A family tradition of heroism
Teacher receives Carnegie Medal for saving child, like his great-grandfather did in 1924
Coming to the rescue of children in danger appears to run in the family for North Point High School technology education teacher John Hollyfield. So does being awarded with a medal from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.
“I contacted the Carnegie to find out if there were two members of the same family that had ever received this, and they said it’s hard to determine that,” said Hollyfield, an Accokeek resident. “But it’s pretty unusual, to have two people, with similar acts, generations apart.”
James M. Hermansen of Wid-stoe, Utah, was Hollyfield’s great-grandfather. According to the Carnegie Hero Fund
Commission’s website, on April 17, 1924, Hermansen attempted to stop a team of runaway horses hitched to a wagon carrying a 10-yearold child.
Hermansen, 54, attempted to grasp the lines at the bit to turn the horses toward a fence, but the horses instead trampled him, pulling the wagon over him. The horses were stopped, though, and the child was uninjured, but Hollyfield’s great-grandfather sustained severe injuries and died three weeks later.
For his heroism, Hermansen was awarded a Carnegie medal posthumously and a grant that helped support his widow and family.
“I kind of knew about it from family lore,” Hollyfield said. “I knew something had happened, but I didn’t know what the Carnegie medal was.”
The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission was formed just 20 years prior, in 1904, by philanthropist and steelmaker Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie created the commission following a deadly coal mine explosion. Two miners, heedless of the danger, rushed in to attempt a rescue and were killed, inspiring Carnegie to create the commission to award acts of civilian heroism, according to the website.
“Not seldom are we thrilled by deeds of heroism where men or women are injured or lose their lives in attempting to preserve or rescue their fellows; such the heroes of civilization,” Carnegie wrote in the deed of trust forming the Hero Fund Commission.
The medal is awarded to individuals who knowingly risk their lives in an attempt to save another life. Approximately 20 percent of the medals are awarded posthumously, according to the website.
Over 91 years after Hermansen’s ill-fated rescue attempt, Hollyfield was at the Moyaone Community Pool for the Accokeek Swim Team’s Spirit Night. His younger daughter was a member of the swim team.
At the site was an ancient pin oak tree, heavy boughs reaching toward the sky, it’s base measuring 56 inches. One huge bough shaded the Moyoane Commons, including the children’s playground and picnic area.
“It was huge, much larger than any of the trees left around it. Most trees that big had already been cut down for firewood,” said Rob Gruwell, a Moyoane resident who was at the community center that day. “This was a monster.”
Hollyfield said Ana Spruill, adult education instructional assistant, heard a cracking and popping sound, and shouted a warning.
“I looked up, and saw a 5-foot long crack in the branch. About a minute later, it cracked and popped again, and that’s when I went into alarm mode and cleared the picnic grounds,” Hollyfield said.
Then he looked back and saw Ashley Gruwell, 6, still sitting atop the playground slide.
“Ever yone was clear of the area, except for my daughter,” Gruwell said.
“She was just frozen, I guess from fear, the commotion, I don’t know what,” Hollyfield said.
Hollyfield, a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, rushed back to the playground, grabbed Ashley, and brought her to safety.
“John leapt in like a bolt of lightning and grabbed my daughter seconds before the tree limb came crashing down,” Gruwell said.
Seconds later, the 80foot branch came crashing down on top of the playground.
“Crash, boom, bang, it came down and crashed,” Hollyfield said. “Fortunately, nobody got hurt.”
The next night, when Hollyfield and his wife returned home, they discovered a card on their front porch, written in a child’s handwriting: “Dear Mr. Hollyfield. Thank you for saving my life. Love Ashley.”
“That’s when I lost it,” Hollyfield said.
Hollyfield said that after the incident, his wife, who knew of Hollyfield’s ancestor, looked up the nomination process for the Carnegie Medal. The process itself is detailed, requiring conclusive evidence of the threat to the victim’s life, the risk undertaken by the rescuer and the rescuer’s degree of responsibility. Evidence including incident reports, newspaper clippings, photos, eyewitness testimony and other materials are taken into consideration.
“My wife tried to do it secretively, but with all the details it needed, she had to let me know, because she needed more information,” Hollyfield said.
Since its 1904 inception, less than 10,000 medals have been awarded. The awards are announced quarterly. Hollyfield was one of 18 recipients announced in September. Four of the recipients died during their act of heroism.
The medals are individually minted with the recipient’s name and a brief description of their act of heroism on the reverse, so Hollyfield has yet to receive his, but there will be a presentation ceremony when he receives it. The award also comes with a grant; Hollyfield intends to use some of the grant for Ashley and her older sister.
“We’re just glad no one got hurt, especially our daughter,” Gruwell said. “[The Carnegie medal] couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person.”
Above, John Hollyfield, a technology education teacher at North Point High School, holds his certificate from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission notifying him that he is one of 18 medal recipients selected in September. Below, the tree limb that fell on the Moyaone Community Pool playground and picnic area in 2015.
Photograph of John Hollyfield’s great-grandfather, James M. Hermansen of Widtsoe, Utah, who received a posthumous Carnegie Medal after attempting to stop a runaway wagon carrying a child.
John Hollyfield, technology education teacher at North Point High School, shows the card written for him by the then-6-year-old girl whom he pulled out of harms way two years ago and for which he was recently awarded the Carnegie Medal.
Reverse side of the Carnegie Medal posthumously awarded to James Hermansen, John Hollyfield’s great-grandfather, detailing the act of heroism that cost him his life.