With Jason Oglesbee’s death, Iowa mourns a hero.
To be sure, he was a much more complicated, troubled hero than most of us ever knew. Especially when you consider how his face became a familiar sight worldwide. Relatively few people heard about the triumphs and tragedies that were a part of his everyday life.
But then, aren't most of us more complicated and troubled than we tend to let on?
Even if you don’t know Oglesbee’s name, you might know his face and physique. He was the burly construction worker dangling from a crane in downtown Des Moines who on June 30, 2009, plucked Patti Ralph-Neely from the churning waters of the Des Moines River.
From the riverbank, former Register photographer Mary Willie (then Mary Chind) snapped a dramatic photo of the rescue that won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
Oglesbee was on a construction crew, helping build a pedestrian bridge when he swooped in to save a stranger’s life while risking his own. One slip and he might have been swallowed in the same waters.
"He picked me up like I was a little sack of flour," Ralph-Neely told one of my colleagues.
Oglesbee, 53, died in the wee hours Tuesday at Iowa Methodist Medical Center. He had collapsed March 29 in Creston and was rushed to the local emergency room, then flown through a raging thunderstorm by emergency medical helicopter to Des Moines.
By all accounts he never was comfortable with being called a hero. But probably no other Iowan has been seen by as many people around the globe while in the very middle of his signature heroic act.
“Strangers are talking about Oglesbee as if he's Indiana Jones in a life jacket, and rightfully so,” Marc Hansen, then The Register’s metro columnist, wrote at the time.
Ralph-Neely, 75, still considers Oglesbee to be her angel. Her husband, Alan, drowned in the same emergency, after the couple’s boat plunged over the Center Street Dam.
“I’m no hero,” the construction worker protested to Ralph-Neely’s daughter at the time. “Someone died today.”
Oglesbee refused interviews from national morning network TV news programs, among other offers of publicity.
“He felt so bad he didn’t get to save her husband,” said Oglesbee’s mom, Sharon Steward, who lives in rural Orient. “It was hard for him to accept the praise that he got, the good words that he got.”
Steward and her ex-husband adopted Oglesbee in 1963 when they lived in Grinnell; he was 2 weeks old and the first of her three adopted children.
The family soon moved to a farm in Union County near Thayer, where Oglesbee grew up with cattle, horses and 4-H.
His parents divorced when he was 16 and Oglesbee dropped out of school during his junior year. (He would later earn his GED as well as an auto mechanic certificate.)
Steward said that her son didn’t really have a fixed address when he died. He had long since given her his numerous awards related to the rescue, including a big oak clock from the Mutual Insurance Association of Iowa.
Oglesbee's life was full of struggles, such as drug addiction and time in prison, and like any grieving mother, Steward isn’t keen to dwell on them.
But I spoke with numerous people who praised Oglesbee, not as some remote hero spotted in a fleeting glimpse of international news coverage, attached to a feel-good story line. These friends mourn him as a genuine hero in their everyday lives — with all his flaws intact. They describe him as selfless, always willing to help.
After our first conversation, Ralph-Neely called me back to make sure what I was writing didn’t leave her guardian angel buried beneath his lifetime of problems.
That’s definitely not my intention. I want to pay Oglesbee a proper tribute that also rings true. Yes, he had a checkered past on the police blotter. But he also was a hero in ways that those of us who gazed on that famous photo never realized, ways that didn’t lead to a Pulitzer or a handshake with the governor and a grip-and-grin award at the Iowa State Fair.
Just ask Angie Brammer from Cedar Rapids. She’s a former meth addict who was good friends with Oglesbee for decades. Whether through his letters to her while he was in prison or his help on the outside, she credits him and her Christian faith with her rehabilitation.
She’s been clean for nine years and is engaged to be married. Oglesbee was the only person who visited her while in treatment.
“He helped changed my life,” she said. “He might not even know how many lives he’s touched.”
Or ask Carrie Pendegraft. She grew up with Oglesbee and now lives in Kansas City, Mo. In the wake of her bitter 2004 divorce, Oglesbee helped her get back on her feet as a single mom with two young kids, ages 1 and 3. He helped her move into a new home in Des Moines and would phone her or even stop by and knock on her door each morning to make sure she was getting up and going to work.
She remembers him reciting Bible verses to her.
When Pendegraft happened to see the 2009 river rescue on TV, she hadn’t spoken to him in a while. So she drove to Des Moines from Missouri and sat there on the riverbank, staring at Oglesbee among the construction crew, where he continued to work after the rescue. He eventually spotted her and came running over to embrace her. That's probably the moment she will cherish.
She saw him just last month. He phoned out of the blue to say he would be in the neighborhood. They spent a couple hours at the casino in Kansas City. He looked a little thinner, she said, but seemed happy, healthy.
"He wanted his life better," Oglesbee's mom said. "He had so many chances. He had so many chances."
Oglesbee leaves behind his mom as well as his father, now in Texas, and a 28-year-old daughter and three grandchildren. There will not be a public funeral, Steward said.
Meanwhile, the image of Oglesbee the hero is unlikely to ever completely fade. And maybe that is the true portrait of the man. None of us lives up to our ideal on every single day of our lives. It's just that most of us, unlike Oglesbee in recent years, don't know which day will define us after we're gone.
"When people put you on a pedestal," Brammer said, "sometimes you feel like you don't deserve it."
Memorials — particularly the Pulitzer photo — are spreading across Facebook and social media.
To see it, no doubt Oglesbee would shake his head and shy away from it all over again. He seems like somebody who knew all too well that one dramatic moment frozen in time doesn’t begin to define what it means to be a hero. The everyday struggle beyond the cameras, on behalf of friends and family or with himself, was his quiet heroism.
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