Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 29, 2013

Nathan Payne: Courage appears in ordinary places

Local columnist

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — It’s easy to spot courage when it’s the kind that soldiers or firefighters or police officers display when they put their own lives in danger for the sake of saving others. But years of writing stories about ordinary people who do extraordinary things has taught me that sometimes the most courageous ones are those we see everyday.

They are the people who refuse to focus on themselves, especially when confronting some of life’s most dire struggles. They are people who insist on doing for others, expecting nothing in return.

It is a lesson I learned early in my career and have revisited almost daily while listening to people explain in detail some of the worst times of their lives. It is a lesson I was reminded of this week while sitting next to Chris Stein in his livingroom.

He didn’t run into a burning building or step in front of a speeding bullet. Although he probably would have if the opportunity presented itself.

No, Stein is a hero defined by a lifetime spent thinking of others.

Whether he was sacrificing family time to help lead troops of Boy Scouts on outings or helping a neighbor with a chore, Stein rarely has focused on himself.

“Chris is about the most un-selfish person I’ve ever met,” said Tim Coggins, one of Stien’s longtime friends. Coggins struggled to find words to explain what makes the man special.

Stein’s burly, bearded grin has greeted and guided countless young men into adulthood, Coggins said.

Yes, Stein explained his medical struggles and his past work as a Boy Scout scoutmaster during our interview, but he often steered the conversation toward the dozens of people who recently spent a Saturday replacing the roof on his house.

He questioned why so many people would so readily volunteer a weekend to fix his house. It’s time they could have spent helping other people “who need it more,” Stein said.

Then, while walking to my car and talking briefly about what brought my family back to our home state from Wyoming after eight years away, it happened.

His hand wrapped around mine for a moment as the bear of a man looked me in the eye and said, “My family will be praying for your family.”

A man who had every reason to be concerned about nothing but his own challenges was more concerned about my family’s well being than that of his own.

Tuesday afternoon, I asked some of Stein’s friends to explain why they made the effort to gather 80 people to do the job.

I asked them to put into words something that is nearly unexplainable.

They couldn’t find the words and neither could I.

But it came to me early the next morning while I lay awake in the dark waiting for my alarm to sound.

Stein has courage.

It is courage that I hope someday, when I face my own mortality, I will muster.

Reach Record-Eagle features editor Nathan Payne at