hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

October 11, 2012

Role models who bite the dust

By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — There used to be a time when I considered cycling sensation Lance Armstrong the greatest role model anybody could have.

Who would not want to pattern their lives after someone who prevailed in seven — not one — Tour de France races?

In my estimation, he personified his sport to its highest level and possessed all the qualities I would ever want to see in an individual.

Until he got busted for doping and shamed himself into pity and ridicule. I suddenly lost all respect for the man.

But his is not an isolated situation.

I had the same good feeling for Franklin D. Roosevelt until I saw a biography of his life which revealed his infidelity toward wife Eleanor Roosevelt — perhaps the most remarkable and conscientious first lady who ever occupied the White House.

Armstrong was a poster child for his generation. He was adopted by the United States Postal Department as its signature hero. And what of the half-billion dollars he raised for his federation as a spokesman for cancer?

The man had the world by its tail, only to see it slip away. One can only wonder how many other role models are out there leading porous lives.

His exposure to guilt and defamation came at the same time another Armstrong was making the news in tribute. The death of astronaut Neil Armstrong at age 82 was another news highlight, but for all the right reasons. Who could ever forget that moment in 1969 when he left his spaceship and became the first man to walk on the moon?

For that, he was a sensation who never lost his luster. A pioneer certainly in his field and one who was emulated with pride.

I always remembered his quote on the historic event, having seen it on posters and billboards: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Two Armstrongs making the news in one week — one being eulogized, the other criticized.

Like you and me, we have our role models, even in advanced stages of life. In my journalistic sojourns, people like Andy Rooney, Art Buchwald and Mike Royko were writers any fledgling newspaper columnist would digest.

They’re gone, but I have another writer who remains tantamount to my profession. Mitch Albom personifies everything I would want in a journalist. Stories like “Tuesdays with Morrie’’ warm my heart.

I used to respect Pete Rose until he shamed baseball by betting on the game. His Hall of Fame luster was reduced to ashes. Should his nomination to the Hall be reconsidered, my opinion of the man wouldn’t change one iota.

The same could be said for sluggers like Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco. Whether it was steroids or some other drug enhancements that enabled them to power lift the ball, they don’t quite match up to the Hank Aarons of our time who maintained an exemplary career — or so it appears.

Much as I thought John F. Kennedy was a personified president, his private life left little to be admired. I couldn’t very well condone his womanizing antics. You could say the same for Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

Though I’m not a golfing buff, I did enjoy watching Tiger Woods dominate the PGA Tour. His popularity has been greatly reduced over his life as a playboy. I couldn’t care less whether he wins another tournament.

For my money, Phil Mickelson embodies true class in this sport. In baseball, it would be Derek Jeter hands down. At 38, he’s registered the 10th most hits all time in the Major Leagues. I’ve never seen the guy pop off to an ump, much less disappoint his teammates. He’s the consummate leader.

Why can’t the Red Sox have players like these?

In high school, Jim Piccolo could do no wrong. He ran for class president and got elected all four years. He played football and captained the team to a championship. He was the homecoming king and excelled in the classroom. He was the All-American boy.

Piccolo was the envy of every parent who wanted their son to succeed.

“Why can’t you be like Jim Piccolo?” my mother once compared.

“Because I’m who I am and he’s who he is,” I shot back. “I could never be like Jim Piccolo because God didn’t create me like him.”

A year or two after high school, he got mixed up with the wrong crowd and was arrested on drugs charges. Nobody heard from him again.

So much for his perfect image.

Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from the Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.