So was an old schoolmate my version of a hero — or just somebody else’s sucker

Every now and then, I think about Al Sondej.

He was a constant presence during my first two years at Notre Dame. Tall, blonde and muscular, Al stood outside the dining halls during lunch and dinner, collecting small change from classmates in an effort to alleviate world hunger.

At first, a lot of us would avoid Al, just as we would panhandlers on a downtown street. Soon, though, we realized he was harmless. Whether you dropped a dime in his milk jug or not, he met you with a smile.

Ultimately, we began to admire him. This was not a gimmick he cooked up so he could meet attractive women or get a scholarship to a graduate school. His interest was genuine. He had learned about starvation in faraway places, was bothered by it, and was dealing with it the only way he could.

By the time he graduated in 1974, he had donated $25,000 in coins for world hunger relief. 

A couple decades later, his name came up in a conversation, and I wondered about him. People were still starving worldwide, so I knew he had not solved the problem. Was Al still working on it?

Through the miracles of the internet, I found a quick answer.

After he left Notre Dame, Al stayed true to his cause. He devoted time and energy toward hunger relief before he returned to his hometown in Hyattsville, Maryland. There he became a volunteer firefighter while he took graduate school classes in geography.

In January 1988, he was on duty when a call came to the firehouse. Al went to the scene, heard that two children were trapped inside a burning home and hurried in to save them. They were nowhere to be found, and Al continued searching until he was overcome by smoke.

He suffered severe burns and died two months later. Unbeknownst to those at the scene, the children had escaped the blaze before Al went in.

I wrote a column for the South Bend Tribune about this. It ended up being reprinted in an anthology, “The Spirit of Notre Dame,” that was collated by Jim and Jeremy Langford in 2005. 

A few years later, during an alumni reunion weekend, a guy found out I was retired from the Tribune. He opened his wallet, pulled out a folded-up clipping he had kept there and showed it to me. It was my Al Sondej column. “I wrote that,” I told him.

Later that weekend, a different alumnus and I got on the topic of classmates who inspired us. I gave him the quicker version of my Al Sondej story and he sat quietly for a moment. “Al was my roommate,” he finally said.

I don’t know if I’ve met anyone who was more deserving of being called a hero. It wasn’t just me who felt that way about him.

Like a lot of things, this concept of heroism is changing.

There couldn’t be a better example of this than how one politician summed up John McCain, a wounded U.S. Navy fighter pilot who survived five-and-a-half years of deprivation and abuse in a North Vietnamese prison camp. After his release, McCain spent a lifetime suffering from those old injuries while serving Arizona in the U.S. Senate. The Republican nominee for president, he campaigned vigorously and honorably but lost in 2008 to Barack Obama.

For years, he had been recognized as a war hero, until he ran afoul of another politician in 2015. “I like people who weren’t captured,” the successful politician. “He lost and let us down. I’ve never liked him as much after that.”

The same politician became president in 2016. Two years later, in explaining why he skipped a memorial service for soldiers who died in World War II, he called them “suckers and losers.” That offensive quote was verified by witnesses, but his voters refused to believe it because they wanted him to win. 

He lost the 2020 election but still managed to collect 46.9 percent of the popular vote, presumably many of them from descendants of suckers and losers. 

In his eyes, heroes aren’t the guys who actually fought in the war, suffered and died. The person deserving of love and praise was himself, the guy who besmirched them and somehow got your vote.

It’s a big trend. Honorable actions are out of style. When our favorite football team cheats, it’s because all the others cheat. So cheating is the only way to keep things fair. Similarly, our politicians lie because their opponents lie too, and we don’t want to hear the truth anyway.

Our heroes do terrible things but it’s OK if they make us into winners. 

So, where does the Al Sondej lesson rest these days? Was he courageous for running into that burning house? Or was he a sucker and loser because he died, and he didn’t even save anyone?

World hunger? Al didn’t solve it. Some 690 million humans still go to bed with empty stomachs every night, and 3.1 million children die annually because of undernutrition.

Did Al waste his brief moment on Earth? 

In today’s world, maybe he could have kept that $25,000. No one would know or care. Suckers.