June 3, 2010
Lenny Skutnik is a household name belonging to an unassuming Congressional Budget Office employee who insists he “wasn’t a hero” when one winter day in 1982 he jumped from the shore into the icy Potomac River to save a drowning woman after an Air Florida flight crashed on takeoff. “I was just someone who helped another human being,” Lenny said later. While his rescue of Priscilla Tirado that day was extraordinary, Lenny has been helping the employees at CBO for more than 30 years.
Martin Leonard “Lenny” Skutnik came to work here in 1980 after a stint at the Social Security Administration. A hard-working employee, Lenny was hired to support the staff of the relatively new (1975) office created by the Congress to produce budget and economic analysis. Lenny did whatever needed doing, mostly handling the mail and supplies needed to support the staff and, later, conducting the agency’s printing and providing IT support.
Lenny had been at CBO less than two years when he happened upon the Air Florida crash on his way home from work one night. He said his actions were amplified because they were captured on film and transmitted around the world. Public reaction was huge, and President Ronald Reagan, in his State of the Union address two weeks later, singled Lenny out in the House gallery, giving birth to the tradition of presidents using the annual speech to recognize ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary things. The Presidential gallery in the House now is sometimes referred to as “The Heroes’ Gallery.” Search on the internet, and you’ll find much written about our Lenny. He’s been called “the Potomac rescue guy” and “The Icy Swimming Rescue Dude.” Folks have written about talking to their children about heroism, using Lenny as their role model.
One woman wrote, “I was seated at the dinner table last night with my 12- and 13-year-olds and friend’s 8- and 10-year-olds, and they asked us about heroism. I mentioned Lenny Skutnik and what he did, and my friend and I started crying, thinking about that footage we still had in our heads all these years later. The kids were mesmerized. Thank you, Lenny Skutnik. We still remember.” “Lenny Skutnik is in my Top 5 Unforgettable People,” wrote another.
Lenny received many honors for his heroic act, including the United States Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal and the Carnegie Hero’s Fund Medal, as well as public tributes that include two “Lenny Skutnik Days” in Mississippi a month after the crash in 1982. The General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia unanimously passed a resolution in praise of Skutnik’s “unselfish act of bravery.”
There are still many at CBO who are unaware there is a hero among us. Lenny continued to work, conscientiously doing his job as if nothing unusual had happened, personally producing thousands of copies of hundreds of CBO reports during his 30 years of service to the U.S. Congress. “I’ve learned a lot here. I’m not a Ph.D. type,” he said, referring to the many highly educated analysts on CBO’s staff. “It’s been very rewarding for me to work for this institution that has some clout. I’m real proud to have been part of it.”
We’re proud to have had you as part of CBO, Lenny. We hope you enjoy your retirement. You’ve earned it!