Gen. David Petraeus. Lance Armstrong. Joe Paterno. Nowadays, it's easier to find disgraced heroes than heroes still standing on their pedestal.
In a materialistic, fame-seeking world, our culture has a tendency to glorify people for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps it's time we recognize that true heroes are not always the people society anoints.
My grandfather was my hero growing up, and although he was not famous or wealthy, wore no medals and had no trophies, he was a wonderful role model who withstood the test of time.
He was an imposing figure, 6 feet tall with a broad frame and a deep voice, and had a toughness about him that commanded respect. Yet he was dignified, intelligent and full of wisdom. He was like John Wayne and Professor Dumbledore merged into one persona.
My grandparents lived a few streets away from us in rural Connecticut. They had moved up from New York the year my father -- their only son -- died from cancer at age 44, leaving behind a wife, nine children and no money. Having lived their entire lives in New York City and Long Island, my grandparents' move to Connecticut was a selfless act to help my struggling mother.
My younger sister and I were expected to visit our grandparents after school every Thursday. We would sit politely at their kitchen table, pretending to enjoy my grandmother's snacks while sneaking wistful glances at the drawer where she reserved the good stuff for real company.
Then we would move to the den, where my grandfather sat in his big brown leather recliner, his head tilted back and his hands folded across his stomach. After sneaking us some Smarties, he would ask how our mother was getting along. Somehow, my grandfather always managed to remind us that she needed our help around the house, without his ever actually saying it.
Then he would ask us about school: "Tell me what you learned this week, Pa-tree-sha." I loved the funny way he pronounced my name. He was the only person who ever used my full name; I was just Patty to everyone else. My grandfather never treated me like a kid.
I was shy and quiet when I was young and very self-conscious about my family's fatherless-ness and lack of money. But in my grandfather's den, I felt smart and special. He showed a genuine interest in my life.
He liked to remind me that school was my ticket to a bright future. I was a good student, and his expectations propelled me to work hard: "Stick to the books, Pa-tree-sha. Don't let that boob tube rot your brain!"
Grandpa encouraged me to aim high, advice that sometimes conflicted with the expectations of girls in the 1970s. Perhaps seeing my mother struggle to get by made him understand how important it was for a woman to achieve financial independence:
"Go to college and make your own career -- don't rely on a man to support you," he advised.
Only one of my older siblings had finished college; three of them dropped out after my father's death to help at home, and three others never had the means or the aspirations to go. As they struggled through their disrupted lives, some of them turned to drinking and bad relationships.
My grandfather believed that anyone could rise above their circumstances if they had the desire and the drive: "You are the only one responsible for the direction your life takes -- never make excuses for your failures."
I soaked it all in and silently vowed that I would be successful. More than anything, I wanted him to be proud of me. My grandfather instilled in me the values of hard work and self-discipline.
He taught me how to mow the lawn and how to clean the mower afterward. He made me help clean his garage in the spring and shovel his driveway in the winter. He taught me practical things like how to fix the chain on a running toilet tank and how to check the oil in my car -- things I'm pretty sure other teenage girls did not know! His lessons fostered my sense of independence.
Eventually I did go on to college, and I was well established in a successful banking career by the time I got married and had children. Although my grandfather was gone by then, I know he would have been proud of the path I chose.
To this day, he remains a driving force behind many of my decisions. I will always be grateful for his encouragement and advice when I was young, vulnerable and in need of a mentor.
There are indeed true heroes among us all; we just need to look in the right places.
Patty Langer, a homemaker in Pine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The PG Portfolio welcomes "Local Dispatch" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein: 412-263-1255.