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A simple smile saved this man's life

Ken Wilcox felt hopeless. Then a simple act from a stranger changed his life.
Ken Wilcox
Ken Wilcox felt hopeless. Then a simple act from a stranger changed his life.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team. It features stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

Editor's note: This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 9-8-8, or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Ken Wilcox started off 1993 feeling hopeless. He was working a new job in Washington, D.C., and while it paid well, his boss was what Wilcox describes as a "tyrant." On top of that, many of Wilcox's friends were getting sick and dying from AIDS.

"Life felt bleak," Wilcox said.

One January morning after a business meeting, Wilcox was walking down a busy street. It was bitterly cold, and all the holiday cheer of the new year had faded from the city. He'd just received two difficult phone calls: one from his angry boss and another from a friend who had recently been diagnosed with AIDS.

"So I was just really feeling miserable. And I just didn't understand what the purpose of life was," he remembered.

Because the sidewalk was crowded, Wilcox was moving along the outside curb near the road.

"And as I was walking, a city bus came along and it came so close to me that I could feel it brush [the] right arm of my coat. And suddenly an idea came to me ... And that idea was that I could wait on the next bus and just lean a little further out and that bus could take me out of all of my misery."

As he reflected on his idea, Wilcox made eye contact with a woman walking toward him.

"She quite deliberately looked at me and sought out my eyes. And when we locked sight, she just gave me this beautiful, wonderful smile," Wilcox said.

"She didn't say anything to me. She just smiled at me. And that one smile was enough to keep me going to keep moving forward."

Soon after that interaction with his unsung hero, Wilcox quit his job. He's now a minister, a job he loves.

"I have to marvel at the idea that all of that has come about because this one wonderful woman on a street in Washington, D.C. on a cold January day decided to smile at me. She is my unsung hero."

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, there are people who can help. Call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Autumn Barnes