AUSTINBURG, Ohio - On the mantel of the stone fireplace in Frank and Ashley Hall's house, John Wayne presides as the official American hero.
One of the items on the mantel, a wooden plaque with Wayne's picture superimposed over an American flag, declares the actor an "American Legend."
The Hall household, as it happens, includes a real, honest-to-God American Legend.
One evening not long ago, that legend - a big, solid man of 43, with the thick neck of a former football player and the guileless, sweet face of a little boy - stretched out in his recliner after a long day at Lakeside High School in Ashtabula. He's Lakeside's football coach, track coach and dean of students, handling the discipline problems of a school with enough of those to keep him busy.
"I always wanted to be John Wayne when I was a kid," Frank Hall said, explaining the Wayne tributes on the mantel. But five years have changed a lot of things for Hall, including that wish.
Now, five years after the Monday morning when he stood 10 feet from a skinny, disturbed boy who pointed a gun at him in the cafeteria of Chardon High School and then pulled the trigger; five years after he dodged that bullet; five years after he chased the skinny boy out of the cafeteria, down a hallway and out of the school, shouting "Stop!" and "No!"; five years after he returned to the cafeteria to comfort the three boys who were first shot by the skinny boy, the three bleeding and anguished boys he could already see would not make it - well, Frank Hall would like nothing more than to let John Wayne take over as hero and legend for a while.
In the five years since that day, Hall's life has changed in ways that he finds hard to fathom, and harder to reconcile with what happened in Chardon on Feb. 27, 2012.
The day before the shooting, he was an assistant football coach and study hall teacher at a small high school in a small town outside of Cleveland. He had an ordinary, busy life that he loved, married to Ashley and the father of four adopted boys.
After the shooting, he became "Frank Hall, American Hero," the headline of a Sports Illustrated cover story about him. Organizations near and far asked him to come and speak. His colleagues at Chardon High School started a foundation with him to promote school safety. They named it The Coach Hall Foundation, over his objections.June 24, 2013, Sports Illustrated cover featuring then-Chardon football assistant coach Frank Hall. (Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated)Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated
Strangers sent him cards, letters, money. A businessman in Minnesota bought a big house on seven wooded acres in Austinburg for his growing family. Scott Pelley and a crew from "60 Minutes" came to town to do a story about him. When that story won Emmy Awards, they sent one to Hall. It shares the mantel with John Wayne.
It all makes Hall uncomfortable. The attention, the gifts, the house, the Emmy. Why would he ever have an Emmy? He can't quite get past the disconnect of all he and his family have now - none of which he asked for - and the reason they have it.
This all came out of a tragedy. A tragedy.
"I want to make sure everyone remembers that," he said. His voice broke for a second. "Three young men lost their lives. Their families were crushed and broken. Another young man will never walk again."
When he thinks of that day, he thinks about all the ways he could have stopped that skinny boy with the gun, T.J. Lane. He thinks about how he prayed with the dying boys he couldn't save - Russell King Jr., Demetrius Hewlin and Daniel Parmertor. He thinks about whether he could have stopped the shot that paralyzed Nick Walczak.
"It was just a terrible day," he said. He was quiet for a moment.
"I'm not a hero."
A profile in courage
What is a hero? For the ancient Greeks, the mythic heroes were often half-mortal and half-immortal, existing on a plane between humans and the gods.
Like Achilles, the hero of "The Iliad," they were complicated men (always men, it seems) who had as many flaws as virtues. Achilles was a legendary warrior, but he was also as moody as a teenager, sulking in a tent during the Trojan War over a perceived slight.
He joined the fight, at last, only out of pride; he had to claim the glory of winning for himself. He fought for his own honor, not for others.
With the heroic medieval literature of knights and kings, heroes became less complicated. They were still warriors, but they also had to be men of loyalty and of upstanding moral character. They knew the rules and followed them. They fought for honor and king.5: Frank Hall was with Chardon students
Modern heroes (at least the ones who do not have "super" appended to their title) are judged not so much on their fighting abilities, but on their courage and acceptance of risk - their willingness to run into the fire when everyone else is running out. They fight for others, or for their country.
Our friend John Wayne (actually, one of his movie characters) had a good working definition of heroes and their courage: "Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway."
By Wayne's definition, Frank Hall was a hero that day at Chardon High School. He was scared; he's not ashamed to admit that he was scared. But he saddled up. He chased the shooter and saved a lot of students and teachers.
Frank Hall, though, has a definition of heroism that would defeat Achilles, John Wayne and every single one of the Knights of the Round Table.
Frank Hall keeps thinking about the kids he did not save: Danny and Russell and Demetrius. If he had been a true hero, by his lights, they would be alive, and Nick Walczak would be walking.
