By Andy Young
Special to The Windham Eagle
Like wealth, rainfall, and career home runs, evil is easily documented.
But benevolence isn’t so conveniently quantified. Jesus, Buddha, and the prophet Muhammad were too busy serving humankind to have had time to keep score. Widespread fame and recognition generally don’t come to those who spend every waking hour quietly serving others.
Unlike Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden and other notorious evildoers, altruistic folks generally aren’t famous. Seeking notoriety doesn’t occur to those too busy being genuinely helpful, giving and selfless. Maybe at one point the world’s kindest person was well-known, like Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, or Mr. Rogers. But they are, in the memorable words of noted philosopher Charles Dillon Stengel, all dead at the present time.
The identity of the world’s kindest person most likely changes from moment to moment. Yesterday it could have been an EMT who calmly attended to an accident victim. A minute ago, it was the person who helped a child successfully ride a two-wheeler for the first time. Right now, it could be someone feeding starving people on another continent. A minute from now? Who knows?
But if there were an actual committee charged with officially designating a “kindest, most charitable Earthling,” it would very likely choose someone like Irene Danowski, a woman who lived virtually all of her nine-plus decades outside of the limelight.
The ninth of 10 children born to Polish immigrants who never learned to speak English, Irene grew up in Detroit during the height of the depression. After graduating from high school in 1946 she worked in retail, did some teaching, and toiled for a time at a local mall, taking pride in the spotless glass elevators she cleaned. Later she helped raise five children, including two on her own after being widowed at age 52.
At 55 she left Michigan, where she had lived her entire life, and moved to southern Maine. Once here she quickly became involved with her local church, and in short order established herself as one of the parish’s “go-to” volunteers. And where family was concerned, she never slowed down. Once her own children ventured out on their own, she became a live-in life coach, housekeeper, chef, confidant and role model for three of her six grandchildren.
Irene could have been disappointed a quarter of a century ago when she learned her youngest daughter’s prospective husband wasn’t a practitioner of her family’s religion, one that she observed, well, religiously. But typically, she welcomed him unconditionally to her family, and characteristically treated him the same way she did everyone, with perpetual kindness and respect. Nearly two decades later that marriage ended, but she continued to treat her now ex-son-in-law like, well, a son.
But even contenders for the title of world’s kindest person don’t live forever. Virtue has to be its own reward, because when it comes to mortality there are no extended warranties, not even for society’s most generous and loving. Irene’s 92-year-old heart and kidneys began to fail some months ago, and after a period of discomfort (about which she unsurprisingly rarely complained), she passed away on Oct. 26. I’ll miss my mother-in-law, as will everyone who had the good fortune of knowing her. Even atheists believe she’s Heaven-bound. Thankfully though, her spirit of selflessness, faith, benevolence, and understated altruism will live on indefinitely through the passed-on kindnesses of all those she impacted, both personally and indirectly.
Today I’m no closer to discovering the identity of the world’s kindest person than I was when I started searching decades ago. But I am certain of one thing: it’s somebody different than it was last month. <