Great men you don't know – UPDATED

This past weekend, my family and I attended a dinner honoring a firefighter and former scoutmaster who has spent his entire life serving his community. A little bio background:

For 40 years, FDNY Firefighter Richard Gimbl served as a volunteer fireman in every community in which he has lived he is currently serving his second term as Fire Chief in his Long Island community. In 2007 he was named Firefighter of the year from his county, Southern New York, New York State and the International Chief’s Eastern Division. With the NYFD he earned numerous commendations. For his actions in the rescue and recovery effort for Flight 800, he earned the Mayor Giuliani Medal. He served for 10 years on the FEMA NY Urban Search and Rescue Team, which responded to the Oklahoma City bombing, hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands…his bio goes on and on, and as a Scoutmaster and BSA Commissioner, the bio continues. He’s retired from FDNY, but he is still involved with Emergency Management. All of his focus is on helping people cope and survive, and on helping boys grow into the sorts of men who care about others.

This is a life well-lived, a life of service. My understanding is that the people honoring Gimbl pestered him for two years before he allowed them to do so; he kept saying, “no, not necessary, please don’t.”

He hates attention, you see. As “corny” as it may sound to some, what Gimbl does, he does out of love of his country and his community and his fellow man.

Gimbl finally agreed to allow a dinner in his honor because the Boy Scouts needed to raise funds, and this was a way to do it. So, if you think about it, even his moment of public recognition and praise was a sort of sacrifice for Rick Gimbl; he walked out of his comfort zone in order to help out the Scouting organization he loves. Additionally, once he’d committed to the fund-raiser, he even assisted in its success by calling on people he knew, people who owed him a favor or two, to cater the evening for free, down to the cake, so that the benefit to the scouts would be optimal.

This is an unselfish man, with an unselfish wife and family. When, after many accolades, Gimbl made his own unscripted speech, he began simply, “on my honor, I will do my best…” He thanked many people. He talked about his brother firefighters, his scouts. He admitted, charmingly, humbly, that he utterly hates camping, and recounted a few stories justifying his dislike. But he camped for years, because his commitment to his troop demanded it.

Throughout his remarks, whenever he needed to collect his thoughts, he would say again, “on my honor, I will do my best…”

I realized, watching him, that Gimbl was not stalling for time; he was repeating the prayer of his life, the words he had wholly taken into himself, etched into his heart; “on my honor, I will do my best…” a promise to himself, and to his God; an approach to his whole life. A man who has pulled people out of burning buildings and rescued kids from frozen lakes knows all about the human heart; he knows how to take a pulse.

And for him, there is the constant heartbeat, “on my honor…”; the steady pulse, “I will do my best…”

Rick Gimbl is a great man, a patriot who serves his nation, wherever he happens to be; a Knight of Columbus (a Scout is Reverent) who serves his God, by the prayer of his heart. With honor, doing his best.

He is also a man who knows how to forgive when he has been wronged; I know this because I have seen it.

As might be expected, this dinner was attended by many of the young men who had gone through Gimbl’s troop, and their lives are a testament to the value of a healthy scouting program and what used to be called the “manly” virtues. But there was one young man in attendance who had never been one of Gimbl’s scouts, who had never met Gimbl, at all, in fact, until he came home from Iraq after spending a year at Walter Reed Hospital, learning how to walk without legs. He is an Army Ranger named Cpl. Christopher Levi:

Levi’s unit, a U.S. Army intelligence group . . . was in the middle vehicle — an armored Humvee — in a five-vehicle convoy. At the wheel was his friend and squad leader, Sgt. Norman Forbes IV, of Grapevine, Texas. They set off shortly after noon, riding through city streets that were frequent sites for attack.

That afternoon in Sadr City, a bomb known as a shaped charge device hidden in the street sent a jet of molten metal hurtling through the armor of the soldiers’ Humvee. The force shattered Forbes’ left arm and his left hand, and broke his left femur, destroying the muscle of his thigh. Forbes is today a patient at a medical center in Texas.

Levi was riding to the right of Forbes. The blast cut through both of his legs at mid-thigh, hurling his limbs to the other side of the Humvee. The blast tore away part of his right palm, taking most of the fifth metacarpal bone with it.

“Forbes,” Levi shouted, “I don’t have any legs!”

