Reagan's stirring salute to Skutnik inspired me to research and memorize his story for a seventh-grade English class assignment. Skutnik was a young worker at the Congressional Budget Office. He had been driving home from work when Air Florida Flight 90 fell from the sky just 20 seconds after takeoff from Washington National Airport.
Skutnik jumped out of his car near the Fourteenth Street Bridge, where a crowd watched helplessly as a female passenger screamed for help in the icy waters. A helicopter rescue team had tossed her a line, but she was unable to hold on. Skutnik instinctively ripped off his overcoat, kicked off his shoes, dove into the river, and pulled 22-year-old flight attendant Priscilla Tirado to safety. She and four others survived. (Skutnik, a remarkably humble man who refused to be called a hero, still lives and works in the nation's capital.)
After Reagan's speech, a cynical press referred sneeringly to the "Lenny Skutnik moment." This elitist disdain for recognizing everyday heroes persists. Just last year, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg complained in The New York Times about "bathetic 'Skutnik moments.'"
"Bathetic"? I didn't know that condescending word when I was 11. But I do know that on a chilly night in January 1982, the president ignited a young heart. It was my "Ronald Reagan moment" -- an indelible moment when the exceptional goodness of America, and the boundless capacity of ordinary Americans to do extraordinary things, came alive. The flame endures.