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Commentary: Cliburn may be the last of the heroes

Posted 6:06pm on Tuesday, Mar. 05, 2013

Amid all of the global coverage of Van Cliburn's death last week, one thing stuck out.

Absolutely no one -- from the power brokers in Fort Worth to the folks on the street to former heads of state -- had a bad word to say about the award-winning pianist. He was, by every account, a true Southern gentleman, the very model of a humble hero -- someone who achieved greatness but remained approachable, relatable and real. It's the reason his death caused such an overwhelming reaction at home and abroad.

Cliburn's death, at the age of 78 from bone cancer, was part of a small wave of losses that shook the local arts community (the Bass family matriarch, Nancy Bass, also died last week at the age of 95).

But more than the blow dealt to Fort Worth's cultural class (and the sorrow that will inevitably hang over this year's Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which gets under way in May), I found myself wondering: Does Texas have any heroes -- in any discipline -- left?

Who could anyone point to like Van Cliburn, a beloved figure who accomplished something tremendous on the world stage, but never forsook his home? Who else is universally adored, held up as an example of how to treat others and looked upon as a ersatz ambassador for the state?

Perhaps a life like Cliburn's is no longer possible, in an age where every misstep and foible is immediately broadcast upon social media and endlessly passed around the Internet.

Consider Lance Armstrong's precipitous fall from grace, hastened by innuendoes that dogged him for decades. A ruthless competitor but compassionate philanthropist, the cyclist was, for a time, considered one of Texas's brightest Lone Stars.

That's all gone now, collapsed in a cloud of apologies to Oprah and op-eds vilifying his decision to dope, among other ills. Armstrong's reversal of fortune also illustrates the risks of idolizing sports figures.

Even Nolan Ryan, who is an iconic figure in these parts, could be facing a front office shakeup with the Texas Rangers that may result in his leaving the team that he helped resuscitate and turn into a perennial contender over the last few years. (Here's hoping that doesn't happen.)

But as you look around for heroes in the modern era, you have to ask: Who's left?

The relentless, 24/7 TMZ-ization of anyone who achieves even a small bit of fame, quickly reveals all of our potential heroes to be, well, human. Flawed. And not really worthy of our adoration.

By demanding total access to our celebrities, we expose them as mere mortals. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe it's not.

But one thing is for certain: The mystique that surrounded a towering figure like Van Cliburn simply doesn't exist anymore. He may have been the last of his kind.

It's something to be pondered -- and mourned.

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