It’s that time of year when we celebrate our nation’s birth, typically with loud, colorful fireworks and patriotic displays of red, white and blue.
It’s also a good time to think about the people who made the United States great — historical figures who helped found our nation in 1776 and moved it forward in the years since.
Some are famous. Others, not so much.
In that “others” pile are many Americans who demonstrate American innovation, constructive dissidence, generosity and tolerance.
Norman Borlaug, an agronomist from Iowa credited with saving millions of lives, is one such example.
Borlaug’s career was dedicated to developing new grain varieties that helped people and nations struggling with poverty and starvation. His work in Mexico, Central America, southeast Asia and Africa also included onsite research of farming methods to improve yields and reliability.
He’s the only agronomist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. When officials called to notify him that he was the 1970 winner, they were unable to reach him because he refused to leave the field in Mexico where he and associates were collecting data.
His fame may not have stuck, but his contributions to the world are enduring and profound.
Another scientist who deserves mention is Rachel Carson.
Admittedly, Carson is viewed unfavorably by many in farm country for her attacks on pesticides used in agriculture. Her 1962 book “Silent Spring” was instrumental in calling attention to the detrimental effects that chemicals can cause to both the environment and human health.
A marine biologist who had previously worked decades for the U.S. government, Carson was attacked by the chemical industry as a Communist and hysterical woman. Chemical companies pulled advertising from media outlets that dared discuss her claims.
Carson challenged the status quo, which is part of our heritage. Rebellion, after all, is what won us our freedom.
At least for white Americans. For black Americans, freedom and equality required a longer, more arduous battle. And among the lesser known but important warriors was W.E.B. Du Bois.
His achievements are too numerous to recount here, but as one of the founders of the NAACP, he was instrumental in setting civil rights goals for not just black Americans but all Americans.
More importantly, he challenged the popular belief of the early 1900s that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. He rejected totally the common notion that blacks were suited for menial jobs, and, at best, should aspire to vocational training.
The idea that anyone, with hard work and persistence, should be able to climb social and economic ladders is a tenet of American ideology.
It’s easy to discount the role luck can play. Or the necessity of education.
The success of Andrew Carnegie demonstrates how all the pieces could come together for a poor immigrant family.
After leaving Scotland and settling in Pennsylvania with his family, Andrew Carnegie went to work at age 12, while also going to night school.
Through a series of jobs, small ventures and impressed bosses, Carnegie climbed the ladders until he was able to start a steel company. He had looked ahead to anticipate where economic opportunity might lie; steel looked promising.
He made a fortune, and in 1901, he sold out to J.P. Morgan.
Carnegie spent his remaining 17 years giving away money to what he deemed good causes.
Education was a priority, which is why nearly 30 Carnegie libraries were built in communities across Kansas and 2,500 libraries were funded across the nation. And Carnegie’s generosity wasn’t limited to libraries. He funded other facilities and causes, including universities, scientific research and peace initiatives.
He believed those who accumulated great wealth had a duty to use some of it “for the improvement of mankind” through philanthropy.
Carnegie was far from perfect. In today’s hyper-critical, intolerant era, many on the left condemn his business practices and lifestyle.
Similarly, many on the right reject Carson and Du Bois as examples of great Americans.
Too often we fail to recognize that our United States was built on often-conflicting motives and efforts of diverse people.
Every one of us comes with frailties and flaws.
Our greatest Americans weren’t perfect Americans. That doesn’t make them less worthy of admiration, but demonstrates how much even imperfect people can accomplish.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.