By Ellie Mathews Warren Patch
“What would you do in the last hour of your life?”
That’s a pretty heavy question to ponder — especially if you’re a high school freshman. Some 400 “World Cultures” students of Mary Sok and Jamie Lott-Jones at Watchung Hills Regional High School, who were only three or four years old when the World Trade Center disaster occurred, were challenged to ponder that dilemma.
They sat up straighter in their chairs as the story of the “Man in the Red Bandanna” unfolded on the screen, a tale of a young man whose life was similar in many respects to their own.
Welles Remy Crowther grew up in Nyack, N.Y. He loved sports, and excelled in lacrosse and ice hockey. He had an early morning paper route. Eventually he went to Boston College (Class of ’89), became an equities trader, had an office on the 104th floor of the South Building of the World Trade Center. But in his heart, he always wanted to be a firefighter; as a consequence, he was accepted into the Nyack Fire Company as a junior firefighter, received training and a uniform that helped fulfill that dream.
From the time he was six years old, the one thing that distinguished Welles from his peers: a red bandanna (his dad had given him the lowdown on handkerchiefs: “white for show; red for blow.”). The red bandanna went with him everywhere after that — under his helmet, on the playing field, on his bare head, in a pocket. It was that omnipresent red handkerchief and an intense love of his fellow man that distinguished Welles from his peers.
One cloudless day — it was September 11, 2001 — the forces of evil conspired to destroy a building, wipe out thousands of lives, sneer at a way of life unfamiliar to them. Welles made a quick call home to assure his parents that he was OK — and then began to lead people in the smoke-filled halls down 17 floors, where there were still-functioning elevators. “Follow me,” he said. “And if you can help others, do it.”
Welles had at last taken off his “equities cap” and put on his “fire cap.” And so he became the “mystery man in the red bandanna” who saved their lives, said one of the survivors. She was later able to identify him from a photo as the one who had led a group to safety. She was one of a dozen or more Welles saved that day.
The man in the red bandanna went back upstairs, but was never again seen alive (It was not until the following spring, six months later, that his remains were discovered).
Welles Remy Crowther’s name is now engraved in stone among all the others who perished in the World Trade Center tragedy, but is also commemorated in other ways. The Nyack firefighters enshrined his memory on a plaque on their building; Boston College has its annual “Red Bandanna Run;” a friend who entered the Olympics wore a red bandanna in his honor. Above all, the memory of his sacrifice is engraved on the hearts of all those whom he, anonymously, led to.
It is only a few persons (such as those who happen to be on the scene when a tragedy of such enormity occurs) who are able to be as heroic as this young man. And yet, said this hero’s mother, Alison Crowther, the “power of one” lies within each one of us.
Each one can “make a difference in the world,” she told the teenagers after the film’s conclusion. It might even be as simple as opening a door for someone! Even small acts of kindness can have the power of making a significant change in the world around us. It is the difference between bystanders and up-standers.
“Be courageous. Care for one another. You have the ability to be as courageous as Welles,” she urged. “Welles did not become a hero on 9/11, but before that. Such qualities are latent and lie within you,” she emphasized.
Accompanying Mrs. Crowther was Vernoy Paolini, a retired teacher with more than three decades of teaching experience, an educator has written curriculum for the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City and the New Jersey Holocaust Museum.
She spoke of the Fetzer Institute, headquartered in Kalamazoo, Mich., which was established, and is supported, by a legacy from the former owner of the Detroit Tigers, the (late) John Fetzer. The institute’s purpose is to promote the power of love and forgiveness on the global scale. Crowther’s life very much epitomizes the Institute’s principles.
In the last hour of his life, he did, indeed, “lay down his life for his fellow man,” Paolini reminded her listeners.
The Institute has prepared a values curriculum that will be ready by next fall for testing in five as yet undetermined schools. The course represents the best thinking of numerous social studies and history teachers across the nation.
“What would you do in the last hour of your life?