Heroism Speaker Inspires Colgate

Jessie Markovetz

When most people think of heroes, names like Superman and Wonder Woman tend to jump into their minds. Yet while these comic saviors do good by feeding our entertainment needs, it is important to recognize the real heroes who are sometimes hidden beneath our very noses. On Tuesday, February 5, John Graham of the Giraffe Heroes Project came to Colgate to help students do just this.

The Giraffe Heroes Project is a national non-profit organization that is dedicated to inspiring potential do-gooders by sharing the stories of those who have gone before them. The organization works by receiving nominations and contacting people who they feel have in some way contributed to the common good. Today, there are over 1,000 heroes who have achieved so-called “Giraffedom”, ranging in age from seven to 103 years old. These people are recognized in various publications, on the Heroes website and through lectures and speeches given by Heroes project employees. John Graham is one of these employees, and not only did he help publicize many of his heroes’ good deeds during his visit to Colgate, but he also provided the student body with a necessary lesson on how we can all become heroes as well.

Throughout the day on Tuesday, Graham gave a series of lectures and seminars including a “Doing Well by Doing Good” lunch at the Center for Outreach and Volunteer Education (COVE), and a slide show of pictures from his Mount McKinley climb at the Outdoor Education base camp, a seminar entitled “How to Tackle Public Problems – Getting the Results You Want.” He then offered a keynote lecture in Memorial Chapel called “How to Tackle Public Problems You Care About.”

Graham’s seminar was focused primarily on how to develop a vision for change, as well as how to overcome the obstacles that may arise. He highlighted the importance of always looking at obstacles from the perspective of having already tackled them. During the seminar, Graham told the students to think of a public problem that concerned them and to imagine themselves having solved it.

“It’s all about creating a vision and learning how to communicate it,” Graham said.

Senior Ashleigh Parsons was singled out to present her vision of an education system in which all students had access to equal opportunities and resources. She was then forced to argue with a Graham-turned-“stubborn teacher” as he played the role of an impediment to Ashleigh’s achievement of her goal. The role-playing exercise was ultimately a lesson in the necessity of having a vision, being persistent and building trust with those who stand in your way.

John Graham’s next event was a lecture at the Outdoor Ed base camp where he told the story of his grueling climb up Mt. McKinley’s north face, to the backdrop of an incredible photo slideshow. After several incredibly close calls, including a moment when the ice sheet on which Graham stood fell away, giving him moments to dig his ice pick into the mountainside before falling, Graham and his Harvard University-based team finally reached the top and remain, today, the only group to have done so.

Later that night, Mr. Graham returned to the Chapel for his lecture. Graham was introduced as the author of four books, a recipient of degrees from both Harvard and Stanford Universities, a former foreign policy ambassador and top secret nuclear planner, an experienced mountain climber and, lastly, a man who is incredibly lucky to be alive.

Graham started the lecture with a reference to the primary elections that had occurred earlier in the day.

“A representative democracy only works when there is a partnership between leaders and those who they represent,” Graham said. He went on to explain that, because of this, it is the American citizenship that is most responsible for enacting change.

Graham then went into a discussion of his life story, which began with an eye-opening freight cruise to southeast Asia at the age of 16, later involved a stint hitchhiking around the globe and was supplemented by years spent working in places like Vietnam. Graham ended with an explanation of the work he did helping to end the apartheid in South Africa.

Despite the adventure his life story was based upon, Graham made it very clear that it was not enough. Graham said that, after nearly dying of hypothermia, “I finally believed in something more than adventure and more than power.” He said that after spending his life living for adventure, he had forgotten meaning – thus forgetting what he was really here to do.

While John Graham’s incredible tales of danger and adventure were obvious crowd-pleasers, his passion for helping people see that they too could find meaning in their lives by dedicating themselves to a cause they love was what was truly inspiring. At the end of his speech, Graham left the audience with, “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life,” a statement that will undoubtedly stick with and inspire all who heard it.