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Jay Evensen: What good is being a hero without fame?

Published: Thursday, May 9 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Neighbor Charles Ramsey speaks to media near the home on the 2200 block of Seymour Avenue, where three missing women were rescued in Cleveland, on Monday, May 6, 2013. Cheering crowds gathered on the street where police said Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight, who went missing about a decade ago and were found earlier in the day.

(Scott Shaw, Cleveland Plain Dealer)

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Charles Ramsey says he doesn't want an award. He's a Christian and an American, and he was just doing what was right when he helped three women and a little girl escape a Cleveland house where they had been held captive for years.

We take him at his word and thank him for his service. But, of course, when you do something so integral to a big media story, and when you have a colorful personality, fame flows like a desert arroyo after a spring thunderstorm.

This is a world in which celebrity is of great worth — which can make Mothers Day a bit uncomfortable.

But back to Ramsey — he may not want fame, but maybe he should hire a manager. After all, he has been dropping the McDonald's brand right and left without compensation, noting over and over that he was eating a Big Mac when he heard the screams next door. The hamburger giant tweeted, "We salute the courage of Ohio kidnap victims & respect their privacy. Way to go Charles Ramsey- we'll be in touch."

His TV interviews have gone viral, with one having attracted about 3 million hits at the time I'm writing this. His words were "songified" on another video that has attracted more than a quarter of a million hits.

And then, of course, there is the bizarre way his story keeps growing with each telling. The 911 dispatcher, he told one television interviewer, wouldn't believe him when he called. That made for an entertaining anecdote, but, of course, a recording of the phone call, which is public record, revealed a calm dispatcher and a rather overwrought and profanity laden Ramsey.

It's difficult to know how to react to all this. Providing instant fame to a Good Samaritan may be an effective way to encourage other people to do good. Don't we see too many examples of the spotlight being hogged by people behaving badly? Why not celebrate someone who was willing to respond to a cry of help, and to delight in his colorful personality, even if he is prone to exaggeration?

But … if the reward for doing good is fame and fortune, doesn't that violate a larger ethic? Doesn't even the Bible teach that people who do good things just to be seen of others won't get much reward beyond that?

And what about those three women who were rescued? How did so much of our attention get diverted from them?

This is less a complaint about Ramsey than about media and their insatiable consumers.

Why does this make Mothers Day uncomfortable? Because the lessons typically extolled about motherhood teach of a quieter influence, which seems so foreign in a fame-saturated world.

"The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world." So wrote William Ross Wallace in 1865. Great lines survive the ages because they carry truth. The implication is that mothers influence the world quietly through nurture, love and labor far from the spotlight. And if we revere that sort of leadership, shouldn't we value it more in all aspects of life, regardless of motherhood, fatherhood or even gender? Shouldn't it inspire good behavior even if cradle-rocking makes for a boring video?

Mothers Day may in fact be coming just in time to return order and perspective to our sometimes myopic universe, but don't count on it.

Some news stories this week have focused on the amount of money the nation spends to honor its mothers. One in the New York Daily News was typical. It quoted figures on the web site Rakuten showing Brazilians spend more to honor their mothers than do Americans, by an average of $171 to $144. Forbes predicted U.S. spending would average more, $168.94, which would be an 11 percent increase over last year.

We can all hope Americans win this race, so we can be loudest in demonstrating our chest-thumping love of motherhood.

Meanwhile, back in Cleveland, another neighbor, Angel Cordero, has surfaced to say he, not Ramsey was the one who first came to rescue the three women.

Of course, he doesn't want an award, either.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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