At that moment, luck and modern military field medicine adapted to the insurgent war in Iraq came to Levi’s aid. The machine gunner, Aaron Copeland, whose 50-caliber weapon had been bent in two by the blast, pressed his knee into Levi’s crotch, squeezing shut two major arteries that feed blood to Levi’s legs and preventing him from quickly bleeding to death. Copeland almost certainly saved Levi’s life.

The article in Newsday mentions that Levi’s family was planning fund-raisers to modify their house for Christopher’s needs, when he was finally released from the hospital.

And that is where Rick Gimbl comes in. Hearing that Levi’s mother had written a letter to the community wondering if anyone would volunteer to build a ramp to their front door, Gimbl -typically- took action. He and firefighter Mike Heffron knocked on the Levi’s front door. Levi’s father answered, and Gimbl introduced himself and was invited in. He and Heffron looked around and said, “We’ll help; you go be with your son, and we’ll take care of your house. We’ll knock down this wall, we’ll put a ramp here…just go to your son.”

Gimbl was off and running. He gathered people he knew from scouting, and his brother firefighters; he called in his markers and got donations of materials and labor, and then:

They poured over the crest of Holbrook’s Mollie Boulevard like a wave — 50 or so big-shouldered men who bore construction tools in their hands and determination in their hearts. Looking like a scrappy militia bent on waging a suburban war, they descended on a white split ranch, some to the garage, others fanning out into the backyard, all of them ready to go.

“Morning, Levi family, we’re here,” Holbrook Fire Chief Rick Gimbl said in a booming voice. “You guys ready? Let’s go to work!”

“[Chris Levi] did the right thing for us,” Sean Garfen said of Levi’s service in Iraq. “So if he needs help, we have the resources,” said Garfen, a union electrician who put renovations at his own home on hold to work on Levi’s house. . . . With that, a $1,500 wooden ramp began its evolution to a $100,000 home renovation.

Chief Gimbl, who has a son serving in the Marines, was in the New York City Fire Department’s hazardous materials unit on Sept. 11, 2001. His firehouse lost 19 men in the collapse of the World Trade Center. . . Of the nearly 350 firefighters killed that day, Gimbl recalls having worked with at least 95 of them.

“I feel America is the best place to live and, damn it, we have to do what we have to do to keep it that way,” Gimbl said. “The community came together, and I am proud of that.”

Heffron, who has coached youth football and baseball in Holbrook, and has been a Cub Scout leader there, said he is no hero for volunteering. “I think you do what you can, when you can,” Heffron said. “Had this project begun a month and a half ago, I wouldn’t even be here, I would have been in Boston with my son.” That is because earlier this year, Heffron’s son, Kyle, was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

These are not, of course, the gasbag glamor boys and girls on television and in politics, with the Ivy educations that have left them so smart that they’re stupid about things like real life, and hammers and nails and levels. These are just men who live what they consider to be very ordinary lives, but they’re always willing to put their personal worries on “hold” for others. They look out “for the little guy,” for people who are in a tough spot, and could use a hand.

They never think of themselves as “the little guys,” because they are self-sufficient, and resourceful, and they are therefore never downtrodden.

They are great men, who build up, and build up, and who never tear down. They are a culture unto themselves, and it is a culture that loves life and hates death.

These men, of this culture, are the sturdy spine of America that keeps everything moving and operable. Spend some time in their company, and you realize that America does not need to be “remade,” so much as “re-prioritized,” and her idols re-ordered.

They are people for whom “volunteerism” is not a sometime thing, embraced for a political fad, or a photo-op; it is simply the way you live your life. You reach out, you give; when you dare to love, you always get it all back, and more.

When Cpl. Christopher Levi arrived back on Long Island, he was driven home by Gimbl, in a borrowed, jazzed-up Army jeep. There were banners on the avenue. There were 3,000 people waving in welcome. There were firefighters who had come from all over the state (and who had traveled over water) and who’d brought their biggest trucks and their biggest flags; they raised them in salute to this young soldier, as he approached his house, where a great deal had changed:

…volunteers organized by members of the Holbrook Fire Department built a handicapped-accessible apartment in the lower level of his parents’ home.

