fair quilter." For nine years she raised money by raffling her quilts and hiring lawyers to plead her cause. By 1982 the company had learned the meaning of gray power: Black Fox was scrapped. Dicker-son had endured hate mail, lost friends, sacrificed her home life, mortgaged her farm and drained her $200,000 life savings. But she had won.

Would she do it again? Hell, yes. "That nuclear plant would be operating today," she maintains, "if I wouldn't have asked a few simple questions—and then fought."

John DeMarco

The graffiti made it clear: WE DON'T WANT NO NIGGERS—KKK. Mississippi burning, 1964? No, northeast Philadelphia, 1986. The words had been sprayed on a brick row house occupied by a black family who had just moved in. When the cops came around, the blue-collar neighbors played deaf, dumb and bland. This is a nice neighborhood, officer. Nobody here heard or saw a thing. Nobody but 13-year-old John DeMarco.

Alone, he came forward to identify one Richard Keller, 34, as the culprit. At the trial, tough defense attorneys tried to shatter the kid's composure, but John knew what he had seen. "Rick wrote it," he insisted, and the judge agreed. She gave the printing employee the max: one year in jail and a $2,500 fine (reduced on appeal to community service). Then, someone nailed a picture of DeMarco on a pole and labeled it RAT. "I was called nigger lover and snitch," says John. "Some people even spit on me when I walked down the street." He left the neighborhood and moved in with an aunt in a nearby suburb. Now he has made a set of new friends who hold this truth to be self-evident: "If you hate someone that way," he says, "it's like hating your own brother."

Annie Troy Clark

My last night in advertising," recalls Annie Troy Clark, "my department took me out for a big dinner, and then they rented a limousine and we went around Manhattan. That was supposed to be my last blowout. Nobody made the connection that I was going off to war." The battleground was East Harlem. All you need to get there is a subway token; all you need to stay is despair, poverty—or the belief that you can save souls. Clark is a believer. She came to her current job the long way, from Tripp City, Ohio, to New York City, where she was employed as a creative supervisor at Young & Rubicam, overseeing Met Life commercials featuring Snoopy. Then, four years ago, a friend died of AIDS. "I couldn't handle it myself," she says. "For the first time in 12 years, I found myself going to church." There she heard a sermon about a 19th-century evangelist, Stephen Tyng, who had worked in the city slums. The name was unfamiliar to most of the parishioners. To Troy it was literally a household word: Tyng was her great-great-great-grandfather. The sermon, she maintains, "was like a message from God, saying it was time I thought of others." Troy decided to get off the fast track and take the local.

Her stop finally was 124th Street and Lexington Avenue: Emmaus House, a shelter for the homeless. She became a full-time volunteer, living at Emmaus. Gone was the expense account, the fat paycheck. There was no room for cute here. There was only a $25-a-week honorarium, making her one more of the city's poor. Except that she had a role to play and a place to trust: "What I like about Emmaus House is that it gives homeless persons a lot of credit and ways to channel their intelligence and abilities. There aren't many places that do that." Even so, she recalls that "weekends were when I really wanted a break so bad, and there was no way to get it." At times she was tempted to resume her old Madison Avenue life-style. But somehow Grandpa Tyng wouldn't let her. In 1987 she became executive director of Emmaus. Now 36, she earns about 25 percent of her midtown income, but, she notes, "It's more creative here, working with people and helping them get there, wherever that place is. I won't be going back."

Jan Kemp

One winter morning in 1982, folks at the University of Georgia were aroused by the sound of a whistle blowing—not the familiar kickoff tweet but a startling blast of outrage from an unaccustomed quarter: the classroom. Some English instructor had gone public with an embarrassing stat: 10 students had failed in their fourth attempt to pass a remedial English course. The nine who were Bulldog athletes were given passing grades in order to remain in school; the 10th, a nonathlete, was expelled. The person supplying the lung power turned out to be 32-year-old Ph.D. Jan Kemp, and she had plenty of other revelations. Athletes were admitted to Georgia, she charged, despite woeful test scores and strung along in classes until their sports eligibility was exhausted. The university's patronizing treatment of black athletes, she concluded, amounted to a "plantation system" in which graduation was a nearly impossible dream. After she submitted a protest letter in February, football zealots started racking up personal fouls. Kemp was privately badgered ("Who do you think is more important," demanded an administrator, "you or a very prominent basketball player?"). And, in a three-step process of humiliation, she was demoted, cut in salary and finally fired. Kemp, who was pregnant with the first of her two children, doubled her fists and went into court. She also plunged into depression and twice attempted suicide. Her 17-year marriage eventually dissolved. But the charismatic Christian was too righteous to quit. In 1986 she received $1.08 million in compensation for harassment and free-speech violations and was reinstated. Since then, the NCAA has stiffened its academic rules governing jocks (Georgia adopted even tougher new standards). All this largely because, once upon a campus, a brave woman said, "Athletes are being used to produce revenue. I've seen what happens when the lights dim and the crowds fade. They're left with nothing. I want that stopped."

