Gone, but not forgotten

Posted: Apr 21, 2006 12:06 AM

Ours is a truly wacky world. We idolize and adore perfect strangers for no better reason, in so many cases, than that they can run fast with a football, can play golf better than your uncle Charley, or are willing to expose their silicone-enhanced breasts on movie screens.

The fact that we can all readily identify the likes of Paris Hilton, Donald Trump and Michael Moore, doesn’t speak well for us. This is particularly true when you realize that there are only a tiny handful of people who could tell you who Willis Carrier, Maurice R. Hilleman, and Kaare Kristiansen were, even though each of those men made this world a much better place by his accomplishments or by his noble example.

The sad truth is that I did not know who they were until they died and I became introduced through their obituaries.

Willis Carrier is a particular hero of mine because I hate hot weather, and it so happens that I reside in the San Fernando Valley, which is one small step up from living in the desert, a climate cherished only by Gila monsters and cacti. In fact, I happen to believe that one of the main things keeping third world countries from achieving second world status is their lack of air conditioning. Well, Mr. Carrier is the genius who designed the first AC system.

Interestingly enough, it was paper, not people that it was designed to keep cool. In warm climates, you see, the paper used in printing presses tended to curl up. But when the workers discovered that the paper was living better than they were, and the bosses discovered how much more efficient and productive their employees were when they weren’t stopping every few minutes to wipe the sweat out of their eyes, Mr. Carrier quickly realized on which side his bread was buttered.

If you knew all the facts, you would think that Maurice Hilleman would be one of the most famous, most honored, Americans who ever lived. If there were any justice at all, his would be the fifth head up there on Mt. Rushmore. Frankly, I find it astonishing that Jonas Salk is far better known for having helped stamp out polio when you realize that Hilleman developed the vaccines used to immunize us from measles, mumps, chickenpox, hepatitis A and B, rubella, and meningitis! Along the way, he also managed to find the time to help develop the vaccine that kept 1957’s outbreak of Asian flu from becoming a tragic repeat of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed 20 million people.

For most of his life, Kaare Kristiansen, the son of a Lutheran pastor, was a Norwegian of some prominence in his own nation—having been a leader of the Christian Democratic Party, a member of parliament for a dozen years, and his country’s oil minister from 1983 to 1986. Quite honestly, I have no idea what sort of public servant he was. If I had been a Norwegian, I don’t even know if I would have voted for him.

It’s what he did after he retired from politics that makes me wish I’d known him so that I could have shaken his hand.

What happened was that Mr. Kristiansen accepted an appointment to the five-member committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize. So it was that in 1993, when the other members out-voted him and awarded a prize to Yasser Arafat, the 73-year-old Kristiansen called a press conference and shocked his countrymen by announcing his resignation. He accused the PLO leader of being “tainted with violence, terrorism, and bloodshed.”

R.I.P., Mr. Kristiansen. Your father would have been proud.