Tragic Heroes – Lewis, Shackleton, Sugihara and Fry

It is interesting that when there is a need, a hero will appear. For some heroes, it may seem to be their sole reason for existence. They were obscure before and go back to obscurity after. Others have a hard time going back to obscurity and continue to search for that heroic opportunity again.

Meriwether Lewis, Ernest Shackleton, Chiune Sugihara, Varian Fry are four heroes that I have come to appreciate because of their complex nature and life and their heroic deed.

To learn more of these men is to also learn more about history, human nature, and human frailties. The following is a brief introduction to each man with instructions on how to learn more.

We are all familiar with Meriwether Lewis’ trek with Clark to the interior of our country – how their voyage of discovery helped open the west to settlement. That was Lewis’ moment of greatness. . There was a need for a man to lead a team into the unknown-he was that man, and he changed the unknown into the known.

Thomas Jefferson was convinced that the Missouri River led to the Pacific Ocean. He tried many was to prove it, but was never successful until Jefferson and Lewis got together and formed a plan.

Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose tells the story of Jefferson, Lewis and William Clark, who Lewis chose as his equal partner in the plan. The partnership of Lewis and Clark is the most famous in American history. They complimented each other. Lewis had many weaknesses-suffering from depression and disliking the paperwork involved. Clarke was a plodder and didn’t have the imagination of Lewis. But together they accomplished a remarkable feat. 33 men and a dog formed the Corp of Discovery. For those who want to learn more without reading the book, check out for more information on each member of the corp.

Their adventures were remarkable-exciting, hair-raising, tense, sad, and wonderful. You learn the bare bones of the story in school, but it is meaningless without the flesh. Sacagawea’s sweet reunion with her family, the horrendous trek through the snow, the wonder of discovering new plants and animals-those are what make learning more of the story worthwhile.
Lewis was hailed as a hero when he returned, and rightly so. His tragedy was finding life a little too boring, not enjoying the “desk job” as a territorial governor, certainly finding that transcribing his recordings were must less thrilling than actually living through the events. Life after heroism was a downhill journey for Lewis.

Ernest Shackleton may be familiar to those who either watched the Nova special on him-see – or who read Caroline Alexander’s excellent book, The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. His is a story of someone who failed at what he tried to do, but in dealing with the consequences of that failure, became a hero.

Shackleton was an explorer. He wanted to be the first man to cross the Antarctic by foot. In 1915, the ship he and his crew were on became trapped in the frozen waters, eventually being crushed by the force of the ice. The story is so tense, filled with so many problems, I did something I had never done before with any other book-I asked someone else who had read it how I t ended. I had to know-did they all survive? Yes, because of Shackleton’s care, determination, and drive.
His fellow Brits were not interested in his story when he returned-they were more concerned about the war. He was not a war hero. No one wanted him. For him, life after the excitement of the Endurance was a downhill journey.

If you have been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. you may have caught the name of Chiune Sugihara on a book in the bookstore, such as Hillel Levine’s In Search of Sugihara, or mentioned in one of the displays. A Japanese spy and diplomat, stationed in Lithuania, he saved the lives of thousands of Jews. After WWII, Sugihara and his wife were held by the Soviets in a prison camp. He finally returned to Japan in 1947 when he was forced to resign from the diplomatic corps.

Sugihara had some hard, depressing times after the war, but he eventually got a job working for a trade company in Moscow. Russia is the country he was well acquainted with and knew how to get around in. A year before he died in 1986, a tree was planted in his name at Yad Vashem and a park in Jerusalem named after him. You can read more about him at

And finally, Varian Fry-Righteous Among Nations in the eyes of the Jews and the only American honored by Yad Vashen. A determined individual who reacted as others sometimes do in similar circumstances. He was in midst of serving others and simply did not want to be bothered with the details of paperwork, a worrisome wife, and clueless management. Sheila Isenberg’s book, A Hero of Our Own: The Story of Varian Fry is an exciting portrayal of his story.

He was a member of the Emergency Rescue Team-a group formed to help those artists escaping the Nazi death machine. Among those he saved were Marc Chagall and Heinrich Mann. He was expelled from France in 1941, returning to the United States where he tried to convince the people of the genocide taking place in Europe.

A hypochondriac with bouts of depression, Fry felt unsatisfied and restless.

After the war, Fry was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was eventually cleared after 5 frustrating months.

Shortly before his sudden death in 1967, the French awarded him the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. You can quickly learn more about him at

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