One hundred years ago, early in the morning on April 30, 1900, an American hero emerged from the wreckage of a passenger train in Vaughan, Miss. A newspaper account the next day declared: "A Heroic Engineer Sticks to his Post at Cost of Life. Terrible Fatality Prevented by Engineer's Loyalty to Duty." In fact, the tragedy was of the engineer's making, caused by his own arrogant risk-taking. But the legend of Casey Jones, soon to be immortalized in a Tin Pan Alley ballad, neglected such facts, just as our contemporary heroes are reconstructed out of appealing bits and pieces, but not the whole cloth.
A hundred years later, letters to the editor commenting on the anti-trust suit against Microsoft suggest that Bill Gates is the hero of the hour. Just as Casey Jones' contemporaries would rather lionize than vilify him, even had they known of his penchant for recklessness, so is Gates admired as a bold individualist who brought benefit to millions by helping make the Internet accessible to the masses. Maybe he cut corners in cutting out the competition. That can be forgiven or forgotten, just as was Casey's appetite for speed.
Americans have never required that their heroes be saints, only that their deeds represent collective values. In the case of both Gates and Jones, that trait is daring individualism. The Brave Engineer was a bold and, at times, heedless engine driver. Both his and the Illinois Central Railroad's reputation rode on keeping their passenger trains on time. The New Orleans Special was 95 minutes late when it left Memphis that fateful day, but if anyone could make up that time it was Casey, known for bending rules and gunning trains faster than they should go. But he pushed his luck too far. Rounding a blind curve at 70 miles per hour just north of a siding where he knew several other trains were waiting for him to pass, Casey plowed into a standing freight train. Seconds before the impact Sim Webb, his black fireman, shouted a warning: "Mr. Casey! We're gonna hit something!" "You jump, Sim; I'll stay!" Webb: "You jump, too!" Casey: "No. I'll stay at my post!"
Such a stalwart soul begged for canonization at a time when young boys aspired to be engineers and the public thirsted for heroic train-wreck songs. Could a Casey become a hero today? Heroes have a harder time being recognized today when we distrust personal motives and show more fascination for those with feet of clay. We hunger instead for celebrities, whose private lives can be dissected in minute detail. Scandal titillates us and elevates scandalous lives to public celebration.
Casey's culpability in his mortal train wreck was obscured not just because there were no tabloids to pursue him into the grave, but because his contemporaries prized daring and courage, not self-aggrandizement or hedonism. For us, though, it is the lifestyles of the rich that make them famous. Americans of middle age still believe in valiant heroes from the Casey Jones mold, figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Edmund Hillary or the first astronauts. The World War II generation honored the Audie Murphys and George Pattons because of their courage and sacrifice during a perilous conflict.
Today's teenagers either have no heroes, or those they name are sports or entertainment celebrities manufactured for them by the media – stars who are admired for instant wealth or instant recognition, slam dunks or gangsta raps, Oscar or Grammy winners, none of whom is heroic. Few university students have heard of Casey Jones, but just as young men a century ago aspired to follow his hazardous yet noble profession, students today hope to emulate Bill Gates in the high risk, high tech world (and, unlike Casey, pull in a 60K salary fresh out of college). There was also a bit of the outlaw in Casey, who was determined to make up lost time, regulations be damned. While a court has ruled that Microsoft restrained competition, those who distrust government see Gates as Robin Hood and the Justice Department as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Who else, if not Bill Gates, might become our age's Casey Jones?
Politicians are out; even the most upright emerge with their dignity barely intact. Sports fans are disgusted (read letters to the editor) with over-paid, under-performing prima donnas in every sport, including what some columnists have labeled the National Felons League. Some we rank as celebrities are merely famous for being famous. We probably do have some home-grown Mother Teresas, but if they don't have publicity agents and press packages, they just aren't that interesting. MTV rules!
Theodore Kornweibel is a professor of African American history at San Diego State University. His most recent book is "Seeing Red: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy, 1919-1925."