Abraham Lincoln was a former American president (from 1861-1865) who is known for bringing an end to the practice of slavery in the United States by promoting the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlaws slavery. Lincoln was born in a log cabin to a poor family, and was self-educated. His illiterate father did not like to see him reading books which he saw as laziness, and wanted him to work in their farm.

But Lincoln strove to educate himself, and was an avid reader; eventually becoming a lawyer in 1837. He won the seat for the state legislature four times from 1834-1840. Rather than make promises or long speeches, he won the heart of the electorate with his sense of humor, by shaking hands and visiting each and every house he could. He had a penchant for finding solutions for people’s problems and was called ‘Honest Abe’ for his frank and jovial nature.

At a public meeting as the President, where he addressed Confederate prisoners as ‘erring human beings’ rather than ‘enemies’, he was asked by a woman supporter why he was being soft on his enemies rather than destroying them; to which Lincoln replied, ‘Why madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?’

APJ Abdul Kalam (1931-2015)                                                              

“Dream is not that which you see while sleeping, it is something that does not let you sleep.”

Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam was a former President of India who was known as the ‘People’s President’ for his popularity among the masses regardless of class, religion or political affiliations. He was born to a poor family in the coastal village of Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu. Growing up he had to take up odd jobs like selling newspapers to support his family. Though he scored only average grades in school, Kalam had a deep curiosity and eagerness to learn.

 He went on to become an aerospace engineer and scientist at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). His passion for education and his fondness for inspiring the youth are well known. There is a heart-warming anecdote of how he once took his subordinate’s kids to an exhibition because their father was busy working on a project and could not make his appointment.

Kalam was the embodiment of the ‘Indian Dream’: that a poor child, average in studies could still do great wonders through sheer hard work and passion. His humility and wish to be seen as one with the people won him as much love and respect as his scientific achievements. Once, he invited a cobbler and small hotel owner he met at his visit to Kerala to be his Presidential Guests (a very high honour) to the Raj Bhawan in Kerala.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

“A man who dares to waste one hour of his life has not discovered the value of life.”

Charles Darwin was a British naturalist and biologist who proposed the ‘theory of evolution’ in his book, On the Origin of Species in 1859. In the book, he gave evidence that all living beings on Earth could trace their roots to common ancestors, and that human beings had evolved from apes.

It produced a paradigm shift in people’s perception of themselves and their history. Until then, there was no reason to disbelieve the Bible’s version of how the world was created. Darwin’s theory gave factual evidence that replaced the story of ‘The Creation’ from the status of supreme truth to that of a myth. His ideas also presented a new technique to answering the various social and philosophical questions – that of historical analysis.

It is interesting to note that Darwin was a divinity student at Cambridge and an ardent believer in God before he went on the voyage to South America onboard the ship Beagle. The sight of rampant slavery that he saw there shook his faith in God, and the death of his daughter Annie later on put him in a deep spiritual crisis. But even after publishing his polemical thesis and facing rebuke from the English church, Darwin never saw himself as an atheist, but rather as an agnostic.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

“Courage is grace under pressure.”

Ernest Hemingway was an American journalist, novelist and short story writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 and is considered as one of the most important figures of 20th century literature. He is known for being the inventor of a writing technique called ‘the iceberg theory’ or ‘the theory of omission’ which is characterized by a dry and minimalistic narration. Hemingway used this technique to emphasize on his belief that the meaning of a story cannot be written into the surface, but must become visible implicitly.

In 1917, he volunteered to be a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I, and he returned home two months later severely wounded. In the 1920s, he moved to Paris with his wife and was part of the expatriate group of writers and artists called ‘The Lost Generation’ – the name derived from the feelings of helplessness and despair that was prevalent after the First World War throughout Europe.

He was a keen adventurer, and his action-hungry lifestyle won him many admirers. He was a sporting enthusiast and was fond of boxing, bullfighting and fishing. His stories dealt with themes of war and peace, masculinity and ethics, and man’s relationship with nature among others.