Making Quilts and Carrying Water: Unsung Heroes

I'd like you to meet Karen Dawson, the USA TODAY All-American Teacher of the Year for 2003-04.

She's a cheerful lady, one of those relentlessly perky people who always seem to chair the committees. Among other things, Mrs. Dawson is the chairman of the National Association of Student Councils, an advisor to the sort of kids who were also cheerful and relentlessly perky and chair the committees. You know. The pretty, popular kids we all hated.

To look at Mrs. Dawson, to have a casual conversation with her, you would peg her as the product of several generations of white American suburbia, happily helping "the poor" without the slightest understanding of what it means to be poor, to endure hardship.

You would be wrong.

Mrs. Dawson's family fled Germany in the 1940s, after her grandparents were placed on the list for Birkenau. See, her grandmother had been a German Jew. She had since converted to Christianity and the rest of the family were all Christians, but because of that one association, everyone was condemned to the camps.

They fled in time, and made it to America, eventually Missouri. There the future Mrs. Dawson was born into a family lost in a country not their own, where no one spoke English and five people lived in three rooms. Work was difficult to find when you can't speak English. Grandfather tried to run a German-language newspaper, and that went over like the Hindenberg. Grandma spoke only Yiddish, Mrs. Dawson said, so no one ever knew what she was saying.

The future Mrs. Dawson had two older cousins. Their dresses would be passed down to her, so she was always about five years behind the fashions. When the future Mrs. Dawson wore out the dresses, her mother and grandmother would sew them into quilts to give to "the poor." Eventually, the future Mrs. Dawson figured out that they, in fact, were poor. Why give away these quilts? Because they should, she was told. Because there is always someone worse off than you.

The future Mrs. Dawson went on to college nonetheless, and got a job at one of those reproduction Wild West towns. There she met and fell in love with the train-robber. How could you resist a man who could jump from a horse onto a moving train? she said. Even though the train was only going two miles per hour.

It was the time of Vietnam, and the Train-Robber's number came up. So they married quickly, before he went away, and she had their first child. It was a long time before the Train-Robber was injured and came back to her. Not long after that, their second child was born.

But lo, the Wicked Witch of the West had visited on the land of Vietnam a curse called Agent Orange. We all know what Agent Orange is, and what it did to people. In the case of the Train-Robber, it affected his DNA. Their second child was born without an esophagus and in need of surgeries throughout much of his childhood to survive. These surgeries could not begin until he weighed nineteen pounds - a milestone he did not reach until he was three years old.

Personally, I would have been angry. But Mrs. Dawson didn't speak of fury and protests, of letters sent to Congressmen, appearances on "60 Minutes," lawsuits filed in the millions. She spoke of pushing her young son's wheelchair through the hospital, wearing a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. They passed a young child going through chemotherapy, his head bare. Without a word, Young Dawson put his cap on the other boy's head. Mrs. Dawson could hear the voices of her mother and grandmother, telling her once again about service and compassion.

Young Dawson survived his childhood, and grew to the height of four-foot-eleven by high school. His prom date was over six feet tall. She was proud of her son, of his strength and resilience in facing down the bullies and keeping his cheerful demeanor up despite the hardships he faced.

Young Dawson eventually went on to graduate - suddenly shooting up to six feet tall - and went to work for AT&T in New York City. There he roomed with four other young men, all from India and Pakistan and Taiwan, who worked for AT&T. In the World Trade Center.

Young Dawson was in the south tower when the first plane hit. Thinking it was an earthquake, he stood in a doorway during the tremors. But when the announcements came that they could return to their desks, Young Dawson made his way downstairs instead.

When the building fell, he was hit with flying glass, injured but not killed. His poor roommates were terrified to come find him, with the airwaves full of evil Muslim terrorists and horrified Americans shocked out of their complacence.

But the next day, Young Dawson AND his roommates returned to the World Trade Center to volunteer their efforts, bringing water to rescue workers. It was hard to go back there, Mrs. Dawson said, but Young Dawson had to do it. He had to serve.

Mrs. Dawson has gone on her way, advising students to leadership and spearheading everything from blood drives to canned-food trick-or-treating to a senior citizen prom. She's still the young girl watching her relatives make quilts for the poor in their three-room apartment. She's still the woman whose family was victimized, first by Agent Orange, then by 9/11.

So she stands on a stage before more than 2,000 students and shares her story. The teenagers have been fidgety, ready to go home after five days of seminars and events. But they are held still, riveted by her story and her strength. As am I, sitting on a desk in the back of the room, just another day of work, toiling in the vineyards. I would have been angry. But Mrs. Dawson took her trials and made them into small ways to help other people.

There are many Mrs. Dawsons out there. People making a difference in ways that rarely make USA TODAY. They run blood drives and collect food for the poor. They call up the newspaper after a family loses their home to a fire and offer their children's outgrown clothes to the suddenly-homeless family. They sit in moldering cinderblock schoolhouses tutoring children for free after school.

Their names do not appear on plaques, because they had no money to give. They have no statues, no monuments, nothing to remind us that they were here. Nothing but the mass of good they achieved, the people they helped and the people they inspired. Unsung heroes like Mrs. Dawson in her classroom, like her mother and grandmother sewing quilts and her son carrying water to Ground Zero with fresh bandages on his skin.

The heroes aren't just the ones who lift the flags and stand on mountains. They're the ones we don't see who make all the difference.