Thursday, May 24, 2012

There are heroes among us: Meet Sgt. Tom Linder

For as long as I remember — perhaps it was growing up with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart as TV staples, or Clint Eastwood, either as Dirty Harry Callahan or the gun-slinging cowboy — I wanted to be the hero, someone’s knight in shining armor riding in at the last minute to save the day.

I wanted to charge in on my trusted stallion — it had to be either pure black or completely white — leading the cavalry to turn the tide at battle’s twilight. Or I wanted to dive in front of the gun and take the bullet speeding toward the villain’s intended victim, or to rescue some young lass or a child from certain death in a burning building.

Would-be heroes like myself learn, after nearly a lifetime, that such epic moments seldom present themselves, so we merely plug away, trying to be good parents, good spouses, good employees. Sometimes we succeed; often we fail. Mostly, we’re just everyday Joes who never quite live up to that dream.

So it tickled me to death early on in my career when an older man, a janitor at the newspaper where I first worked as a reporter, seemed to recognize that desire in me to do not only what is right, but to do so with a hero’s heart. His name, Vic Jacobs, I mention with affection. He was a big, burly guy, a former soldier — ex-Marine, I believe. As I recall, he had bright, steely gray eyes beneath a mop of somewhat unkempt, slate-gray hair, and a smile that, to the uninitiated, might have seemed more a smirk. But it was a smile, and it always adorned his rugged face when he took to calling me Clark Kent or describing me as a mild-mannered reporter.

It became a longstanding joke between us during the seven years I worked at that paper.

Vic said he liked me because I talked with him like a person, not like some people did, when they knew they were talking to a “janitor.” I liked Vic because, well, because I liked Vic. For a guy without much of a formal education, he sure knew a lot, and at the time he probably was among the wisest people I knew.

Each night, Vic would show up after deadline at The Rawlins Daily Times, where he would begin emptying the trash cans at each desk. Sometimes the presses would be running, sometimes they would have finished their nightly run, and quiet would descend upon the office. On most nights, he and I would talk for maybe 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes we would discuss our different faiths, other times our families, our pasts, or perhaps just about life in a town called Rawlins, Wyo. Sooner or later, however, one of us would realize it was getting late, that Vic had to get back to work and I had to get home. We would have an exchange that typically followed the Superman theme Vic had initiated.

“Well, Clark, it’s getting late,” he’d say. Taking my cue, I would respond, “Yeah, I guess it’s time for me to fly,” as I’d lift up both arms in front of me as if Superman in flight. That nearly always brought a brief chuckle to this man I regarded as warm and interesting, someone who cared about the people around him.

Vic was one of those heroes who walk among us, with an outward appearance so like Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne that we are inclined to think of them as average when they are anything but that. Vic and I lost touch when I left Rawlins in late 1990.

He came to mind this week when I learned that another of those heroes among us had been struck down early this week by a serious health threat.

Sgt. Tom Linder in my mind is a hero like Vic, albeit it of another stripe. Instead of life in a town on the high plains of Wyoming, Tom has lived on the Great Plains in Illinois. Instead of wielding a broom and cleaning supplies, the tools of Tom’s trade have been a badge and a gun. Another hallmark: He is one of those people who share my Christian faith but who, from my encounters with him, lives that faith far more effectively than many of us do.

Regrettably, I can lay no great claim of friendship or kinship with Tom. For the most part, we had a passing acquaintanceship that began in the last quarter of 1994, when my family and I moved to Elgin. Tom and his wife were members of the same home-school association my wife and I joined at that time.

So from the start, I got some warm glimpses of this bear of a man as he interacted with his family and other members of this home-school group.

If he seemed a little aloof or stand-offish at first, I took no offense. It was a trait I had come to expect among police officers. I believe it reflects varying levels of reality in their profession:
  • The person met during a Saturday social event might be the same one the officer arrests the following Friday for DUI or beating his wife or peddling drugs.
  •  While many people claim to respect cops, it often is a respect born of fear and with little warmth. If you doubt me, consider the butterflies that erupted in your stomach the last time a police officer followed you as you were driving or pulled you over.
These are among the reasons why cops frequently have, as a circle of friends, other cops and their families instead of civilians. It’s hard to build friendships when there is a level of fear on one side and concern on the other that a “friend” one day might try to call in a favor over a speeding ticket or other infraction.

I feel fortunate that in my early years as a reporter, I learned to lose my fear of police. Nearly every cop I’ve known has been a decent person with a good heart, intent on making the world a better place.
Tom Linder, it seems to me, has been that and more.

Over the years, as I have bumped into him from time to time, I always have made a point of saying hello. It was during these brief encounters that I started thinking of Tom as a hero — where I witnessed the genuine warmth and kindness he exhibited toward others, whether he was in uniform or not.

It’s true that a hero may come in with guns blazing and save the day, but true heroes also are people who make a difference, I think, and who do so not for the glory or because it might raise their own esteem in the eyes of others. They do so simply because it is a part of their nature. It is who they are.

As an example I hold that is typical of those occasions I saw this hero in Tom, I recall one night some years ago when I had stopped at the Jewel on Larkin Avenue before heading home from work at The Courier News in Elgin. It was a miserable, chilly night with a steady rain, and it must have been close to 2 a.m., perhaps later. I made my purchase, and as I headed toward the exit, I could see a police officer just outside.

As the automatic door opened in front of me, I recognized Sgt. Linder. He was standing there, rain dripping from his visor and police raincoat, and was loading a couple of cakes into the back of an SUV. His doing so allowed the woman who had bought the cakes to stay dry inside her vehicle.

I stepped up to help out, only to learn that the cake I had picked up to hand to him was in fact one he had bought to take home for a family birthday or some such event. But we said hello and chatted for a few moments as the woman drove off.

His act of chivalry was touching, but what struck me even more was the kindness with which he treated this woman he clearly did not know.

It was this kindness, his heart that I saw Tom Linder demonstrate consistently each brief instance I encountered him over the past 17 years. It obviously left an impression.

There are heroes among us. Some show up every so often on the evening news. More often, however, they walk in our midst, largely unnoticed unless we pause just long enough to notice them at work.

Tom Linder is one of those heroes. He’s a retired cop, and he and his family are experiencing a rough stretch at the moment. They could use some prayer.