Every year about now, the media introduce us to the most fascinating people of the prior year.
They always overlook people like Joe Horne.
A tailgunner in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Horne and his crew enjoyed 11 successful missions.
They didn't expect to survive their 12th: orders to bomb a heavily guarded munitions plant in Munich.
As they approached their target, Horne fought off German fighter planes. German flak was another matter.
Heavy flak hit the plane hard. It lost altitude so fast that its windows shattered. The landing gear was destroyed.
Their only hope was to make it across the Swiss border for a crash landing.
As the plane's belly hit the ground -- as uprooted earth and stones whipped through the broken windows -- the pilot told the crew to evacuate before the plane exploded.
Horne dived out a window and was bruised and cut as he tumbled along the ground -- but he survived.
The Swiss would detain him in internment camps in Adelboden, Switzerland, for six months -- camps, writes Cathryn Prince in "Shot from the Sky," that were a dark secret of World War II.
So long as he did as told, he was free to move about the town. He learned to ski and even had time to fall in love with a beautiful Swiss girl.
But he and a few others crossed the line when they got into a fistfight with Nazi sympathizers.
They spent 30 days in the Wauwilermoos military prison in Lucerne, where they received little food or water and occasional beatings.
After his release there, he and his crew were about to attempt an escape from their camp when word arrived that all Americans detained in Switzerland were being repatriated.
On leave in Pittsburgh, Horne attended a dance. He fell hard for a striking woman across the room -- love at first sight. Her name was Dorothy Kvederis. He would marry her four years later.
He joined the post office in 1946, when he was discharged. After two and a half years of attending college at night, Horne decided to suspend his studies.
He was happy with his life.
By 1954, he and Dorothy had saved enough to buy a house -- the house in which he still lives.
He and Dorothy would be blessed with a daughter and two sons -- a teacher, dentist and corporate executive, respectively.
He loved his job. During the last 40 years of his 46-year postal career, he delivered mail in a predominantly black section of Pittsburgh, PA.
Despite numerous opportunities to take over cushier routes inside air-conditioned high-rise buildings, he loved his route and would give it up only when he retired in 1992.
He and Dorothy finally had time to enjoy life. They traveled. They attended church every morning. They spent time with family and friends.
Their carefree existence ended on Oct. 4, 1992, when Dorothy suffered a stroke. Horne would spend the next 14 years caring for her -- getting no more than two hours of sleep every night -- until she died in 2006.
Now 85, he misses her desperately, but his days are full.
The old Irishman (his grandfather changed the family name from "Horan" to "Horne," hoping it would help him find work at a time when the Irish faced "need not apply" signs) is a passionate Notre Dame fan.
He has a zest for living, a fine wit and he puts a spring in the step of anyone lucky enough to cross his path.
Yeah, he was never famous or rich, but he was surely influential. Great civilizations are built on the shoulders of such giants.
If only the media featured more people like Joe Horne at this time every year.
©2011 Tom Purcell. Tom Purcell, a freelance writer is also a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. For more info contact Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or email [email protected]. E-mail Tom at [email protected].