Donations ranging from lumber to labor helped pay the estimated $150,000 value of the renovation, which included a new kitchen, a widened bathroom, and a lounge area complete with flat panel TV, surround sound and a video intercom. The bedroom was wired with remote switches so he can turn out the lights once he sits on his bed and removes his prosthetic legs.

“This is awesome,” Levi said. “I don’t think I’m ever moving out.”

“Next year, Super Bowl at your house,” said Mike Barhold, Holbrook fire commissioner, who did carpentry during the renovation.

At the dinner in his honor, Gimbl honored Levi, calling him out for recognition and applause, and expressing his humble admiration for the Ranger’s determination and courage. The warm, mutually-respectful relationship between the younger and the older man was transparent, and beautiful to see.

And it was made even more beautiful by the fact that these men saw nothing heroic in themselves; they saw only the hero in each other.

A hero is as a herodoes. Even when their good deeds go unmarked by all but God.

Ordinary men. Ordinary heroes. On their honor, they will do their best. It is an honor to salute such people, today. God bless them all, says I.

UPDATE: Mary Katharine Ham with another great man you don’t know, but now you do…

And here is another

Joe Carter: What a Veteran Knows
Insty: Great Video from Reason
Blackfive: On the 11th Day…
HillBuzz: Thanks to Dubya (surprising must read)
Bill Whittle: Honor (must read)
Mudville Gazette Just keep scrolling
Noisy Room: On this Veteran’s Day
Bookworm: PC Smites Military
AJ Strata: Are we being served
Hot Air: Happy Veteran’s Day
Radio Patriot: Words from a Vet
Deacon Greg: A Prayer for Fulton Sheen
Threats Watch: Stolen Honor Reclaimed
Brutally Honest: Giving Thanks
Confederate Yankee: Vet’s Day
Michelle Malkin: Thank you, Vets
American Digest: O/T but worth reading
Gateway Pundit: Our Troops Deserve Better than This

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • AJStrata

    Thanks Anchoress, I needed that!

  • Kris, in New England

    This should have come with a tissue warning. What an incredible story about awe-inspiring men.

    And what have we done to deserve them?

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  • EJHill

    It reminds me of Major Dick Winters, the commander of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, the “Band of Brothers” Stephen Ambrose chronicled in his book and later the HBO miniseries of the same name.

    “I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day, when he said, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said, ‘No, but I served in a company of heroes.’”

    Where do get such men?

  • Andrea Shea King

    What you’ve written about these men moves me to the core. Thank you for sharing this, in only the way you can, Anchoress. Blessings to everyone included in this piece, and to those to whom we owe so much. It is a debt that can never be fully repaid.


    (Thank you also for the link to a story told by another patriot of the battle that is now ours to fight).

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  • s1c

    beautifully written and a beautiful story.

  • Joan of Argghh!

    I’m pretty sure the darkness can’t overcome that sort of Light.

    Just beautiful. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Sarah Kuvasz

    Incredible. Thank you God for such men!


  • pinklady

    Thanks Anchoress! What an incredible, beautiful and thoroughly American story! All the famous gasbags talking about the REAL America, Holbrook is the REAL America.Wow.

  • John in Dublin CA

    These men are not just heroes, they are giants among midgets. I have feared greatly for my country in recent times, but knowing that men like Gimbl actually exist gives me great comfort. We have not descended as far as I feared; we will overcome our current problems. Men like this stir my soul, inspire me, and awe me. God Bless.

  • Gina

    Oh, wow. Verklempt.


    Excellent tribute. Thanks for putting it all together.

  • Maggie

    Dear Anchoress:
    What a beautiful way to commerate Veterans Day. I am the proud wife of a Vietnam veteran who survived being shot down not once but twice. He also served as a scoutmaster for his older son who just graduated from the Naval Academy. My husband isn’t finished yet. He is homeschooling our seven year old twins and is now on his second “tour” as scoutmaster for our son.
    Forgive my bragging but he gets uncomfortable when I say any of these things in his presence and I needed to tell someone who gets it!

    Your faithful reader, Maggie

  • kt

    Anchoress you are making me homesick! I grew up nearby and will be flying to Islip this weekend. I also stay at the residence inn a lot near island 16. There were many men in my family like Mr. Gimbl, though most of them have passed on. It’s good to know that there are still old-school people on the Island (but of course we saw that demonstrated on 9/11…so many of the dead heroes were from the suburbs).

