Smiles Heard ‘Round The World.

Posted on December 11, 2012


leo pic with kids1“So you really think Leo’s got a chance to win this CNN Hero thing?”

A colleague and I were chatting in my office, doing little more than passing time before our next class. Mariah’s Challenge never before came up between us so I thought this was an opportunity to spread the wings-so to speak.

“Doggnit, he may have a chance. But to be honest, just being in the same conversation with all those other incredible people and stories, and on a worldwide platform such as CNN… it’s already a win as far as the organization is concerned.”

“You know,” a distant gloss in her eyes, “I have so much admiration for him. When his daughter was killed, there was every reason in the world to simply curl up, let depression take over, be pissed at the world, and never leave his house. That,” she paused to find the right words, “would have probably been the easier thing to do. You know, I’ve heard there’s something about him. Something,” she brought her fists up to her heart, “like radiates from him when you talk to him. It’s like a truth or selflessness; something you don’t see in everyone. I’m not sure what you call it.”

“Genuine, I think, is the word you might be looking for.”

She agreed.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA7:00 came. Center stage stood a man. The light was dramatic, the stage was quiet. Dressed in all black against a black background was Harvey Keitel. He began his soliloquy.

“As a young marine, I was told to help others who cannot help themselves. All over the world right now, people are putting this principle into action and saving lives.”

Moments earlier, I plugged my dinosaur of a laptop into wall of Metal’s Bank restaurant in Uptown Butte. Snow started falling, the typical horizontal snow in Butte, as I opened the Mariah’s Challenge Facebook page. For the past few months, I had been helping produce content, solicit support and votes for Leo’s CNN Hero campaign. This night was to be the culmination of efforts not only throughout the campaign, but the daily commitment of many in the years since Mariah’s death. The celebrity-laden, red-carpet broadcast event in Los Angeles celebrated each of the top ten heroes, with one to be crowned the hero of the year at the end of the show.

The entire experience—working with CNN, seeing them work and their methods—to me, was more of some idealized concept; a far-off figment of someone else’s Hollywood pipe-dream. These Oscar or Golden Globe-style events are something you watch on television from the comfort of a couch in distant middle America. You never know anyone at those—that’s only for the Hollywood elite, the A-listers, certainly not the type of crew I spend my time with. Moreover, it’s certainly not an event that was created to honor anyone I know. It was surreal, to say the least.

Seeing shots of Leo and his family once the show began was still difficult to wrap my mind around the juxtaposition between the unimaginable tragedy in which Mariah’s Challenge began, to the unimaginable moment of Mariah’s Challenge being honored on a worldwide stage.

One by one, heroes were introduced; each story, a battle to overcome. These people, no different than you or me, found themselves standing at the foot of a mountain oCNN Heroes Tribute Show, Leo McCarthy Mariah's Challengef pain, grief, addiction, injustice, or inequity and made the choice to take a step. And to continue to walk. They represent unthinkable circumstances and the power each of us posses to make right this often unfair world. Sharing space with the many local sports jerseys hanging from the rafters of Metals, was our collective emotion. Tears fell onto the tables full of Mariah’s Challenge bracelets, after hearing the stories of those we’ve grown to know through the CNN coverage. Nine stories were announced, leaving one. It was time for our hero—it was time for Leo.

Though it is a story I’ve heard and experienced many times, it never ceases to break my heart—for my friend, for his family, for Mariah, Mariah’s friends, and Mariah’s community. Nine heroes done, meant it was time to feel again. Again…for the first time. There wasn’t a dry eye in the Mining City… Mariah was with us all.

Once the video finished, I swallowed down my tears. Josh Duhamel introduced Leo. Red-eyed, he walked up the steps to the stage, shook Josh’s hand and accepted the wooden award. Leo stepped up to the microphone, took a breath. His voice was strong.

“I’m just one dad who loved his daughter with all his heart. Mariah’s Challenge is saving lives across Montana and I don’t see why it can’t be done around the world. Talk to your kids. Let’s change a culture and keep these promising, smart, funny, vibrant kids alive. We need them. Thank you.”

After a commercial break andLeo McCarthy, CNN Heroes All-Star Tribute Show a Ne-Yo performance of his song, Hero, it was time to announce the Hero of the Year. We all crossed our fingers, hoping to hear Leo’s name one more time.

Anderson paused as he opened the envelope. “The 2012 Hero of the Year, from Katmandu, Nepal, is Pushpa Basnet.”

I didn’t feel disappointed, not sorry, nor bummed. After our initial moment of realization wore off, applause erupted in the restaurant. We all hoped, yes, but we all knew. I was proud of every person in that room and I was proud to be among the class we shared. Puspha, as all of the other heroes, is an incredibly strong person, doing extraordinary work, and more than deserving of the award. On this night, there were no losers—any of the other nine names were, and still are, deserving of the title.

As Pushpa held the black award, the power of the moment must have hit her. Her eyes squinted, she unleashed a tight smile, and she hugged the black block with all her might. I beamed for her.

Then the camera cut away from her…

On a night filled with celebrity sightings, Hollywood pomp and circumstance, and extraordinary accomplishments by extraordinary people, this one insignificant editing choice will remain with me far longer than any of those.

In the midst of Pushpa’s moment, the camera cut to Leo. Standing and applauding with his wife, his smile exploding across his face, lighting up the screen. It was a smile that would not have changed if Anderson Cooper read his name as the winner.

It was joyful, it was selfless, it was… genuine.

Screen shot of Leo McCarthy as Pushpa wins CNN Hero of the Year

Just as quickly as the camera cut to the above shot, it left. My mind hadn’t. His expression was telling of the night, of the man, and of the power he represents in all of us.

Though Leo, Pushpa, and all the other incredible heroes continue walking their path up those mountains, it is this kind of genuine smile that guides them.

In turn, it guides us all…

Or, at the very least, should.
leo cnn heros Damn Proud of Mariahs Facebook Cover

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