What They're Made Of

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STEPHEN KOEPP, Executive Editor
It's often said these days that journalists like to build up heroes so they can tear them down. That's a bit of a misunderstanding. What journalists appreciate about heroes is the kind of journey they are on. It makes a great story, not least because the hero is taking a dangerous new path, fraught with setbacks and surprises. But it's the third act that really makes the story newsworthy, when the hero comes back from his mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man, as Joseph Campbell described the classic story line in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this magazine we bring you 20 such stories of heroes and icons, our choices of the people whose personal journeys were the most inspirational and provocative of the century. It's the fifth of our TIME 100 special issues profiling the hundred most influential people of the era. For the complete list of 100, see this issue's final page.You might think it would be hard to find heroes these days who stand up to scrutiny. True, we no longer have those all-purpose, old-fashioned heroes, the king or teacher or paragon who is right all the time. But we do have plenty of people with heroic passages in their lives, who bravely shatter a limitation or convention and open up new possibilities for others. As we selected our 20th century heroes, we found a pattern: the ones who changed society the most were those who liberated a segment of humanity that had been fenced in by prejudice. Jackie Robinson broke the color line in U.S. baseball; Helen Keller smashed old notions about the blind and deaf; Emmeline Pankhurst marched through the gender barrier at the polls.

Some heroes took a giant leap for all of humankind in journeys that were lonely by definition. The flight of Charles Lindbergh and the climb of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay showed where people can go on the planet if they have the wit and endurance. It's not enough for a would-be hero to have talent and persistence. It's not enough to be a winner. To take hold of the public, a real hero must have the ability to engage those who look to him for lessons. Muhammad Ali (the former Cassius Clay) did it with sweetness and sass, Pelé with kinetic exuberance, Mother Teresa with saintly stubbornness. As a group, American G.I.s made countless excursions into the world, demonstrating selfless commitment to a larger cause, no matter what the cost.

We also include a special kind of exemplar: the icon, the embodiment of an ideal that affects how we live and act. Marilyn Monroe, the original platinum goddess, became an indelible work of Pop Art. The Kennedys gave off an aura in which Americans basked, happy to think that the U.S. had become a place where one could grow up to be royalty. Princess Diana became a symbol of Everywoman's search for happiness.

Now we begin the task of picking a Person of the Century, which will be announced in December. And later this year we launch a series of issues called Visions, in which we pose (and try our best to answer) 100 thought-provoking questions about the coming century. We'd love to hear your suggestions for these future issues. Please write us, e-mail us or visit our website at to offer your ideas.