Editor's Note: This editorial was first published Aug. 22, 2012.
There is a scene in "It's a Wonderful Life" where it suddenly dawns on George Bailey just who will be responsible if all that is good and true in his hometown of Bedford Falls gives way to the squalor and corruption of Pottersville.
It is George himself, the president of the local savings and loan and the only person in town with enough clout and courage to face up to the corrupt Mr. Potter.
As everyone knows, George runs back to his family, saves his depositors from ruin and inspires the people of Bedford Falls to take back their town from Mr. Potter.
We've thought of that scene often this week as we mourn the loss of Nate Avery, Flagstaff's pediatric neurosurgeon who died unexpectedly at the age of 45 as a result of a fall at Lake Powell last week.
Avery grew up in Flagstaff, where there were few physicians doing brain surgery of any kind, much less on children.
He graduated from NAU and the medical school at the University of Arizona, then did a neurosurgery residency in Kentucky and received a prestigious fellowship to work in pediatric neurosurgery at the University of Utah.
At some point, Avery no doubt faced a choice of either taking his specialized medical skills to a top-flight hospital in a big city with all the latest technology -- or returning to his hometown to practice medicine. Choosing the latter would mean long hours on call as one of the few neurosurgeons in town and building a pediatric intensive care unit at FMC from the ground up.
He chose Flagstaff, and he did so, from all reports, with open eyes, a glad heart and a self-deprecating humor that put everyone around him at ease.
Indeed, for someone with such intimidating credentials and skills, Avery came across as an Average Joe who happened to do brain surgery in his day job. During his college summers, he worked as a rafting guide on the Colorado, and he often wondered aloud to friends how a "river rat" like him wound up doing brain surgery for a living.
But make no mistake about the impact that Nate Avery's choice had on Flagstaff. Visiting the memorial website, www.nateavery.info, that his family set up after his death is a wake-up call for anyone who doubts that one man's life can make a profound difference. In post after post, patients and friends recall a man unfailingly kind, upbeat and thoughtful who changed their lives -- even as he dealt with some of the most difficult and heart-wrenching cases medicine has to offer. There is nothing more painful to a parent than the inability to ease the suffering of their child, but in Nate Avery they found not only a doctor who would heal their loved one but a counselor to walk them calmly through those terrifying days.
Every single post on nateavery.info -- there are more than 300 -- is a variation on that same theme. Before he recruited a partner for his practice, the professional burden of caring alone for dozens of juvenile and adult patients suffering complex ailments of the brain and spine must have weighed heavily on him. But to his patients and friends, he was unfailingly considerate and a model of courage in the face of adversity.
They don't teach that in medical school. In fact, they don't teach that anywhere. Combine an inspirational bedside manner with hometown dedication and singularly unique skills, and the enormity of Flagstaff's loss comes into focus.
There is, of course, no guardian angel like Clarence to bring Nate Avery back to us. But now it's our turn to pay forward what Nate Avery gave us all, whether we are surgeons, carpenters, teachers or housekeepers.
-- If you think a job's important but no one else will do it, do it yourself.
-- Honor your roots and work for the common good.
-- Don't look back with regret and don't wallow in self-pity -- if the only pediatric brain surgeon in town can face each day with love and laughter and inspire the same in his patients, who are we to do any less?
-- Live each day as if it's your last but live it so that tomorrow is a better one for everyone you meet.
There is a famous courtroom balcony scene in "To Kill a Mockingbird" where the young girl, Scout, is reminded to stand as her father, the heroic Atticus Finch, passes by.
A half-century later, a variation on those words might serve as inspiration as we look to live up to another homegrown hero's legacy.
"Stand up, Flagstaff. The spirit of Nate Avery is passing by."