In our current pop culture the word “hero” is used as an adjective for far too wide of a range of individuals of questionable credentials. Quite frankly it is simply far too easy to become a hero these days. Frequently you become a hero for a moment of action that was more instinctive than thought out in a reasoned manner. Running into a burning building and saving a baby is honorable indeed yet it is simply a moment in time. A chance to do something that if you had time to fully consider may have produced a less honorable reaction.
For me real heroes are those who have time to consider their course. People who have plenty of reasoned opportunities to behave in one way or another yet knowingly choose the most difficult self sacrificing path. Chris Shanahan was that kind of hero. Chris was the head of UMass Lowell’s grounds crew. This was a large group of men who weren’t exactly known for their excessive energy. They were state workers the truest- if most unflattering of ways. These guys weren’t noted for breaking a sweat or even coming alive unless overtime was involved. For the most part they were a bunch of healthy guys who were always looking for the easy way out. All that is except for Chris Shanahan.
I think that the first time most people say Chris they were taken aback by his physical appearance. He was confined to a motorized wheel chair. His once prominent stature was now a shriveled shell of what it had been. Chris’s hands were contorted into themselves that made it look painful for him to even manipulate the toggle switch that maneuvered his chair. The most prominent feature of his chair was a giant Marine Corp sticker that he had affixed to the back of the seat. Chris had been a Marine who had served his country and you and I in Viet Nam. I never knew the exact nature of Chris’s ailments but word was that his condition was as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange type chemicals in Viet Nam. Why he was the way he was doesn’t really matter nearly as much as to how he reacted to his condition.
In the many years I knew Chris I never once heard him complain about his condition. Even more surprising was the fact that he never even discussed his challenges. Chris chose not to let his lot in life control him or be his focus. Chris came to work every day being dutifully brought to work by his wife in his handicapped van. Always wearing a smile he thought of others and not himself. While I would have certainly wallowed in self pity Chris appeared to be totally unfazed by his lot in life. Chris always impressed me and I wanted to say something to him about it but it always felt like it would be so awkward. We are guys and we don’t share feelings like that now do we? Well I wish I had had that talk with him because Chris died. Chris died suddenly and without fanfare. As it turns out Chris died in a way that seemed totally appropriate to the way he lived his life. He chose normality over drama. He chose not to be the focus of attention or the recipient of sympathy.
Our department provided an honor guard for Chris’s wake. I remembering looking at Chris laid out in the casket and feeling, strangely, happy for him. It was the first time I had ever seen Chris without his wheel chair and he truly, truly looked to be at peace. I never know what theology if any Chris had embraced but I do hope and sincerely pray that Chris is in Heaven having been made physically whole again.
After Chris’s death Jack and I wrote a letter that I had published in the UMass Lowell newspaper. That article follows:
A Man to Emulate.
Heroes come in all shapes and forms. In most cases they are clear to
see. The person who rescues a child from a burning building, the
military man falling on a grenade to save his comrades…In most cases it
is clear- but not in all.
I ask of your time so that I might present to you a true hero that was
not so obvious. I ask that you consider these words that they might
lead you to a better understanding. An understanding of what it means
to be a true hero. To be one worthy of respect and unquestionable
admiration. To be someone whom others- both young and old would be well
served to emulate.
Chris Shanahan was such a man. Chris was a man of service. He served
his family, his country and this University. He served as an example to
all who knew him. For those of you who did not know Chris please allow
me to enlighten you.
Chris Shanahan is a man I first met six years ago when I started
working at U Mass Lowell. Chris was employed by the University and
directed the Grounds Department. To say the least Chris was a wreck
physically speaking. Chris suffered from a debilitating disease that
left him in a wheel chair for all of the years that I knew him. He
suffered from daily pain, legs that would not work and hands that were
nearly useless. Chris had little cause for hope, joy or happiness.
Despite this I can truly say, with admiration, that Chris was not
normal! A normal man would have been bitter. A normal man would have
quit. A normal man would have relied on others, would have blamed
others. Certainly, Chris Shanahan was not normal!
Chris Shanahan could have spent the last years of his life never having
to have worked again. He could have simply spent his time at home
collecting a disability pension- but that was not Chris. Chris came to
work at U Mass Lowell every day to serve this University when he did
not need to. He did so because he had a purpose. He had a desire to
contribute even when that was not expected of him.
Chris Shanahan spent the last day of his life in service to this
University. I personally worked with him through exhaustive hours of
snow removal in the last snowstorm. An effort that he could have
removed himself from without question. Chris spent the last day of his
life serving every member of the faculty, staff and student body of
Chris was a patriot! Chris served this country as a Marine in Viet Nam.
He served his family as a good, decent, father and husband. He served
this University quite literally to the last day of his life.
Most importantly, in the personal sense, Chris Shanahan served me.
Chris showed me that despite apparently overwhelming difficulties one
could carry on. Despite personal pain and anguish one can achieve
personal greatness. Despite the appearance of futility there is always
I will truly miss Chris Shanahan. A great Marine, husband and father.
An example to me. A man to emulate!