Rich Mayfield: What to do when our heroes prove to be human |

Rich Mayfield: What to do when our heroes prove to be human

RICH MAYFIELDSaturday columnist

This week I learned that a man I have always respected and admired, a man who served as an important mentor to me and a spiritual guide, divorced his wife of nearly 50 years and ran off with his young female associate. Of course, one never knows what goes on behind closed doors. He may have had great justification for his actions, but I can’t help feeling a certain amount of dismay, even a sense of betrayal.Over the years, he had counseled me not just on matters involving my professional life, but my personal life as well. I had always assumed that his wise counsel came from a deep commitment to live out his professed beliefs in his daily life. Up until this past week, I rested in the knowledge that he engaged in a certain authenticity, equating his talk with his walk.Now I am left wondering if his disingenuousness in this matter diminishes his advice in others. In one sense, they are of two distinct categories: his personal life and his professional life. But when his profession (clergy) deals with issues of ethical values and moral standards, it is hard not to conjoin the categories.

Still, his advice was valued by me at the time it was given and integrated into my decision making. I recall no obvious ill-effects from his counsel but I cannot help but speculate on whether his guidance was as genuine and helpful as I once thought. Does any of this matter? After all, I have managed to have some success in the very fields for which I sought his counsel. I should have no complaints, really. Still…Coincidentally, the scandal involving radio talk-show host Don Imus hit the headlines this week. His despicable description of the Rutgers women’s basketball team was deserving of immediate condemnation and sanctions. His apology has been offered but it remains to be seen if his career will survive his terrible gaffe. Although I was not a listener to his show, I understand that Imus was controversial long before this brouhaha. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert reported this week that Imus had a long history of encouraging offensive racial remarks on his show. A “60 Minutes” segment, broadcast in July, 1998, included revelations of racism that Imus could not deny to interviewer Mike Wallace. But I also understand that Imus has done enormous good in assisting charitable causes, including a ranch in New Mexico that cares for children with cancer and fundraising events to fight sickle-cell anemia and other noble causes. (Admittedly, some of these causes have drawn the eye and ire of not just the IRS but charity-watchdogs.)

So the issue seems somewhat analogous to my own conundrum: Does Imus’ error in judgment or, worse, his documented history of racism, taint either his work for charities or the charities themselves? Certainly removing him from his position of prominence will more than likely affect these charities’ well-being. Do we tolerate Imus’ intolerance in order that others may benefit? More to my own situation: Are these charities any less effective because their benefactor is, perhaps, a bigot? One of my heroes, Albert Schweitzer, was a brilliant theologian, humanitarian, accomplished musician, prolific author, self-sacrificing physician and so much more … including being a less than supportive husband and father. The realization that Schweitzer sacrificed his domestic life for his professional life should not be surprising to me; I’ve lived long enough to know that we all have our darker sides, and yet that lack of paternal concern and his obvious indifference to his marriage has tarnished the luster of his memory for me. Thousands and thousands of people benefited from his talents, but the two nearest him suffered deeply.There is, of course, a certain wisdom that comes in accepting the imperfection of ourselves and others. But are there areas of offense so significant that they reduce the value of a person’s contribution to society?

Don Imus has clearly crossed the line in the minds of millions of offended people. His cavalier comments which, I suspect, had less to do with racism than the bully-boy mentality of talk-radio, have placed his future in jeopardy and caused him to carefully scrutinize the effects of his language and actions on others. Perhaps it can also serve to invite all of us to do the same. Rich Mayfield is a retired Lutheran pastor and the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail him at

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