Editorial: Manny Barbosa and the definition of heroism

  • Manuel "Manny" Barbosa, center, poses with his extended family at the dedication two years ago of an honorary street naming in Elgin.

    Manuel "Manny" Barbosa, center, poses with his extended family at the dedication two years ago of an honorary street naming in Elgin. COURTESY OF GIL FELICIANO PHOTOGRAPHY

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted11/30/2019 2:00 PM

This week, we'll be pausing to pay respects to the life of Manuel "Manny" Barbosa, a pioneering federal court judge from Elgin who touched countless lives with his good works and inspired even more.

His funeral is Tuesday. Barbosa died last week from pancreatic cancer at age 72.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He was, quite simply, a hero.

From time to time, people debate the definition of the word, and some argue with dogged stubbornness that unless you have risked your life, you don't qualify for the description.

We prefer the definitions from The American Heritage, the world's greatest language-usage dictionary.

While American Heritage recognizes that putting your life at risk is a major qualification, the dictionary observes that it isn't the only one.

American Heritage also defines hero as "a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose" as well as "a person noted for special achievement in a particular field."

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset described the nature of heroism even more richly.

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"The hero's will," he said, "is not that of his ancestors nor of his society, but his own. This will to be oneself is heroism."

The great metaphysical essayist of running George Sheehan, a fan of individual heroism as well as of Ortega, repeatedly explained the philosopher's point. "Heroes, according to Ortega, are people like Quixote who know we have to face giants, (they are) people who are not satisfied with reality," Sheehan wrote.

We believe in celebrating heroes, and the heroes are all around us.

We call attention to them regularly in our Suburban Heroes column, but they don't stop there. They spill endlessly across our pages, so frequently that they often appear almost without exceptional notice -- giving of themselves, challenging themselves, perfecting themselves, risking themselves and refusing to accept the status quo as good enough.

Barbosa was such a hero.

He was, as his niece Melissa Barbosa-Guzman shared with us, "our family patriarch ... He was our foundation, our rock."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He was these things to his community too.

His parents brought him from Mexico when he was 2, and he worked picking cotton by age 5. Eventually, he moved to Elgin and became a high school teacher, studying the law in the evenings. He fought bigotry and inequity, and he became the first chairman of the Illinois Human Rights Commission and served on countless boards. As a bankruptcy court judge for 14 years, he witnessed real human dramas play out.

"It's difficult sometimes when you see the suffering that people are undergoing," he once said, "and there is only so much you can do."

For a lifetime, Barbosa did all he could.

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