Bill Austin, 65
Eden Prairie, Minn.
Diagnosed with hearing loss at 6, Jova-Neil McDonald had gotten used to tuning in at school—where he was provided state-funded hearing aids—and missing much of life when he got home. “I would ask, ‘What? Huh?'” says Jova-Neil, now 14.
No more. On Feb. 1 at a clinic near Fort Lauderdale, the seventh-grader’s eyes widened and hands waved after being fitted with his first-ever personal pair of hearing aids. “These are the best things ever!” he shouted.
Equally joyous was a white-haired hearing-aid mogul who, with his team, fit the devices for Jova-Neil and 330 other kids. Bill Austin, founder and CEO of Starkey Laboratories, boasts a high-end clientele that has included Ronald Reagan, Paul Newman and 1995 Miss America Heather Whitestone McCallum. But Austin’s real passion is helping poor kids hear: Since 1973, working through his Starkey Hearing Foundation, he has given hearing aids to some 400,000 children. “He’s done so much,” says Maurice Miller, an audiology professor at New York University.
The Missouri native had planned to be a doctor—his boyhood role model was Albert Schweitzer. But while working for a hearing-aid company during college, he watched an elderly man’s face light up as his hearing aid was turned on. “In a single day,” Austin recalls, “I decided to change my life.”
That decision will have Austin traveling to clinics in Colombia and Vietnam in coming months—where he’ll likely win the affection of kids like Jova-Neil, whose dream of becoming an actor suddenly feels within reach. Says Jova-Neil: “He’s a great man.”
Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM Please include your name, phone number and return e-mail address. For more information on Austin’s work, go to http://www.sotheworldmayhear.org.