Every year for the last nine years, Beliefnet has recognized 10 people whose outstanding humanitarian actions inspire and encourage us all to live better lives. This year we were again amazed by the courage, compassion, and selflessness of the nominees.
Our community and our editors were presented with a tough choice.
Some nominees were already well known. Paul Newman, who died this year, could have rested on his Oscar laurels, but instead devoted much of his time to helping seriously ill kids enjoy childhood through his Hole in the Wall Gang Camps. Christina Applegate, who makes us laugh on “Samantha Who?,” underwent a double mastectomy and now helps other women with breast cancer find treatment and support. Dara Torres became the oldest swimming medalist in Olympics history and gave an unselfish assist to a rival before a race.
Some less renowned nominees showed exceptional courage. Marine Master Sergeant William “Spanky” Gibson lost his leg in combat in Iraq, but trained himself to excel on a prosthetic leg and insisted on returning to duty. Dr. Halima Bashir, who saved girls’ lives in Darfur, was raped and tortured herself. Despite threats on her life, she continues speaks out against violence in her country.
Educator Darin Headrick spearheaded the building of “green” schools in his tornado-devastated town of Greensburg, Kansas—giving families a reason to stay and rebuild their lives. Brain researcher Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, who survived a massive stroke, used her experience to deepen her spirituality and share her insights with other stroke survivors.
On the last day of voting, three champions stood out to our community. The three finalists were Steven Curtis Chapman, the heroic Boy Scouts, and Prof. Randy Pausch.
Chapman, a beloved Christian music star, had long been a passionate advocate of adoption, inspiring thousands of families to provide homes for children from China. He underwent a tremendous tragedy this year when his adopted daughter Maria Sue was accidentally run over by his teenage son. Chapman held his family together through faith and faced the inevitable media attention with courage, serving as a model for suffering parents everywhere.
The heroic Boy Scouts of the Midwest withstood a killer tornado that struck their encampment in Iowa while they were at a leadership training. The young teens, who called on the skills they had learned in scouting, saved many of their fellow scouts, forming mini-triage centers and refusing to panic. Tragically, four of the boys died. Our community recognized these youngsters for their courage and steadfastness under the most challenging conditions.
But in the end the editors selected Dr. Randy Pausch, the professor who, facing imminent death from pancreatic cancer, delivered a “last lecture” that inspired millions of people to live every day more consciously and achieve their dreams.
Pausch was selected because of his huge, far-reaching impact and because even after his death he continues to inspire legions of viewers. Pausch's lecture, delivered for a small audience at Carnegie Mellon University where he was a professor of computer science, became an internet phenomenon. He reached more people than he ever dreamed of. People uploaded his words of wisdom and inspiring tips for life and forwarded them to friends. By 2008, his inspiration had reached almost 20 million people, His message was simple and powerful: "We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand."
Pausch was nominated by longtime Beliefnet member shaner, who wrote: "He showed the importance of living each day well, even if one is dying, and to never give up on your dreams."
Viewers felt an intimacy with Pausch that outlived his passing. "I, like most of us, never met the man," said one fan on the Last Lecture website, "But I can truly say that he has a very special place in my heart. He's inspired me and made me believe that it's not the material things or the accomplishments that make you happy or the person you are. Who you are is made up of each of those little moments you share with the people you love. Randy, God Bless You and I hope someday I can be half the man you are. You will be missed!"
"Randy was brave enough to openly face his inevitable early death,” wrote Beliefnet member fishesp. “I admire his honesty and his appreciation of his family, friends, and experiences. I especially respect both how he prepared for his family's future without him and his special expression of passing the best of himself on to his so they will have opportunities to have some small way of realizing the man he was and his love for them."