His Fellow Americans
Cited as State of the Union Heroes, Average Citizens Got Co-Star Billing
By David Montgomery and Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 7, 2004; Page C01
Every president does it now, Democrat and Republican alike, an annual unacknowledged tribute to the Great Communicator. The moment comes in late January, usually during the bottom third of the State of the Union address. The members of Congress have already stood up and sat down multiple times in mandatory ovational excess, and now they prepare to rise one more time. For those watching at home, the camera zooms in on some strangers looking stiff and dazed in the House gallery beside the first lady.
With practiced stagecraft, the president pauses and looks up. He smiles at his wife, waves to the strangers, and says a version of what Ronald Reagan said on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 1982:
"We don't have to turn to our history books for heroes. They're all around us."
Then he saluted someone in the gallery.
Lenny Skutnik saw the salute and thought it must be for Nancy Reagan.
No, she said, he's saluting you.
The first lady knew the federal employee from Lorton was nervous. Earlier she had given him a reassuring pat on the leg. Now Skutnik felt someone behind him pushing him to his feet. The House floor erupted in another ovation.
And all he had done was dive into the icy Potomac River two weeks before and help save the life of a 32-year-old woman after an Air Florida jet crashed into the 14th Street Bridge.
"I was extremely honored to be there and be recognized like I was," a still-humble Skutnik recalled yesterday. "His big thing was communicating to the ordinary person. He was very good at that. We've lost a great man, and probably history will tell he was one of the greatest presidents that I think we had. I'll miss him."
History's verdict on the Reagan presidency is yet to come, but it's clear that one of his legacies will be this crowd-pleasing flourish of theater during the State of the Union address. Reagan may not have invented it, but he perfected it, and the annual event hasn't been the same since.
Reagan and his aides knew what they were doing when they instituted the device with Skutnik during the president's first State of the Union. (The year before, having just taken office, he gave an economic address to Congress that was not a State of the Union speech.)
"It played to some of the negatives that Reagan had at that point about not caring about people or being in touch and so forth," former Reagan aide Michael Deaver said in an interview on National Public Radio several years ago. "And so every chance we got, we would try to create an interplay with people."
On the weekend of his death, some of those regular Americans chosen for prime-time appreciation by Reagan turned their thoughts to him. They also marked what has happened in their lives since, and what it meant to be noticed by a president.
There was something fatherly, or grandfatherly, about Reagan, said Skutnik, 50. "His style and I guess his age had a lot to do with it. You felt like he was talking to you."
Heroes have a complicated relationship with the idea of heroism. "I never did consider myself a hero," Skutnik said. "When I hear the word 'hero' now, it's a term that something's being sold." He considers the New York firefighters who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks true heroes -- and he remembers how not long after the attacks, someone began selling firefighter dolls. "I thought what I did was human instinct. It had nothing to do with 'hero.' "
Skutnik still works on the support staff of the Congressional Budget Office. The best thing that's happened lately? Neither he nor his wife, Linda, has a college degree, but their son, Glen, just graduated from George Washington University. "That's huge for us," said the ordinary hero.
Not all the folks Reagan saluted went on to glorious futures. During the 1984 address, he said, "Some days when life seems hard, and we reach out for values to sustain us, or a friend to help us, we find a person who reminds us what it means to be Americans" -- and he directed the nation's attention to the work of the Rev. Bruce Ritter providing shelter and aid to homeless teenagers at New York's Covenant House.
Six years later, Ritter resigned after several young men said he had seduced them. The Covenant House board said it found evidence of sexual misconduct, but Ritter denied the accusations and was never charged. He died in 1999.
Charles Carson was honored in that same 1984 speech. About a week before, the White House contacted Carson, founder of the Spinal Cord Society in Fergus Falls, Minn., and asked if the president could cite Carson's work. Carson was a former geologist who was partially paralyzed after he crash-landed in a small plane in 1976. Unsatisfied with the state of research into a cure for paralysis, he had launched the society.
After the White House called, "we had a meeting, talked it over, and decided for the sake of this cause it would be worth it," Carson, 69, said yesterday. "We never knew who it was who nominated me."
Carson did not join Nancy Reagan in the gallery. He watched the speech on television in his office with some colleagues, and heard his name on the president's lips: "He still believes nothing is impossible. . . . He works 80 hours a week. He has given hope to 500,000 paralyzed Americans."
"We were just sitting there, stunned, you know," said Carson. "Then the phone started ringing."
The plug boosted the organization's profile and spurred fundraising. The society has supported more than $10 million worth of research over the years and has an annual budget of about $1 million. New work with stem cells and other specialized tissue is producing results in some test subjects, Carson said. "Nobody's skipping rope, but they can move their legs some."
On the day Reagan was to deliver his 1986 State of the Union address, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts aboard. The speech was delayed a week.
The president spoke poetically of the American dream. It is, he said, "a song of hope that rings through the night air. Vivid tender music that warms our heart when the least among us aspire to the greatest things."
He turned to a 21-year-old college student in gallery. "We see the dream coming true in the spirit of discovery of Richard Cavoli. All his life he has been enthralled by the mysteries of medicine and science. Richard, we know that the experiment you began in high school was launched and lost last week. Yet your dream lives."
For several years, Cavoli had been working on an experiment to determine how crystals would form in zero-gravity conditions. He won a national competition that ensured his experiment would be conducted on board the Challenger.
Being singled out by the president of the United States "changes your life," Cavoli said yesterday. He said it gives you the inspiration to go on in your life and "try to do things that you think you may not be able to do."
Cavoli is still fascinated by science. A neuroradiologist in Albany, N.Y., he explained that crystals are critical in the field of radiology. "The film we use incorporates crystals that are sensitive to X-rays."
The president saluted a few other students that evening.
Trevor Ferrell, 31, recalls that when he met Reagan, the president had just learned of the Challenger explosion and he had tears in his eyes. "That really stuck with me," Ferrell said. "He was almost like a grandfather to me. I think most of the nation feels that way."
Reagan cited Ferrell, who was 13 at the time, for his work with the homeless in Philadelphia. "Trevor," the president said in his speech, "yours is the living spirit of brotherly love."
At 11, Ferrell had founded Trevor's Campaign for the Homeless, which provided food and shelter for indigent women, children and families. Today there are 19 chapters across the country. There are two shelters in Philadelphia.
For a while, Ferrell gave college a try. Then he made a stab at construction work. "But I just wasn't getting the fulfillment I was getting out of charity work," he said. In 1998 he founded Trevor's Distribution Center in Philadelphia, which helps homeless families find and furnish apartments.
"After meeting the president," he said, "it put a light under my butt and showed me that politics is important."
When Shelby Butler heard the news of Reagan's death, she said, "I felt sorrow."
Butler was 13 and serving as a safety patrol crossing guard in St. Joseph, Mo., when, in a daring rescue, she hustled a fellow student out of the path of an out-of-control school bus.
"With bravery like yours, Shelby," the president said during the 1986 address, "America need never fear for our future."
She stood up. He turned toward her. "I think he smiled," she said. "I sat one seat away from Nancy."
The State of the Union experience "gave me a sense of confidence," she said. Today Butler, 30, lives in Springfield, Mo., and is an advocate for disability-related issues. She thinks about her evening with Reagan now and then, she said, "but I didn't grow up to be a Republican."
And she remembers one more thing. The president gave each of the young people a jar of gourmet jelly beans.
Staff researcher Robert Lyford contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company