Each year for six years Beliefnet editors have asked themselves whether the nominees for Most Inspiring Person can get any more exceptional. And in the seventh year of the feature, we're amazed to find out that, yes, they can. The heroic actions of our nominees range from putting their lives on the line to protect others to selflessly dedicating themselves to helping those in need, to serving as a role model for youth.
This year our list included two coaches: Tony Dungy, coach of the Super Bowl-wining Indianapolis Colts and a prominent Christian, who encourages faith and family ahead of winning; and Luma Mufleh, founder of the soccer team the Fugees, comprised of refugee kids from war-torn countries.
The most high-profile nominees on this year's list, actors Don Cheadle and Angelina Jolie, both work to aid the world's poor by giving them a public voice. Cheadle puts his focus on aiding the people of Darfur, while Jolie works on a variety of humanitarian—including Darfur, Doctor's Without Borders, and the Daniel Pearl Foundation.
Jolie also has the distinction of being the most controversial nominee this year, with many Beliefnet readers writing in to express their disappointment with her nomination. Many noted that Jolie was "living in sin" with boyfriend Brad Pitt. But others pointed out the fact that she currently gives one-third of her earnings to charity. For someone who usually commands upwards of $15-20 million per film, that adds up to a lot. For this and other reasons, Jolie placed second among the top three finalists.
Wesley Autrey, who took third place, amazed New York City—and the rest of the county—by doing the unthinkable: jumping in front of a subway train to protect a man who had fallen onto the tracks after having a seizure. He not only served as an example of the goodness of the human spirit, but in the process, helped dispel the myth of the self-centered New Yorker.
Teacher Barbara Morgan, who was astronaut Christa McAuliffe's backup as the first Teacher In Space, never gave up on her dream to go into space and bring the experience back to her students. This year she finally made it onto the Space Shuttle Endeavor. She had waited 22 years.
Social-justice environmentalist Majora Carter is working to save New York's poorest residents from health problems caused by clustering toxic facilities in the borough. Through her organization, Sustainable South Bronx, Carter has worked to get residents of decaying urban areas to help themselves—with much success.
Dr. Catherine Hamlin, 81, has spent her career helping Ethiopian women by repairing fistulas, a devastating childbirth injury that results in many women being treated as outcasts.
Maj. Scott Southworth of the Wisconsin National Guard decided to adopt a disabled Iraqi orphan after seeing the horrific conditions at the orphanage where he was volunteering. Southworth now works to bring more Iraqi orphans to the U.S. for medical treatment –and help them get adopted.
Finally, Dr. Liviu Librescu, an accomplished scientist and engineering professor, died in April saving his students from the gunman who had gone on a killing rampage at Virgina Tech. Librescu, a Holocaust survivor who was interned at a labor camp as a boy and deported to a Romanian ghetto, told his students to jump from the windows of the second-floor classroom, while he barricaded the door with his body. He was shot and killed through the door. Our members voted Dr. Librescu their number one choice.
In an interview with Beliefnet, Librescu's widow, Marilena said, "I was not surprised. I know Liviu very well, and I understand his last decisions. He cannot jump first and leave the young students there in the classroom." According to Marilena, many of the students Librescu saved emailed her to let them know of his actions that day, writing, "We did not lose only a teacher, a mentor, but also our second father."
One of Librescu's students, Andrey Andreyev, tried to get him to flee with the rest of the class, but the 76-year-old professor refused. As Andreyev made his way out of the window, he turned and saw Librescu still blocking the door.
In a recent interview with Beliefnet, Andreyev, 20, says he plans to follow in his research advisor's footsteps by becoming a professor himself. "What he did was an unbelievable thing," said Andreyev. "But, what he did, to me, has always been just a final proof of what he was like as a person. He would always do anything for his students."
This year, Beliefnet has chosen Liviu Librescu is the Most Inspiring Person of 2007 for his heroic actions and the sacrifice he made to protect his students.