  • bbh

    I am touched beyond words – thank you for sharing this. There are men and women all over America who quietly do whatever they can to help whomever they can.

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  • DRJ

    Really nice post. Thank you.

  • dry valleys

    I remember reading in a satirical magazine, a cartoon of some middle-class types trying to install some furniture. So they opened the instruction booklet & it said “ASK SOMEONE WHO DIDN’T GO TO UNIVERSITY”. I found it hilarious :)

    I used to do voluntary work at a Citizens’ Advice Bureau. I thought that, having been unemployed & poor, but not quite being as disadvantaged as others, I would be able to bring an understanding perspective to problems & help people. Of course it helped me too- I got something to recommend me to employers, learnt a great deal about society, the law, government policy etc.

    Accordingly, a number of students & so on volunteered.

    But the best people of all were the asylum seekers (who are legally prohibited from working thanks to this batshit government) & the retired. They weren’t going to get anything out in material terms, but they wanted to contribute to society in their own way.

    I have heard it said that the unemployed should be in some way compelled to do such work. I am completely against such because it defeats the object & unmotivated, often ill-educated people will often do more harm than good, which is why no voluntary organisation supports such proposals, & I think it comes out of vindictiveness at PEOPLE SITTING AROUND rather than any meaningful desire to improve things.

    But I think when people go to claim welfare, it would be no bad thing if their adviser told them about what they could do to improve their skills & so on, & keep themselves active. At the moment this is not done. But I think we need to acknowledge that for some people, it will be extremely hard to find a job in this day & age, & many of the “welfare to work” schemes are an expensive waste of time. Even if some are good, they should be scaled back & only those proven to be useful continued.

    Yes, times have changed & this isn’t 2007. But it wouldn’t take much time or money to encourage a new generation of people of this stripe. I hear a lot of conservatives talking about National Service, but I disagree with them- as you say, it isn’t the right thing to do if Obama or Cameron or anyone suggests it.

    The option should exist & be made easier than it currently is & that is all the government should do, not some high-falutin’ policy. It is then for us to do the work.

    [I know a kid who is looking for an unpaid internship at a non-profit, or a volunteer position that will help him hone his skills and make him more marketable. It's smart thinking, and this is a very smart comment. -admin]

  • Ellen

    I teared up after reading that, and it got me to thinking. There are lots of men and women like Mr. Gimbl out there. We don’t hear about them, since they are not the kind to blow their own horns. But they are the glue that keeps our society together. They don’t have to be prodded to volunteer, or to recycle or to do the right thing. They just do it.

    God bless them all.

  • Lynne

    Another wonderful post. I hope *everyone* checks out the blog entry at HillBuzz about President Bush. It and its comments are amazing! Within it was a link to a wonderful tribute site for President Bush, , and here’s his address if you want to send him a note…

    Here’s President Bush’s office address:
    Pres. GWB
    P.O. Box 259000
    Dallas, TX 75225-9000

  • Gayle Miller

    We are a nation filled with men such as described in your post! And thank God for them! The knowledge that they’re out there keeps me sane (or as sane as I am anyway).

  • dry valleys

    I always wonder if I would jump into a river to save a drowning baby or something along those lines. I hope I would, if for no other reason because I’d be ashamed of myself if I stood around.

    Big society can fight poverty. Big government just fuels it
    David Cameron explains how he wants the state to take an active role in creating the big society

    Note the negative reactions from libertarians. But I think most people of a right-wing nature will like this & maybe you will. I myself, having looked at the proposals in detail, predictably enough don’t like them too much. It does depend on how much coercion is used, because it is this that likely differs these proposals frm what I said earlier on. But do you see his observations that civic society has retreated so far in the face of the state that it won’t reappear organically, & should (paradox alert) be fostered by the government?

    I am also of the view that if people challenged anti-social behaviour, we might not need such heavy-handed policing. Admittedly I never do such things myself. But people who, for example, drop food or cigarette butts on the floor are showing a lack of respect for them as share the streets with them. So it might be for the best if people started by taking them to task, then it might be that we never build up to hardcore antisocial behaviour.

    Richard Gimbl would not look the other way. But maybe some of us would.

  • Cat

    Thanks for a wonderful post about wonderful men.

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