Everyone thought Olympic runner Louis Zamperini died when his B-24 Liberator "Green Hornet" airplane crashed into the Pacific Ocean during World War II. Newspaper headlines pronounced him dead.
But the now-94-year-old Zamperini, who is the subject of author Laura Hillenbrand's latest best-selling book, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption," will visit adjunct journalism professor Jeff Fellenzer's class on Wednesday, Feb. 23 (UPDATE: video here). Students will witness his story of survival after 47 days adrift and two years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, where he was routinely tortured.
"Among the guests I've been fortunate to have in my 'Sports, Business, Media' class over the years, no one has had a greater and more profound impact on the students than Louie Zamperini," Fellenzer said. "I honestly believe that his messages of love, hope, cheerfulness and forgiveness will resonate with those students for the rest of their lives. Most of all, the extraordinary courage and determination and will to live that he demonstrated — in the face of unimaginable odds — is inspiring to everyone who hears his story."
Fellenzer's class is known for its spectacular guest speakers,industry insight and life lessons. It has featured the likes of legendary basketball coach John Wooden, broadcaster and former NFL/USC wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers icon Jerry West, baseball super-agent Scott Boras and Hall of Fame sports broadcaster Al Michaels. But students have been touched by Zamperini's visits over the years because of his remarkable story of perseverance and forgiveness.
"Seeing Mr. Zamperini in class was nothing short of exceptional," said Patrick Conway, who listened to Zamperini in a 2007 class. "Not only did that class period with Louis make me think about what a stressful situation really was, he also taught me how to handle it. Remain positive, don't let outside sources deter you from any goals, and most important, never give up. Mr. Zamperini is the perfect American and an obvious hero. What impressed me the most about him was that he never blamed anybody and even forgave them."
Fellenzer described Zamperini's impact on his former classes in a story he wrote in the program for last month's Southern California Sports Broadcasters Awards, where Zamperini won a lifetime achievement award along with former USC and Boston Celtics basketball star Bill Sharman. Fellenzer said some students had tears in their eyes after watching a 40-minute video about Zamperini and then seeing him walk on the stage.
"What happened next on that January evening last year was a moment I will never forget," Fellenzer wrote. "Spontaneously, with no prompting from their professor, the students rose from their seats in unison and began to applaud, the intensity rising as the well-dressed man — 93 years young, wearing his trademark USC cap — walked slowly down the aisle and headed to the stage. For the next hour or so, the students listened intently, asked questions and engaged their new best friend on a variety of topics."
Zamperini has quite the story to tell. From a troubled youngster running from the police to a famous athlete running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics with Jesse Owens, he has been around the world and back.
"Today, age 93, the man some people believe might have broken the four-minute mile had it not been for the war, lives in Los Angeles," journalist Tom Hennessy wrote in a recent column. "Still spry, he gives occasional lectures, telling his war story to veterans and other groups. His lecture fee is hefty, but he has earned it."
However, Zamperini, a former USC track star who held the collegiate mile record for 20 years, comes to Fellenzer's class for no charge because he enjoys sharing his story with fellow Trojans. Fellenzer has agreed to open his class to a maximum of 20 additional people. If you would like to attend, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and USC affiliation.
"This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime man, an American hero," Fellenzer said. "When you consider his athletic accomplishments, heroism under fire as a soldier during World War II, and the way he has continued to inspire men and women around the world since his return home, Louie Zamperini, to me, is 'The Greatest Trojan of 'Em All."
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