How do you choose your heroes?

Bill Pelke

One of my heroes died this week. And it got me thinking: what qualities and actions make someone a hero in your eyes? And how well do you know your hero?

I knew Bill Pelke only through emails, Facebook messaging and reading each other’s books: his  ‘Journey Of Hope – From Violence to Healing’ and mine, ‘Survivor on Death Row.’

Bill, a Vietnam veteran, was at his job as a crane driver when he heard the news that his grandmother, a gentle lady loved by everybody, had been brutally murdered in her home by four teenage girls – who ‘wanted to see what it felt like’ to kill somebody.

With his shocked and grieving family, Bill thought the death penalty imposed on the ringleader by the Indiana court was fitting justice for 15-year old Paula Cooper.

Then, sitting high in his crane cab one day, he had what he termed a mountaintop experience. It occurred to him that his grandmother would not want revenge and that the Jesus she loved commanded forgiveness. He wrestled and grappled and looked for loopholes but there was no way round it. He had to forgive.

It was several years before Bill heard details of Paula Cooper’s childhood (like many Death Row inmates’, a history of unpredictable violence and neglect at the hands of adults). But Bill wrote to Paula Cooper that same day to tell her he forgave her. Over the years he visited her on Death Row and lobbied against her sentence until it was commuted to a 60-year life sentence at the age of only 19.

He began to hear from other murder victims’ families who did not want brutal retribution for the killer of their loved one, and from people such as Sister Helen Prejean (the Death Row nun featured in the film ‘Dead Man Walking’.) And he began speaking out, spending months of every year travelling, speaking, praying and fasting to end the death penalty, attracting both worldwide support and opposition.

Looking back at Bill’s life, I see him as a hero – not so much for all the decades of campaigning and praying for abolition of the barbaric executions that still take place in the United States, as for that life-changing moment when, alone in his crane cab, he fought his own private battle with bitterness and revenge and let mercy and justice win.

Who are your heroes? What makes you admire them? And how well do you know them really?