Not a New Year’s Eve goes by where I don’t, for at least a few minutes, remember Roberto Clemente. For it was New Year’s Eve 1972 — 40 years ago today — when Clemente died a hero, trying to airlift relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
Clemente was truly heroic and brave, not because he was forced into some dire situation. He was heroic precisely because he didn’t have to face anything at all if he didn’t want to. He was a man of means and status and he could have ushered in 1973 in comfortable circumstances in his native Puerto Rico, writing checks to a relief fund to help those earthquake victims. He could have organized a benefit. But he didn’t. He sent on relief supplies himself, and when he realized that some of supplies he was sending to Managua were being pilfered by crooked officials, Clemente got on board the next flight himself to ensure that they got to those who needed them the most. It was the last decision he’d ever make.
The plane took off a little after 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve with five on board. The plane — overloaded and in poor mechanical condition to begin with — encountered problems almost immediately. The pilot tried to return to the airport but it was too late. It crashed into the Atlantic Ocean about a mile from the coast, killing all aboard. Clemente’s body was never recovered.
As you prepare to welcome the new year, take a few moments to learn more about Roberto Clemente. Not just the circumstances of his death and the broad arc of his career, each of which are well known. Learn about the weird stuff. The not-so-great stuff. The funny stuff. Clemente may have the earned status of a hero, but he was really interesting — sometimes even kinda annoying — beyond that. We have this understandable tendency to turn heroes into saints, but knowing all of the little and random things about Clemente makes him far more human than we typically think of him, and that in turn makes his heroism seem all the greater. Greater precisely because it wasn’t his duty to do what he did. It was his choice.
(Note: some of these thoughts and words first appeared in a post three years ago. I kinda liked how I said it then, so I’m plagiarizing myself a bit).