The question was,
"Anybody else ever have the good or bad fortune to meet a personal hero?"
I have met two, myself, and for all the reasons you discuss here, I think I have been amazingly lucky, because I hold them both in even higher regard as time goes by.
The first was the late Jeff Cooper. At the time I met him I was in my early twenties and fantastically not-necessarily-stupid-but...dense. I'd been reading his work for the better part of a decade by then, and had been actively corresponding by letter (remember letters?) for the latter part of that time; I was at least arguably a card-stock fanboy. When the meatspace meeting finally occurred, I had the oh-so-carefully-prepared list of questions with me, the storied shortness of breath and anxiety of meeting the great personal hero of my life...and then, at the moment of truth, and to the absolute credit of my parents, I had the great good sense to realize that what I most needed to do was to let all of that simply fall away, and instead just pay attention and learn.
And he was magnificent in person. I knew even then, as a wee mental niggling picked up gradually over time, that he was by no means flawless, but somehow it was still easy to see that he was a good man, with truly fantastic and selfless gifts of attitude, analysis, and personal excellence to offer to anyone paying attention. In person, those qualities stood out even more than they came through in his writing, even adjusting (both then and now) for an instructor-mentor being "on" all the time.
As an aside, for most of my own life, it has been reasonably common for someone who has read me, to remark upon later meeting me in person that "wow, you talk just like you write"*. Whenever I hear that, I smile and think of Jeff Cooper; I don't know if that was a deliberate aspiration of mine in terms of writing style, but it absolutely was a deliberate aspiration to unapologetic personal excellence.
Personal excellence. Along with what is unfortunately pigeonholed under the name "the combat mind-set" (because it is so much greater than that), that is one of the two great components of Cooper's legacy. The late William Grigg (who is on the short list of people who I'd have wanted to meet in person) used to write, always of others, "This is a man. Take notes." So true, here, and boy, I did. I did on mind-set, I did on personal excellence, on how he interacted with his wife Janelle (who with obvious affection he called The Countess, a glorious human being in her own right), on mentoring and teaching...very nearly the whole enchilada. This is what a role model is supposed to be like.
Make no mistake, I understand the man had flaws, the most serious of which was his commitment to a State military apparatus. He did have a love of, and even thirst for, fighting that I will never share. But, apropos of the topical core of your post, Joel, I was fortunate to have seen him, at the most critical and formative times, through a lens of "merely" observation. I was lucky to realize that I didn't need a hero to be perfect across the board; at the time I met Cooper I could very easily have set myself up for a classic fanboy fall, but that didn't happen--the not-stupid part of dumb-me, delivered at an important moment.
And that moment was truly important. It was Cooper, after all, from whom I learned about Claire not long after, and I would not have been ready for her without him--just as I would not have been ready for the larger pantheon that followed--Codrea, Vanderboegh, Rothbard, Shaffer, Grigg, etc.--without her.
The other personal hero I've met in meatspace is English guitarist Robert Fripp. As with Cooper, it is difficult to overstate how important Fripp has been in my life, and even though like Cooper the influence began with something simple and defined (in Fripp's case, music), it simply exploded with context and contact--and I would say for the same reason: the personal excellence, the talk-walking--on the very most important points to me--was so obvious that other human flaws could easily be contextualized to their proper (in)significance.
I could go on at impressive length (heard ya snicker, there) about the details of Fripp's musical impact, but that sort of thing is for the Craftygrass blog, not here. Suffice it to say that aside from my simply liking much of what he has done, the thing I admire the most is his commitment to the idea that a group forms for a purpose, makes itself available for the purpose (that wording is very intentional), and then stops, when the purpose has been achieved.**
When I met him, having both listened to his music and read his writings for just about a decade, it was on a week-long residential course he was leading, and much like Cooper, in person the man was even larger than his virtual persona. Fripp is humble without fanfare, truly excellent both with students and with his support team, and skilled almost beyond reckoning in both physical mechanics and their context in the greater whole. I would also say that a "freedomista" would be specifically impressed at how he challenges someone to grow.
