Local Heroes

UPDATED 12/22/1986 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/22/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

Paul "Pee wee" Sayanek doesn't look like a philanthropist, and he certainly doesn't live like one. His home is a one-room shack that has holes in the ceiling and is filled with old newspapers, dirty clothes and bags of garbage. He has lived here since 1976, when he sold his house to the town of Byesville, Ohio, to make way for a baseball diamond for the local kids.

Sayanek, 76, is a former coal miner and pool hustler. He cares about the young people of Byesville—a town of about 2,500 people near the West Virginia border—so last July he took the $30,000 that he made from the sale of the house and set up a scholarship fund for those same kids. It will go to deserving high school seniors who want to go on to college or trade school.

"There's a lot of coal miners who have kids," says Sayanek. "Some of them could be real smart, but they don't have no money. I always felt sorry for the poor bastard who wanted to be a scholar or wanted to make something more of himself. More power to the kid who wants to learn!"

Sayanek is hard of hearing and nearly blind. He has a persistent cough caused by black lung disease. He has never been married and lives alone. "I'm as rich as I ever want to be," he says. "What little I have, I can't even take with me."

Rose Mary Badami learned about caring when she was growing up in Denison, Texas during the Depression. Her maternal grandmother fed every down-and-outer who came to the door. When her daughters complained that she was feeding them off the best dinnerware, Grandma Giovannina responded, "Listen, they get just as hungry as you do."

Badami has been sheltering Houston's down-and-outers since 1967, and today she runs 11 homes for the homeless, battered wives, the mentally ill, prison parolees and the unemployed. Badami's homes shelter more than 150 residents, who are welcome to stay as long as they wish—provided they are willing to work, as there is no paid staff. "We try to form a community and give them the strength and the confidence to go out and make a life of their own," says Badami (left, in her home for abused women and their children).

A Catholic, the 57-year-old Badami lives alone in the Houston home that her parents owned. She has never married, although she says she would have liked to. "I've been so busy," she says. "The years go on." Right now she is trying to get a state license to open a home for abused children. She also is overhauling another house that she plans to turn into a hospice for AIDS patients.

The Rev. Charles McBride, whose congregation is one of many that support Badami's work, says, "These people are our lepers, and Rose Mary is willing to go down into the middle of the colony and serve them."

Winner Gianni Poli ran the New York Marathon in two hours, 11 minutes and six seconds; last-place finisher Bob Wieland took 98 hours, 47 minutes and 17 seconds to cover the same distance. Yet Wieland did finish, a remarkable accomplishment for a man with no legs. Actually the New York Marathon was a comparative stroll for the 40-year-old Vietnam veteran. Last May he completed a 2,784-mile Walk for Hunger across America, arriving in Washington, D.C., three years and eight months after he started out from L.A. Wieland walks on his hands, which are supported by layers of spongelike "shoes."

Wieland lost his legs in Vietnam in 1969 as he rushed to help a wounded friend and set off a booby trap. After surgery, transfusions of 24 pints of blood and a bout with malaria, Wieland had only nine inches remaining of his right leg and five of his left. Yet the Army medic was undaunted. "I was still me, after all," he says. "Hell, I even had my hair. I accepted my condition from the very first."

Back in the United States, Wieland embarked on an athletic career as a powerlifter. In 1977 he bench-pressed more than 300 pounds. In 1981 he switched to walking and went into training for his cross-America walk, which raised $350,000 to fight hunger.

Wieland now lives with his wife, Jackey, a cosmetologist, in Pasadena and runs a motivational speaking business called Strive for Success, Inc. He is already training for the L.A. Marathon in March, where he hopes to break his own personal best time. A born-again Christian, Wieland says his biggest challenge "is trying to educate society to look at an individual's abilities instead of having preconceived ideas. I just want to be accepted as a man who is also an athlete. The way I see it, I've been blessed. I have a precious wife, a great marriage, a nice place to live, and I'm in better shape than ever before."

On Oct. 22 a giant tractor-trailer driven by Brownie Sprouse slammed into a guardrail on the 11th St. Bridge in Washington, D.C. As the truck dangled precariously over the edge of the bridge (above), the badly injured Sprouse struggled to keep from falling out the open door. From the door, it was a drop of 30 feet to the pavement.