"My hardest thing - my biggest fear in life - is letting people down," he said one day in his office at Lakeside High School. "I just can't get over that feeling of letting them down. It's like sports. You remember the losses a lot more than you do the victories."
Filling the hole in his heart
Here's one more definition of a hero, from Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers of the cardigan sweaters and busy neighborhood.
"When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm," Rogers said. "They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me."
They now have 10 children, all of them adopted or in their custody. The oldest, whom they adopted at the age of 14, came to them with problems and never quite escaped them. Now 22, he has been in some trouble and does not live at home.
The family grew almost accidentally, if you listen to Frank. He and Ashley had been married less than three months when she heard about a 3-year-old boy who needed a family. She was a caseworker at Children's Services in Ashtabula County. She went home and told Frank about the boy.
"I said, 'No way, we just got married,' " Frank remembered one day while sitting in the office of Doug Snyder, the athletic director at Chardon High School and one of Hall's good friends.
But for three days, he couldn't stop thinking and worrying about the little boy. "I drove around with a hole in my heart," he said. "The next day, he was at our house, and he's been my best friend ever since."
That's Christian, who is now 13 and the oldest of the nine children at home.
Then came the troubled 14-year-old, and then 3-year-old twins, Mark and Shawn.
"When Ashley found them, I put my foot down and said, 'No way, we're poor as it is,' " Frank said. They are now 10 years old and thriving in school. "She conned me into getting those two."
Last year, Christian's brother, Amir, came to live with them. He's now 11.
Then, in August, they found out about a young woman who had drug issues and was going to have twin girls. Two weeks later, on Aug. 31, the Halls were there when the girls were born - addicted. When they were healthy, the Halls took them home. They named them Madalyn and Mackenzie.
"Did you put your foot down with this one, too, Frank?" Snyder asked, laughing.
"No, no," Frank said. "I always wanted a little girl. I just never planned on any of this. I mean, I make $32,000 a year."
Four months ago, three more of Christian's siblings joined the family: 10-year-old Aubrey, 7-year-old Azariah and 6-year-old Dyajiana.
They all squeezed into the Halls' three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath ranch.
A new home for the true believer
Tip Enebak, a multimillionaire Minnesota real estate developer who contacted Frank after seeing a rerun of the "60 Minutes" story, wrote a letter inviting Frank to speak to his employees. More impressed than ever after Frank accepted the invitation and they met, Enebak befriended the family.
"When he told me about the babies, and then later about the three siblings, I said, 'Have you really thought about this?' " Enebak said. " 'How big is your house?' "
When Frank told him Ashley was planning to leave her job to take care of the babies, Enebak asked, "How are you going to make this work?"
"I just believe it will work," Hall said. "We'll make it work."
Enebak wasn't so sure. "I can't take care of any more kids, but I can help you and Ashley take care of all these kids," he said. He offered to buy them a bigger house. He offered to furnish it. He told Ashley, "I want you to pretend you're the queen and Frank is the king."
It was not until after that conversation that Enebak read the Sports Illustrated story, and began to think that something more mysterious and powerful than furniture and real estate was at work here.
What else could explain how the story - written long before Enebak had ever heard of Chardon, or Frank Hall - would include this sentence: "Frank ... dreamed of buying a house one day and giving it away to someone who really needed it."
Hall got thousands of letters, so many he couldn't answer them all. But he opened the letter from Enebak. "How do you explain that?" Enebak asked.
"I know he's conflicted," Enebak said. "He's a guy who never asked for help in his life. But there's a reason that he was given this task, and he needs to come to grips with that."
Enebak made sure the furniture got to the new house in time for the Halls to move in on Christmas Eve 2016.
On the evening not long ago, Frank sat at the head of the new table in the new dining room, his baby girls sitting in little plastic seats in front of him. He cooed to them in baby talk - "Daddy wuvs you! He does!" - while Ashley passed around pizza to the older kids.
They joined hands and prayed. Later, they all gathered in front of the fireplace for a family photo.
Behind them, on the mantel, John Wayne gazed down from a Life magazine dated Jan. 28, 1972, protected in plastic: "John Wayne: Memories of a G-rated cowboy."
Below that, another headline reads: "How to avoid an attacker, what to do if he moves in."
What is a hero? Maybe it's someone who did what had to be done when an attacker moved in. Someone who thinks he's not a hero. Someone who thinks he's an ordinary guy who loves John Wayne and his family and wants everyone to understand what he knows: That our children are more important than Wall Street, more important than Capitol Hill, more important than anything.
"You know, when you just turn on the TV or pick up the newspaper, all you hear about is strife and racial disparity," Enebak said. "Here's a family that actually are doing something about it, and are actually putting their lives where their mouth is."
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