The flaws he is most often accused of are, I think, telling, in that regard. Critics predisposed to disliking him have long supplied a reputation of Fripp's being authoritarian, but having worked with him for a week in a residential and educational setting, it seems pretty obvious to me that most of this is pure BS. If along with my own context I put together every story that I've heard about him that goes to this point, what I arrive at is that his style is actually the polar opposite: that he is so dispassionately committed to and trusting of the people he works with that, along with his own personal confidence and excellence within the realm of hazardous musical risk, it's simply terrifying, and people don't know how to handle an environment quite that...well, that anarchic. (He's been breathlessly accused of fomenting "musical anarchy" on at least one documentary I've seen, which of course makes me giggle.) I get the impression of someone who understands human nature very well, to the point where he simply does not bother responding to the absurd or the willfully ignorant, and of course the credulous can then easily "qui tacet consentire videtur" all that right into a self-evidently obvious explanation of passive-aggressiveness.
Anyway, as a musical role model, I know of no one better. The way he lives his life, too, while not resembling my own in many respects, is at worst still admirable for its consistency, privacy, and obvious pursuit of excellence, often at visible cost to himself. This is no pretender; if he's pretending just for fame and fortune, then he really sucks at it.
If there is to be any sort of a fall to come, with Fripp-as-personal-hero, it will most likely be because I some day discover what "his politics" actually are, and then that they are somehow beyond the usual level of atrocious (that anyone wishing to remain sane in this absurd world must put up with in order just to live among other people). One of the things I admire the most about him is that he enjoys his privacy, and does not stump for anything other than music. Based on what I can extrapolate from his considerable writing over the years, I would anticipate that one of the reasons he does not participate openly in politics, is that he might well be accused of much wrongthink--but again I would be guessing at that; I do love it that I do not, in fact, know, because he keeps it to himself.
Like I said before, I think I've been fantastically lucky to have met my two personal heroes--arguably the two most important non-family people in my life--in meatspace, and somehow come out on the far side, years later, having batted a thousand.
Of course there have been other heroes, including a few of pretty significant importance, but either I have not met them in real life (e.g., Claire), or I don't consider the context sufficient to merit mention (e.g., I've met both mandolinist Sam Bush and banjoist Bela Fleck in person, but the meetings were so brief that I couldn't assess them with any real confidence).
Although I have not met him in person, I feel at least a bit honor-bound to address Massad Ayoob, who has been an incredible and positive influence on me in certain respects that I must acknowledge as heroic, but who is the best example I can share of a hero who fell from grace--or at least a hero whose uncovered flaw(s) are so vital that I cannot in conscience remand them into insignificance. I give the man full props for being, in some ways, exactly what he implied himself to be: a champion of what Grigg called the Mundanes, someone who would both freely and by profession teach you the things you should know if you need to save your life with lethal force some day. As a matter of the mechanics and considerations of doing this in the flawed legal landscape under which we all suffer, and to a lesser but still significant degree the mechanics of the physical act of saving your life in the first place, he is at least arguably without peer. I have no doubt he understands quite well, how to out the BS of those who think they understand how confrontations happen first on the street and then afterward in court, but really don't; his position both inside and outside the police and law/legal communities gives him a pretty unique perspective.
The problem, of course, is that in the end, when push comes to shove, he is by all appearances fully committed to the Only Ones mentality, to wit: cops' lives matter more than yours, and there is no systemic police problem to discuss. What I have seen, and not seen, from him on this topic is irreparably damning. He used to write about police corruption stories, you know, in almost a Peelian reform sort of way; when I first ran across him, he'd actually write about stories like Frank Serpico's--although looking back on it now, IIRC even then those kinds of stories always were rooted in the "bad apples" rationalization as well: the ultimate immunity and supremacy of the enforcement constabulary itself were presumed, and unquestioned, even then. Now? Well...I can't remember the last time I saw something under his name that addresses the topic at all, that does not simply sound like someone condescending to scold the whistleblower. The worst part about it all is that, having for years read his very useful information about the sort of "cute lawyer tricks" that can be used against you in a courtroom by unscrupulous prosecutors, I cannot help but see his repeated excusings of nearly any sort of police behavior at all, as anything but the same thing. It's become as predictable as gravity that if Ayoob writes about a police abuse or corruption case at all, these days, it is only to carry the water of Team True Blue and tell the very peasants he claims to champion, how it is always and ever not-what-you-think. Even more damningly, when asked, directly, questions that would go to the real point here--meat questions like "do you really believe that no abuse happens?", or "provide an example of what you would consider 'going too far'", or "would a regular person have been excused from this behavior too?", etc., what we hear is...nothing.
