Column: Remembering unsung American heroes

On Tuesday, August 23, Sherra White and her son Steve Lotti boarded a flight from Lima, Peru, bound for the Amazon city of Pucallpa. It was Sherra’s first trip abroad, her retirement celebration after 32 years as a Georgia public school teacher. Her guide to South America was her son Steve, who had just finished two years with the Peace Corps in Bolivia.

TANS Peru Flight 204 would never make it to Pucallpa. Four miles from the airstrip, the 737-200 carrying 98 passengers crashed into a marshy swamp. While 58 people would survive the crash, Sherra and Steve were not among them. They perished with at least 39 other passengers and crew members.

Sherra Young was my second couisn, Steve Lotti was my third cousin. I did not know either of them particularly well; in fact I do not think that I ever even met my cousin Steve.

It is incredibly hard to write a memorial for someone you barely knew. And it is nearly impossible to find the words to describe someone that you have never even met before.

But family is an important thing. The loss of relatives, even distant ones, echoes long. What touches me most is their story, who they were and how these two Georgia natives found themselves in South America on that fateful flight.

Sherra Young had just retired after 32 years as a public school teacher at the Clayton County Public Schools in Fayetteville, Georgia, but she loved teaching so much that she planned to return to the classroom on Monday to work part-time with remedial students.

Her son Steve Lotti, 28, had graduated from the University of Georgia and worked as an archeologist before joining the Peace Corps. He spent two years at San Antonio de Lomerio in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where he was focusing on water and sanitation issues.

I last saw Sherra and her husband, Jeff, two years ago as we spent the holidays with family in Georgia and we discussed their son Steve’s work in Bolivia with the Peace Corps. I remember that they expressed that odd bewilderment that comes with not quite fully understanding your child choosing to go live in the third-world for two years. But I will never forget the quiet, but tremendous, pride that radiated from them as they spoke of his work bringing clean water to Bolivian villages for the first time.

In his application to the Peace Corps, Steve wrote, “My strategy for adapting to a new culture is to relax and to be patient. Instead of trying to get everything right from the beginning, I want to try to learn from my mistakes. I want to be part of the community, instead of an outside observer.”

What continues to strike me in this tragedy is that their lives were lives of service. Here were two Americans who had quietly served their communities, who went out to help the poorest parts of the world and probably never thought twice about it. It is a tragic irony that the crash found a mother at the twilight of her life of service and son only at the beginning of his.

In a country where it is predicted that in the next decade we will need more than 2 million new teachers, we could use more Sherra Youngs.

In a world where American prestige is at an all-time low and one out of every two children lives in poverty, we could use far more Steve Lottis.

In their absence, we can only hope to live to up to the standard they set.

I did not know Sherra and Steve that well, but I do know that they will be deeply missed. May they rest in peace, confident that thanks to their lives, the world they leave behind is better for what they gave it

-The writer is a senior majoring in political communication

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