Denny Fitch was an unqualified hero, yet the measure of his life ought not be taken merely by the 45 minutes of terror in 1989 during which his efforts helped to save the lives of 184 passengers on the ill-fated United Flight 232.
Here is what an oncologist from Northwestern Memorial Hospital wrote about the then-retired St. Charles pilot in 2010 while he was being treated for brain cancer: "Denny has lived every day since that plane crash like it could be his last, so when he received his glioblastoma diagnosis in January, he was able to use that reserve of appreciation and positivity and apply it to his battle with brain cancer."
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Actually, by all accounts, he applied it to every aspect of his life long before he contracted the disease that finally claimed him this week. He returned to flying, though he would also endure nine surgeries as result of the crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa, He defied predictions by those who felt he would never be able to pass the physical tests to become a flight captain, and he also became a safety consultant to NASA.
Perhaps more valuable than that, he became a sought-after motivational speaker, addressing groups across the country about lessons he took from the cockpit of that disabled airplane. Over the years those lessons leaked into numerous Daily Herald news stories, too, in memorable phrases that surely resounded during his public appearances.
"Your attitude will determine your altitude," he told volunteers in Schaumburg in 2003.
In another Daily Herald story, he told a reporter, "You learn that you're capable of more than you think. You never give up on life."
"When I tried making (a flight attendant) feel better, I found out the problem," Fitch said in another story. "When I found out the problem, I volunteered. When I volunteered, I became part of the solution."
And he always emphasized that he was part of the solution, not the solution itself.
"Teamwork saved our lives," he said.
Nor did his January 2010 brain cancer diagnosis diminish his positive spirit or his commitment to his fellow human beings. Among other efforts, his keynote address that year at a Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute in Chicago generated more than $600,000 for brain cancer research.
"Never give up," Fitch said in yet another news story. "I give up when they throw dirt on me."
Maybe, one wonders now, not even then.
Fitch may have secured his credentials for courage, resourcefulness and duty as he strained at the controls of that crippled aircraft 37,000 feet over the cornfields of Iowa, but it is not that example alone for which we remember him now. Few of us, after all, will ever be called upon to leap into the cockpit of a plunging jetliner.
But we all do endure hardships and crises in our daily lives, and the strength of character and determination Fitch sought to impart to others ever after his fateful day provide the model for overcoming them.