Glenn Davis

Glenn Davis knows how easy—and futile—it is to seek solace at the bottom of a bottle. He grew up at the mercy of a mother who, though pious and churchgoing, "definitely believed if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. But she got carried away. I can't remember a single day in my childhood when I didn't get beaten by someone." Often he hid in his room and wept: "I'd hold a loaded gun to my head and play with it. My life was basically living in hell." At 17, Glenn nearly died in an alcohol-related auto crash. That same year he left his broken home in Jacksonville, Fla., to live with his coach, George Davis—same surname, no relation—and George's wife, Norma. Their son Storm was also a high school baseball player, and both boys turned pro, Storm as a pitcher, Glenn as an outfielder. But the minors turned out to be just another hell. Glenn drove too fast, chased too many girls and drank too much. "My life was in chaos," he confesses. "I believe I would have finally pulled the trigger if nothing had happened." But something did. One day, in desperation, Davis began to pray for redemption, and "the moment I finished praying, that chip on my shoulder was gone." So was the booze he used to lean on. Glenn married, happily. He made it to the bigs as a power-hitting infielder for Houston, and every time he hit a home run, the Astros announcers chortled, "Glenn Davis, this Bud's for you."

Until Glenn got wind of it. Thanks, the 28-year-old first baseman said, but no thanks—the only major leaguer to refuse the tag line. "I speak to a lot of kids about alcohol abuse," he explained. "I speak about morals and ethics and values. So I was very concerned about being portrayed as a person who leads a double-standard kind of life, saying one thing and doing another." The response was immediate and positive. The folks at Budweiser honored his request, and police chiefs, doctors, lawyers, government officials all sent him approving letters. To Glenn, that was as satisfying as a championship season: "Once you're not in the game anymore, people won't remember your stats. When I die, I don't want someone to put on my tombstone that I was good in baseball. I want it to say that I had an impact on someone's life."

Frances Sandoval

One a Chicago street corner, teenagers in felony shoes are hanging out, waiting for trouble. This time it comes in an unexpected package. Frances Sandoval is 36 years old and only 5'3" tall, but she has the voice of a boom box. "¿Estas tu en una pandilla?" she demands. "Are you in a gang? Because if you are, you'll either kill or be killed. Do you know what death is?" One boy comes back at her with an attitude. He pulls up the sleeve on his leather jacket. A tattoo in memory of a gang member is etched on his scrawny arm. "Sure I know what death is. This is my friend that was killed." Sandoval furiously presses on: "So if you die, you just die. It's okay. You think it's over." Then she fires her ultimate weapon. "And what about your mother? You leave your mother with pain. Do you know what kind of pain that is? For her the nightmare has just begun."

The speaker has been living with that nightmare for four years now. Her 15-year-old son, Arthur, was stabbed to death when he tried to stop some gang members from harassing a friend's younger sister. The knife might have been plunged into the heart of Frances Sandoval. Then a single parent (she has since remarried), Frances has never really recovered. But she was not the kind to suffer in silence. Within a year she had formed Mothers Against Gangs (MAG). Today the group has 700 active members and a flock of outside admirers. Says Joe Garcia, publisher of the Hispanic newspaper El Heraldo: "She's created an awareness in parents that there was something they could do about the gang problem." A policeman offers the ultimate compliment, "This lady means business, and the gang members know it." They know she and her colleagues battle in the courtrooms, prodding public servants into action and shepherding victims through the legal system. They will paint over graffiti because the cryptic symbols and nicknames are territorial marks. When she is not on the street, Sandoval is lobbying for stiffer sentences for gang-related crimes and lecturing about the value of community groups and schools. If she talks tough, she always offers an escape. "Get out now," she tells the kids. "Call me. I'll help you."

C. Everett Koop

The T word was all right to use: Knocking tobacco was getting to be an American tradition. The A word was permissible: Everybody knew alcohol abuse was unacceptable. But using the C word: That was unforgivable. "I have lost some personal friends," says C. Everett Koop. "People who couldn't understand why I would use the horrible word condom in public or why I would put the telephone number of the gay men's network in a publication on AIDS. People in Washington who were close to me don't speak to me now." They stopped speaking back in the days when Koop was the nation's top doctor. Reagan administrators expected the Surgeon General's speeches to agree with his professional profile. Wasn't he an evangelical Christian, married to the same woman since med school? Wasn't he a political conservative? Wasn't he a team player? Yes, yes and no. The bearded figure with the rolling bass voice sounded like a testamental prophet, but he refused to thunder against the potential victims of AIDS. Instead, he spoke about the hazards of hypodermic needles and the benefits of contraceptives. Nor was that the end of his insubordination. Koop told Ronald Reagan that he could not produce a report on the dire emotional and physical consequences of abortion. The facts, he pointed out, failed to agree with the presidential bias. Matters failed to improve under the new Chief Executive. Koop urged him to speak out on AIDS, but George Bush refused. Abruptly, Koop began to be shut out of Cabinet meetings. Nobody had the temerity to fire the Surgeon General, but finally, his dignity offended past repair, the big man took down his shingle.

Yet Koop, 72, is no longer alone in his concerns. Because of his work, Americans are changing their habits and actions. "In the years ahead," he says, "I'd like to be thought of as the health conscience of the people." Chances are he will be, except by political enemies in Washington. The problem for them, as an official at the Health and Human Services agency recalled, was that the Surgeon General "had the concept of some higher loyalty." For Dr. Koop—and his constituency—there could be no greater compliment.

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