Look beyond appearance to hear the voice

Writer’s Block

You very likely have heard about, if not seen, the remarkable video of a 47 year-old Scottish woman named Susan Boyle. It all stems from her appearance on a show across the pond called “Britain’s Got Talent.”

As she walked onto the stage – dressed plainly and displaying no sign of glamour – the judges and the audience immediately began chuckling and rolling their eyes. Simon Cowell, one of the judges on the British show, as well as “American Idol,” is one of the great eye-rollers of all time. It’s a shame he wasn’t born a fly so he could roll thousands of them at a time. (Note: Flies have fixed eyes so they can’t actually roll them at all. That’s why they have never been selected as judges on talent shows.)

Susan Boyle hardly looks like the stereotype of a great singer, but once she began her performance the judges were knocked back in their seats in disbelief and the audience began to cheer. If you’ve not seen it for yourself, go to You Tube and type in her name.

In today’s world of cynicism and quick judgment, Susan Boyle serves as a great reminder that the true talents and capabilities of any person can never be assumed by appearance. She reminded me of a kid I knew growing up in my hometown of Bend, Ore.

His name was Doug Herland and I first got to know him when I played on a Little League team named “Moose,” so named because it was sponsored by the local Moose lodge. I had hoped to be on the “Dairy Queen” team instead, figuring they’d provide nicer after-game treats, but it didn’t work out.

I didn’t play very often, mainly because I couldn’t hit, catch, field or throw. The coach was a stickler for that sort of thing. However, my parents thought I looked better than my teammates in my uniform. Maybe that’s because it never got messed up with dirt or grass stains.

As a result, I sat on the bench most innings of every game, alongside Doug. He never got into a game either, but his excuse was better than mine. He was born with a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta – or “brittle bone disease.” He was in traction for the first seven weeks of his life and had broken bones 15 times before he was 9.

So even though he had trouble walking, much less running, he served as the team’s equipment manager and my bench mate. Together we sat and told jokes and stories to each other the entire game. I remember asking him once if he thought he could hit a home run if given the chance. He said, “You never know. You never know.”

It occurred to me at the time, that I was having a lot more fun hanging out with him than if I had been standing in the outfield with a glove on. But even in the outfield, you could still hear Doug. His voice carried remarkably as he exhorted our teammates and taunted the other team’s pitcher.

Whenever our team was up to bat, Doug went out to coach third base. I remember asking him once what third base was like, since I’d never been there. “It’s pretty much like first and second,” he advised. “But then, you’ve never been to those either.” He laughed, and so did I.

Just like Susan Boyle doesn’t “look” like a singer, Doug didn’t “look” like an athlete. Because of his disease, his growth was stunted and even as an adult, he topped out at a mere 4 feet, 8 inches and 107 pounds. But his outsized personality, wit and big voice made him impossible to ignore.

Our Moose team had a fairly impressive collection of young players, perhaps some of the best athletes Bend, Ore., ever produced. But ultimately, the highest achieving sportsman in the group was to be the least likely. It was Doug.

When he went off to college after graduating from high school, he chose Pacific Lutheran University and got interested in the rowing program. He realized it was a sport that suited him and his considerable voice. It led to an achievement few could have imagined – he won a bronze medal in the 1984 Olympics in the “Men’s Pair with Coxswain” crew competition.

Even for a coxswain, Doug was undersized and had to carry along a four-pound bag of birdshot to make weight. That bag of birdshot is on display today at PLU, where in 1991 he was posthumously honored with the school’s Distinguished Alumnus in Sports award.

Doug didn’t quite live to 40 years of age, but got a lot done in the time he had.

He founded a program called “Freedom on the River,” using his voice again to obtain government funding for disabled people to learn to row.

Keep an eye out for the Doug Herlands – and Susan Boyles – of this world. They might surprise you.

You never know.