By Cable Neuhaus
December 01, 1980 12:00 PM

No heroes left in America? Listen: Ethel Kline, 63, was at her post as a school crossing guard when she saw an out-of-control car heading for two small girls. Kline, a West Allis, Wis. widow, lunged for the children, knocked them out of the way and suffered a crushed pelvis when the speeding automobile struck her instead. “I’d do it again,” she says shyly.

Canadian pilots Brian Clegg and Robert Stephen Grant rescued three people from an Ontario lake in a snowstorm. Grant, 38, pinned one of the victims to the skids of a helicopter with his own body and the two of them clung there while Clegg, 24, flew to a nearby hospital. “We just did what had to be done,” Clegg recalls.

Davis Palmer, 63, an unemployed Bradys Bend, Pa. laborer, spent three hours up to his neck in a rain-swollen creek rescuing an elderly woman and her daughter-in-law from their submerged auto. “I was just thinking of that poor old lady on top of the car,” Palmer says.

Besides their courage—and becoming modesty—these four souls have something else in common: They and nine others were recently honored by the Carnegie Hero Fund, a little-known, Pittsburgh-based foundation. Established in 1904 by billionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the fund has quietly given 6,487 men, women and even children medals and cash awards—ranging from $1,500 to $5,000—for risking their lives to save others. “We’ll always have heroes,” says Robert W. Off, president of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. “There’s a feeling that people don’t care about anybody today, but I don’t believe that. There have been cases where people stood around and did nothing, but no more now than ever. When it comes to life and death, our standards haven’t changed.”

Neither have those of the 12-member Carnegie executive board in defining a hero. Last year the fund’s three staff investigators traveled 53,000 miles to check out the most promising of some 600 candidates. The board accepted only 69. “The word hero is misunderstood,” says Off. “A real hero is someone who puts his life on the line to save somebody else—no matter how foolhardy it may be.” Trying to save property—or even, astonishingly, trying to save a woman from being raped, unless she is in danger of death—does not count. Members of a victim’s family are ineligible for awards, as are lifeguards, police and firemen unless they perform above and beyond the call of duty. If an honoree dies in the course of a rescue, his or her survivors are eligible for pensions and scholarships from the fund.

Its honorees have saved people from such exotic dangers as stampeding cattle, sharks, cougars, snipers, nuclear reactors and even the intake duct of a jet engine. “Heroism is an impulsive act,” Off explains. “The hero doesn’t stop to figure the chances of his own survival.” Many of the honorees are teenagers. “They’re idealistic and impulsive,” Off says. “They also don’t have the responsibilities of an adult.” Although 95 percent of the medalists have been male, Off thinks the proportion may change as women move into more hazardous jobs. Most heroes, according to Off, “lead pretty decent lives. They’re clean-cut and upright citizens.” One honoree, however, was a convicted armed robber who saved a prison guard from a crazed police dog. The man was later paroled; the guard, among others, recommended it. Carnegie heroes come in all sizes and types, Off reports. “There’s no way I know of to test yourself in advance about your likelihood to commit a heroic act.”

Off himself qualifies as a kind of hero. In World War II he received the Distinguished Flying Cross for continuing a mission over Germany after three of his bomber’s four engines were shot out. Ironically, such action would never qualify for an award. Lifelong pacifist Carnegie called war “barbarism” and prohibited members of the armed forces from winning.

Off (the name is Scottish) spent 33 years at the Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh before leaving in 1979 to take a 10 percent salary cut at the foundation. “I wanted to do something else before I died,” he says. At the fund, Off’s banking experience has been valuable: His management of the $13 million endowment (nearly three times Carnegie’s original grant) has been so successful that the cash awards were increased 33 percent last year. Off runs his own substantial investments from an office in the 12-room house where he lives with his wife, Mary. Their three children are grown. He keeps his 6’4½” frame at 220 pounds by jogging and playing golf (and sailing near a family summer home on Cape Cod). He has never had to perform a rescue, “which is just as well. Sometimes,” Off says, “I can’t believe the things people have done.”