There were fire fighters on the street below, but there seemed little they could do to save Sprouse if he fell. (Washington's fire trucks do not carry safety nets, and the engine company on the scene had ladders that extended only 24 feet.) Weakened by his injuries, Sprouse let go and began to fall, head first. Fireman Richard Young (inset) raced forward. "I knew I couldn't catch him," says Young, "but I figured I would give him a chance." The falling trucker slammed into the fireman's chest, smashing both of them to the ground.

Young, 43, wound up with a broken leg and ankle. Separated from his wife of 20 years, he is recuperating at his apartment in southeast Washington. The fireman is on crutches and will have a long course of physical therapy after the cast comes off next month. Sprouse, 40, suffered a broken leg and a ruptured small intestine and is recovering from surgery at his home in Kingsville, Md.

Young, who is worried that he may be physically unable to continue as a fireman, has been recommended for the Class 1-5 gold medal, the fire fighters' highest award for bravery. He says he'd do it again because of "the satisfaction of saving someone's life. Life to me is precious."

Freddie Hanberry seems to be winning his battle with cancer, but that isn't enough for him. The 14-year-old from Jackson, Miss. also wants to help other youngsters who are suffering the same way he has suffered for 10 years. So, every week, Freddie goes back to the pediatric oncology section at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson to share some hope with other young cancer patients.

"Whatever mood they're in, that's how we decide what to do," says Freddie, who is nearing the end of chemotherapy treatment for lymphocytic leukemia. "Sometimes we take them to the zoo, sometimes to the movies if they're able to get out of the hospital." Freddie also meets once a month with a group called Teens Against Cancer.

Freddie's mother, Carolyn, says that since her son started visiting the children about a year ago, three patients he was close to have died. "It upset him," she reports, "but he said he would rather have visited them and helped them for a while than not to have known them."

Vietnam left its marks on Geof Steiner. After he was discharged from the Marines in 1969, he attempted suicide, weathered a divorce and battled alcoholism. One day in 1980, he reports, "I was crying about it all. I plunked down a tree and decided that I'd do that for every one of the dead and missing." That was the beginning of the forest in Cushing, Minn. It now consists of more than 30,000 trees, and one day, Steiner hopes, it will number 60,000—roughly one tree for every American lost (including 2,424 still listed as MIA) in Vietnam.

The forest is 120 miles north of Minneapolis and contains 35 varieties of trees, ranging from one-foot pine seedlings to six-foot poplars. Steiner paid for most of the early ones out of his disability check (then $235 a month); more recent trees have been donated by the state forestry service.

Steiner, 37, lives in Cushing with his second wife, June, and her two daughters. June has a minimum-wage job at a nursing home. Expenses for the memorial—for trees, flags and signs—"come out of my pocket and put a strain on my family," says Steiner. "I feel bad I can't support more at home."

Recognized as Minnesota's official memorial to the veterans of Vietnam, Steiner's forest is the only living form of remembrance in the country. "The marble memorials are great—but they're for the dead. This is for the living, for the families, for the people who are hurting," says Steiner. "People can come here and heal."

When Neal Shine was 12, he took a job sweeping up sawdust in a butcher shop so he could buy his own baseball glove. Last winter Shine, now 56 and senior managing editor at the Detroit Free Press, read a story in his paper about San Pedro de Macoris, a city in the Dominican Republic where baseball is an obsession—as well as a ticket out of poverty. The story told how the youngsters of San Pedro couldn't afford gloves, making do instead with milk cartons or pieces of cardboard. Shine was touched, especially when he read that in 1985 alone, 14 natives of the city (pop. 125,000) were playing in the major leagues. In February he asked the readers of his column to dig in their garages and attics and send him their gloves.

The response surprised Shine; so far he has received more than 1,100 gloves, many of them accompanied by letters. "I am donating my son's mitt," one father wrote. "He passed away from cancer at age 14.1 hope some young man in San Pedro will enjoy the mitt as much as he did."

In April, Shine arrived in the Dominican Republic with 30 cartons of gloves, 50 bats and 100 baseballs. He passed them out wherever he saw kids playing baseball. "All those dreams being passed around," he says. "It was a coming back to life...a regeneration."

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