I used to care, more, about what happened to bring about this apparent change, from the writer who would champion the little guy standing up to the department, and discuss how important it is to avoid understandably misidentified appearances for the sake of one's own image with the public; into the writer who now treats any sort of systemic inquiry as de facto tinfoil hattery, automatically marginalizing any attempt even to get to the public's perception, much less addressing the legitimate question of "and do they have a point?"--and maybe I still do, as it still invokes a sense of betrayal and makes me angry. But not only is it not stopping, it's getting worse, and a reasonable person might start to wonder if that whole period of championing the little guy and pointing out the deliberate ways that the system deceives the people to serve its own purposes, was merely an advance guard to normalizing the horrors of the police state we suffer from now.
For anyone new to that topic who would like a compare and contrast exercise (it would be involved, but illustrative), I'd simply suggest reading the posts and commentary (watching how he handles the commentary is important) of a year's worth of Mas' posts at Backwoods Home magazine, covering the police abuse stories of your choice, and the posts and commentary of the same period at Will Grigg's Pro Libertate blog.
Okay, enough about that. Makes me irritated.
Finally, on a much happier note: although also not in meatspace, there is also you, Joel. Your example, for me at least, actually sums up much of what I think is important to consider in this weird, enigmatic notion of "heroism" that people seem so fascinated with.
You frequently lead, unapologetically, with this idea that you are a hermit by choice because you're difficult to be around, and didn't choose the desert for the social gatherings. I find this disclosure admirable and perfectly acceptable in a hero, who doesn't have to be anything at all like me.
Your heroism, to me, occupies a very abstract and mental place. To wit: you are easy to admire because you do what many people, myself absolutely included, desire at some level to do, but stop short for one reason or another. You're perfectly clear on what it takes to achieve it, and the risks and concerns that attend your own choices. All this is at once very hypothetical for an observer, and yet it also demystifies the experience in a way that I find extremely useful. It helps me with the life I have here, which in some ways is so very different (e.g., wife and three young kids, traditional day job, way too much time around obvious cheerleaders for Team Tide Pod and the Statist Beer Goggles Emporium, etc.), but which in others I think is functionally quite similar (e.g., the intention to live outside of the unwanted invasions of "regular" society, voluntary interdependence upon selected friends and neighbors, available retreat from aforementioned TTP and SBGE types, increasing self-sufficiency through personal learning and development)...
And finally, you live unapologetically and, I think, without real judgment. Oh sure, you like to declare the things you find absurd with wonder and even a little humor, but that's regular human being stuff, nothing recognizably like the pluperfect misanthropic malice increasingly emerging among the more socially acceptable of Master's minions. You're also the first to observe that even you, for all your choices that may seem drastic even to committed freedomistas, are also on a continuum, just perhaps in a very different place than most. That simple observation right there is more valuable, both first as an epiphany and afterward as a reminder, than it might appear.
And of course, with someone who openly (and repeatedly) declares his faults, and who regularly fesses up to his mistakes even when nobody else would ever have noticed, how could you even have a fall from hero grace? You said already that you're a 'mudge, so we knew that coming in...
If the purpose of a hero is to have a personally important point of reference to which to aspire and work towards, well hell, you fit the bill as well as anyone I've run across. Which could be considered an accusation of damning with faint praise, except that in my case the praise really isn't faint. :-)
* Usually that has been meant as a compliment, but then again I don't worry overmuch about the "TL;DR" crowd in terms of how it reflects on me. :-)
** A regular feature of King Crimson's work has been that, just as a given incarnation of the band has matured its voice and started to "succeed" in the marketplace, it dissolves, the magic having been in the listening to the muse to find the voice, rather than in the repetitive output of a matured-but-no-longer-growing voice. This is very frustrating to some people--there is obviously something in the psychology of the band name and wanting to ascribe "consistency" to it over time--but I find it utterly admirable. Part of this is that King Crimson are identified mostly in the "rock" music genre, and that is a genre that insists on consistency of the output behind a name. But not all genres are like that. With "jazz" music, by contrast, it is perfectly normal for a bandleader to form and dissolve various groups over time, often with very different styles and output. Crimson are a little different there, though, in that even though the styles of the different incarnations can be pretty wildly different, one can always feel the King Crimson muse present somehow, and it's not just the consistency of Robert's presence. People of course argue about that, but most of those arguments come from the sort of people that out their own ignorance pretty quickly.