Ron Galimore is one of my great friends—he also happens to be the son of the former Chicago Bears great running back Willie Galimore who tragically died in a car accident when Ron was a child. Ron went on to follow in his athletically gifted father’s cleats to become the first African American Olympic gymnast as a member of the 1980 Olympic team . . . games which we unfortunately boycotted. Trust me when I tell you he would have won the gold in vault. He and his wife, Loree, along with my wife and our now grown sons spent this Thanksgiving together. We binged on turkey and gravy and more than a few assorted seasonal pies, sat on the couch sipping bourbon, and watching the Bears versus Lions while Ron entertained us with stories of his past interactions with his dad’s old teammates and admirers—like the time he met Mike Ditka at his steakhouse and was embraced in a huge bear hug as Ditka spoke of his fond memories of Ron's father and mother, or the time they closed down Studebaker’s in Schaumburg with Walter Peyton, or the time his mom and dad went to a baseball game with “Cassius Clay,” as the autograph on the back of the Polaroid said.
Then a commercial for the new movie Richard Jewell came on.
“I was there, you know, in ’96. I was working for USA Men’s Gymnastics and I was there at the Olympics in Centennial Park earlier in the day,” Ron said. “I didn’t see it but I suddenly got all these frantic phone calls after the bomb went off asking if I was okay.”
“Hell, we were in a parade with him . . . with Richard Jewell.” The boys nodded as I motioned to them. “All of us, we met Richard Jewell at a Fourth of July parade in Carmel Indiana in 2001. You know, he’s the American Dreyfus,” I said.
Five years before Governor Sonny Perdue belatedly but publicly thanked Richard Jewell on behalf of the citizens of Georgia, a small suburban hamlet outside of Indianapolis was righting a terrible wrong and honoring an American Dreyfus.
And a century before Richard Jewell was wrongfully accused of planting a bomb that killed one and injured 111, Alfred Dreyfus—a decorated Jewish officer in the French army during the years following the Franco-Prussian War—was framed for treason, publically cashiered, stripped of his rank, medals, insignias, and had his braids torn from his uniform by a society quick to point a finger at someone who did not look like them or pray like them. They sentenced him to life at Devil’s Island in French Guiana. As his life was ripped from him in the public square he cried out,
“I swear that I’m innocent, I remain worthy of serving in the army. Long Live France . . .”
Historians will tell you that Alfred Dreyfus wanted to be part of something bigger than himself, to give back to a country he loved and one that had allowed him and his family to prosper. He had seen for himself the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and the annexation of his homeland Alsace-Lorraine into the imperial territory of the German Empire, and he wanted to do his duty, serve a greater cause, and enroll in military school in Paris to become an artillery officer. He wanted to protect and serve his French countrymen.
In 1894 however he was falsely accused of treason and passing information to the Germans—a crime later found to be committed by Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. From 1895–1899 Alfred Dreyfus languished in Devil’s Island, his health failing, but with an outcry of anger and support from leading intellectuals and writers such as Emile Zola, Dreyfus was granted a pardon as a compromise in order that the French Military could save face and pretend the issue never happened. Had he been healthier and capable remaining in prison, I have little doubt Dreyfus would have told them to shove their pardon up their ass. He hadn’t done anything wrong.
“The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom. It is nothing for me without my honor,” he said on his release from Devil’s Island.
It wasn’t until 1906, more than ten years after his arrest, that he was fully exonerated and reinstated in the military.
Almost a hundred years after Dreyfus was released from prison, Richard Jewell wanted to be part of something bigger than himself, to give back to a country he loved and one that had allowed him and his family to prosper. A simple man, a simple life of simple means, Jewell first served as a security guard for Piedmont College and later for AT&T at Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Ask anyone in public safety and we can show you a thousand Richard Jewells. Good, honorable men and women that may not be physically gifted enough to fight fires or to become a police officer or capable of getting through the complex studies or the financial resources required to be a doctor or a nurse or a paramedic but still want to be in the mix, to help others, and to play a role in society. Whether as security guards, EMTs, nurse’s aides—they live in small houses, or apartments, eat at Waffle Houses, drive older pickup trucks or bare-bones compacts, wear off-the-shelf clothes (brands you never heard of), or have hobbies that don’t involve sipping teas or fine Scotch or downward dogging or tying feathers on fish hooks.
Richard Jewell’s crime was that he was a hero that lived in that world. He better fit the media’s narrative of a villain, and that was the narrative they blindly pushed. Alfred Dreyfus, the Jew, did not fit the Catholic soldier narrative of France in those years. He, like Jewell, made an easy villain. So, they set out to systematically destroy the life of this good man who had simply and undeniably saved dozens from certain death and as his life was ripped from him in the public square he cried out,
“I did not do it.”
Richard Jewell, a simple security guard, noticed an unattended backpack in the middle of the crowded Centennial Park during the height of the Atlanta Olympics. He quickly ushered the throngs of people away to safety minutes before it blew up and took the life of Alice Hawthorne and injured 111others. An anti-government terrorist by the name of Eric Rudolph now is serving life in prison for that crime the press wrongly attributed to Jewell.
In an interview, Richard Jewell said, “For that two days, my mother had a great deal of pride in me—that I had done something good and that she was my mother, and that was taken away from her. She’ll never get that back, and there’s no way I can give that back to her.” These are the words of a simple man, with honest values. Words that echo the Dreyfus lament, “It is nothing for me without my honor.”
Soon a new movie about the life of Richard Jewell will come to theaters near you. It should make us uncomfortable. It should make us pause and think about how our overzealous use of stereotypes, identity politics, and personal agendas in the pursuit of justice can blind us with the heat of a thousand welding torches against our corneas. It should make us sad. It should anger us. It should drive us to want to be better.
Richard Jewell died at the age of 44. I imagine all this weighed heavy on him and his health. He was not made for this world of public scrutiny. Even today I am sure that many falsely equate his name as the bomber and not that of the hero.
But in 2001 the small community of Carmel, Indiana, north of Indianapolis, a town rooted in Midwestern values and sensibilities, asked if they could honor him as their Grand Marshal in a parade of unsung heroes. At first he thought it was a joke, someone making fun of him. When he realized they were serious, he readily accepted. He declined any money to appear.
I got to meet him, this American Dreyfus. I got to celebrate his heroism along with thousands of those in attendance. But more importantly, I, along with the entire city of Carmel, got to say, “I’m sorry.”
And we did it before he died.
Dr. Louis M. Profeta is an emergency physician practicing in Indianapolis and a member of the Indianapolis Forensic Services Board. He is a national award-winning writer, public speaker and one of LinkedIn's Top Voices and the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Patient in Room Nine Says He's God. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org is welcomed. For other publications and for speaking dates, go to louisprofeta.com. For college speaking inquiries, contact email@example.com.