Remarks on Presenting the 1980 and 1981 Young American Medals for Bravery and Service

December 22, 1982

The President. Ladies and gentlemen, let me just take a moment to say a word about all the recipients of these medals.

You know, it's frequently said that young people need heroes to look up to and emulate. But in this ceremony today, it's we older people who are doing the admiring and finding inspiration in lives younger than our own. And this is especially fulfilling, because is serves to remind us of the caliber of people who'll be leading our country in a few years. It also illustrates how strongly rooted the tradition of service and heroism is in America's young people.

You know, Nathaniel Hawthorne once said that heroes can be heroes only in a heroic world. What he meant, of course, is that service and bravery can be honored only in a society that puts a premium on those qualities. When we honor those who in service and bravery stand out amongst us, we're reaffirming our own most deeply cherished beliefs and traditions.

John Terry is awarded the 1980 Young American Medal for Service. John is honored for having taken personal responsibility for the appearance of his street in Philadelphia -- not just in front of his house, the whole block. For several years now, he has been regularly sweeping up, cleaning up the entire block. And he doesn't do this because someone told him to. He doesn't get any money or merit badges, or even much in the way of formal thanks for it.

John, you looked around you in your hometown. You saw things that needed improving. And instead of writing to Washington or city hall, you went out and got the job done yourself. And John, I might say it's really good to see you again. You see, usually, ladies and gentlemen, I never meet any of the Young American Medal recipients until they come here to receive their medals. But I met John last year in Philadelphia, where they consider him an example for young people, for adults, for the whole city.

I had heard about him. I think, John -- if I'm correct, it started with a nearby neighborhood park. And John decided it needed cleaning up, and cleaned it up. And from there on, he took on the chore, every day, of the block in which he lived. So, that's another spirit of American voluntarism. And we need it not just in Philadelphia but throughout the entire country.

So, we didn't know this would happen when we met, did we, John? But congratulations.

Mr. Terry. Thank you, Mr. President.

The President. Your mother is not here?

Mr. Terry. No, sir.

The President. Thank you very much.

That was John's sister -- that I met also in Philadelphia -- who took that picture. And they -- both of them -- said it was done just because that's the way their mother had raised them to do things.

Jeffrey Blake is awarded the 1980 Young American Medal for Service. As a long-time member of his country's American Red Cross chapter, Jeff has an extraordinary record of accomplishment. His record includes the establishment of a Red Cross communications system and a disaster response team that has rendered assistance at the scene of many fires and other tragic and unfortunate events.

One of the things that has most amazed foreign observers of American democracy -- like the French philosopher de Tocqueville, who came here 140 years ago to look at this miracle that was America. And what he discovered was the astonishing capacity of Americans for helping one another.

Jeff, you've done truly outstanding work with an organization that was one of the first to earn Americans their reputation for compassion and humanitarianism. Your work carries on this tradition, and has already helped hundreds and, perhaps, thousands of people. And, Jeff, I want you to know how proud all of us are of you. Jeff, congratulations.

Robert Noble is awarded the 1980 Young American Medal for Bravery. One evening, shortly after he graduated from high school, Bob Noble of Fredonia, New York, was at a party when he and his friends heard a tremendous collision on the highway nearby. And when they got to the wreck, they found the car in flames. Bob climbed into the burning automobile several times. He removed two persons who, as it turned out, died of their injuries -- well, one was dead already, as he discovered, and the other died in his arms. But he also saved a woman who otherwise would have surely died in the fire.

One thing that should be mentioned about Bob is that he had to overcome urgings of friends who warned him not to get involved in that rescue. It wasn't just that they were warning him of the danger. They were, in effect, arguing that it just wasn't smart to get mixed up in something like that. But he wouldn't buy that argument. He didn't really even listen. He went to that car. He chose to risk his life repeatedly to help people he didn't even know. It was a grisly, harrowing experience, but a life was saved.

Someone has said that heroes may not be braver than anyone else, they're just braver 5 minutes longer. Well, you were also braver 5 minutes before.

Michael Browne is awarded the 1980 Young American Medal for Bravery. Michael Browne of Dixon, New Mexico -- that just struck a nerve with me, D-i-x-o-n. I'm from Dixon, Illinois. [Laughter] But when he was 13, he acted alone in making a hazardous climb in the dark to aid a severly injured hiker high on a 300-foot-high mountain ledge. For several hours, hoping that rescue workers would find them, he clung to her in the darkness, keeping her from sliding over the edge.

Michael's a special kind of boy. He lived alone in an adobe house in that mountainous area -- no electricity, no frills, very little of what we've come to think young people need to grow up right. Well, I guess we're wrong. The grown men and women who know this young man, especially the rescue workers who came to take over after he'd been singlehandedly preserving that young woman's life for hours in the rain and darkness, will tell you they don't come any better. And, Mike, as a fellow Westerner, I'm especially proud to shake your hand.

The 1981 Young American Medal for Bravery would have been presented today to Jeffrey Jones from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But, unfortunately, that's not possible. With us today are Mr. and Mrs. James Jones, who will accept the Young American Medal for Bravery on behalf of their son, Jeffrey Jones.

Jeff, an 18-year-old volunteer fireman, died while attempting to save three rescue workers who had been overcome by lethal fumes in an underground tank. It was for that sacrifice that he was chosen to receive the medal. This is a reminder, a sad one, that we honor members because they take great risks and sometimes they pay the ultimate price.

Mark Rhiener is awarded the 1981 Young American Medal for Bravery. The incident that took Jeffrey Jones' life nearly took Mark's life. Mark, 18 and a volunteer fireman, was also overcome by the poisonous gas, but he regained consciousness briefly and was able to grab a rescue line. It all started when an 8-year-old boy fell down a narrow pipe into an underground tank. Two paramedics and Mark and, finally, Jeff went down that pipe. The little boy's life was saved -- barely -- and Mark here had a very narrow escape. But when it was over, three men were gone.

We're proud, of course, very proud of them. And, Mark, we're proud of you.

We can only wonder at the bravery that sent Jeff and Mark into that tank. They knew that two paramedics had already passed out, but they felt they had to try. And that, of course, is what makes a hero. He has to try. He may measure odds and weigh the chances, but his heart seems to take over and make the decision for him.

These medals we've given out today give us all something to think about. They're a testament to how good people can be and especially how remarkable young Americans can be.

We're grateful to you all for coming. God bless you, and God bless these wonderful young people.

Note: The President spoke at 10:34 a.m. at the ceremony in the State Dining Room at the White House.