In Appreciation Of Remarkable Lives

Lessons from Thatcher and Mandela, as well as Bud Day and a pair of Texas entrepreneurs.

A good way to start a new year is by reflecting on remarkable individuals who died the previous year. Here are some who had special meaning for me.

Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister who reversed Britain's decline as an economic and world power. Her leadership modernized and strengthened her nation. She stood up to militant unions, Argentina's military junta, IRA terrorism and Soviet Communism. In concert with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and Pope John Paul II, she transformed the world. Not bad for a grocer's daughter from Grantham.

From a courtroom dock on trial for his life, Nelson Mandela said he "cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities." He then spent 26 years in prison before emerging to end apartheid and serve as the first president of a multiracial South African democracy. When others cried for vengeance, Mandela worked for reconciliation.

In 2013, some notable Democrats passed, including the first House Speaker from west of the Rockies, former Rep. Tom Foley of Washington; former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton ; former Louisiana Rep. Lindy Boggs ; and former House whip (and later United Negro College Fund president) Bill Gray III. All four, while committed partisans, worked across the aisle with Republican colleagues and presidents.

And who could forget former New York Mayor Ed Koch, one of American politics' most vivid personalities. During 20 years in office, Koch asked his constituents "How am I doin'?" A liberal who cut taxes and fought crime to make his city livable, he did just fine.

C.W. "Bill" Young was one of 29 Republican congressmen from the Old Confederacy in 1970 and one of 103 when he died in October. A respected advocate of a strong national defense, he not only witnessed the South's political makeover; he helped lead it.

Two great Texans, Bob Perry and Harold Simmons, died last year. They were passionate about their state and country and were generous donors to conservative candidates and causes, including American Crossroads.

Perry was a high-school teacher and football coach who worked construction part-time before starting a home-building company in Houston in 1968. A gentle, committed Christian, he took seriously the Biblical injunction to "look after orphans and widows in their distress." Moved by the plight of children without families or the means to rise, he underwrote orphanages and college scholarships for the unprivileged.

When cautioned about the extent of his political giving in 2012, Harold Simmons replied, "I want President Obama to know my name." He got his wish.

But politics was a small part of the life of this East Texas child of the Depression. At age 29, Simmons borrowed money to buy a Dallas drugstore, growing it into a chain of 100. He took the profits from its sale and plunged into energy, chemicals, metals and waste management, securing a place on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. Simmons donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Southern Methodist University's education school, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center's cancer research, and Dallas arts and community institutions, among numerous other charities.

These two self-made men never forgot that from those to whom much is given, much is required.

Four valiant recipients of the Medal of Honor died in 2013. Following the Normandy landing on D-Day, Sgt. John Hawk led his squad in repelling an attack by German Tiger tanks, then stood exposed on a hilltop to direct fire onto another wave of Nazi tanks hidden in the valley behind. At the Battle of the Bulge, though wounded, Master Sgt. Nicholas Oresko single-handedly wiped out two machine gun nests pinning down his company. In 1951, Cpl. Rodolfo Hernandez charged an attacking North Korean horde with grenades and his rifle, giving comrades time to reload and counterattack. He was grievously wounded.

My friend, Col. George "Bud" Day, fought as a Marine in the Pacific in World War II, then joined the Air National Guard in 1950 and flew fighter jets in Korea before making an Air Force career. Shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, he became the only American prisoner of war to escape, making his way to the Demilitarized Zone before being recaptured and tortured. When captors later shoved rifles in his face and threatened his life, Day responded by singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." He was released after nearly six years in captivity.

R equiescat in pace.

A version of this article appeared January 2, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline With Appreciation of Remarkable Lives and online at WSJ.com.