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Historic medal for bravery found at Florida garage sale a window into the past for Wheaton family

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 11:52 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 9:57 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Photo provided)
From left to right: Tommy, Danny, Katie and Kristine Anderson hold up the Carnegie Hero Fund Committee medal their grandparents, Edward and Yura Gruenwald, far right, found at a garage sale in Florida.

When Yura and Edward Gruenwald bought a medal bearing the face of famous American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie at a Florida garage sale, they knew it was something special.

“We thought it was odd that it would be at this garage sale, so I bought it for a dollar,” Yura said. “We decided to bring it back this summer as sort of a learning project for our grandkids to work on.”

When the Gruenwalds brought the medal back to grandchildren Kristine, Tommy, Danny and Katie Anderson, they weren’t sure what to make of it.

“I didn’t really know a lot of information in the first place,” Kristine said. “I knew from my history class who Andrew Carnegie was, but I had no idea he sponsored medals.”

On the front of the bronze medal is the bust of Carnegie and the words “Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.” On the back is a Bible verse and a brief inscription that says simply “Ruth Lysle Justice – saved two people from drowning.”

Not much, but enough to start, Kristine said.

They quickly located the Fund Commission’s website, where they found Justice’s story. According to the commission, in 1924, 18-year-old Justice dove into a creek in Vernango, Penn., to save the lives of Helen Mason, 21, and Edna Stevenson, 14. Mason entered the water when Stevenson began struggling to swim, but was dragged under when Stevenson panicked.

Justice dove in after both from a boat, then dragged the unconscious women to shallower water. Justice and Mason were awarded the Carnegie Hero medal for their efforts.

Walter Rutkowski, the executive director and secretary of the commission, said the award was given to recognize heroism related to the Bible verse found on the medal.

It reads “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

“The medal is not given to people who save lives,” he said. “It’s given to people who risk their lives and risk them to an extraordinary degree.”

Rutkowski said over the span of 108 years, the fund has awarded more than 9,500 medals and $34 million in accompanying grants, including scholarships or assistance to the families of recipients who died in their efforts.

After the Andersons unsuccessfully attempted to track down any family that Justice may have had, they contacted the commission with plans to donate the medal.

“We all kind of talked about it, and the kids figured it wasn’t theirs in the first place. It belonged to the family,” Yura said. “It was the right thing to do, and by donating it back to them, it would never be lost again.”

Tommy said the family was hoping someone connected to Justice would get the medal.

“It would mean a lot to us if the people found out about it and would step forward if there were relatives anywhere. It would be cool for us to be involved in returning this long lost thing.”

Rutkoski said while the commission tries to locate medals on the open market, it is rare, and he is grateful for the Andersons’ contribution. Usually, the medals are considered an heirloom for the family, passed down for generations.

Kristine said the entire family was surprised that an item with such historical and sentimental value would be lost.

“People should really hold onto their family history and study into it,” she said. “If people from her family had been studying that, they wouldn’t have let it go. People should really treasure their history.”

For information about the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, visit carnegiehero.org

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