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Who are your heroes? Help them tell their stories: Susannah Gal

Posted 11/22/17

Who has been a hero in my life? Merriam-Webster has several definitions of a hero including “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities.”

All kinds of people have …

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Who are your heroes? Help them tell their stories: Susannah Gal


Who has been a hero in my life? Merriam-Webster has several definitions of a hero including “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities.”

All kinds of people have been my heroes including my family and my teachers, as well as some of my friends when they were facing particularly difficult times.

I remember when I was in high school, my parents were having a hard time financially. We’d bought a large piece of land in rural Michigan and my parents had had a house built as well as a barn so that my sister and I could live out our dream of having horses. I don’t think I really realized how hard that time must have been for them until more recently when my brother recounted a time when my parents pulled us out of school so we could take out money from our own savings accounts to pay the electric bill. I know my parents kept up a lot of our life despite that seemingly desperate time when we were living on the edge.

My other heroes include my teachers. I remember several times when I got excited about the lesson my chemistry teacher was doing. One particular time, he was putting solid sodium into water to demonstrate the effect of a sudden release of energy. For one chemistry class, the teacher picked a slightly large piece of sodium and it ended up breaking the glass beaker, which cut my teacher’s leg. I realize that might not have been the smartest thing to do, although it is a very memorable lesson even 42 years later.

I also remember how fascinated I was when a history teacher used a book with quotes from history books of other countries talking about U.S. historical events. It was so interesting to consider how other places viewed our important events.

I know these teachers put in a lot of time to make the lessons clear for us and to help us understand the topics. As I am also a teacher now, I know how much time that can take. It is in part because of that chemistry teacher that I was interested in pursuing chemistry and biology in college and for my PhD.

Another example of a hero was one of my friends when we lived in Basel, Switzerland. Through the “American Women’s Club” of Basel, we met a couple, she from Missouri, he from near Zurich, Switzerland. She’d moved to Basel (about an hour from Zurich) to be with her husband. It was a pretty gutsy move for someone who didn’t speak that much, if any, German. One notch for being a hero.

About two years into her move, she developed leukemia and had to have chemotherapy to knock out all of her white blood cells.

I was fortunate to be able to visit her in her isolation room. To do that I had to put on a sterile gown, put booties over my shoes and a mask over my face. Without her white blood cells, my friend was vulnerable to infections, so these precautions reduced the level of germs coming in with me when I visited her.

It took a lot of courage to stay positive in a hospital where you weren’t always sure you would understand all of what people were saying. Happily, she recovered well over subsequent months.

In any case, that friend and her husband faced their fears in that challenging situation. For that, I gained more confidence in myself and was able to face my life’s challenges. More heroes.

These are just a few of the examples of heroes in my life. I’m not sure we always realize that there are lots of heroes in our lives and the lives of our kids and family. As I said before, I really enjoyed seeing the street banners recognizing our military heroes that were taken down for the winter.

How could you consider acknowledging your heroes? You could interview them over the upcoming holidays. You may have heard of Story Corps. It’s a project to record conversations of ordinary people all over the country to preserve ideas and experiences of everyday people in the United States. These recordings are added to the Library of Congress as part of records of current events.

You can hear a sample of a Story Corps interview on Friday mornings on NPR or by going to I’ve done several sessions of Story Corps interviews with my family over the years. The last time was about 10 years ago with my father and mother before their memories were failing. They told some wonderful stories of their experiences.

The Story Corps organization is promoting again the National Day of Listening for the day after Thanksgiving. This is an opportunity for family members or friends to interview each other so you can learn more about the other person.

So, instead of shopping all day, I suggest everyone pick one of your heroes to interview on Friday, Nov. 24. Ask your family or friends about their lives and their struggles, who are their heroes and why. Let them know you admire them and appreciate their sacrifices and contributions to your life.

Listen to what they’ve learned and maybe you can use that to be more of a hero for those around you.

Let’s all consider our heroes and strive to be more of a hero for those around us.

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at