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Vinson awarded prestigious Carnegie Medal for heroism

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- A Sylvester man who died in the Flint River trying to save two young brothers who had gotten caught in its current, has been awarded one of the nation's highest regarded civilian honors for heroism.

Gary Dewayne "D.J." Vinson, who died Aug. 3, 2008, was named one of 23 Carnegie Medal winners Thursday during a ceremony in Pittsburgh.

Named for the Carnegie Hero Fund's namesake and U.S. Steel Founder Andrew Carnegie, the awards honor extraordinary heroism in the face of danger. The foundation has been acknowledging heroic civilian acts since 1904.

The 23-year-old Vinson was recognized for his valiant efforts to save two young boys -- Matthew Perry, then 10, and Joshua Perry, 11 -- who had fallen into the Flint River at the Riverfront Park area of Albany.

Vinson and others formed a chain to attempt to get the boys safely to the riverbank and were successful in rescuing Matthew. Joshua, however, fell back into the river current, and Vinson went after him. Both drowned.

"All his life he wanted everyone to love one another," said Beth Vinson, D.J.'s mother. "If they did put (a memorial sign) down (at Riverfront Park), it would really touch me.

"I know he's my son, but he was a sweet young man," she said. "I never heard anyone say anything bad about him. He was a one-of-a-kind son is all I can say."

Beth Vinson said her son had just started his own lawn business and was "doing very well at it" at the time of the tragedy. She said that D.J. was saving money to one day attend Valdosta State University since his parents couldn't afford it.

Local government officials have heralded Vinson and the others who helped that day as heroes for their action. As news broke of the award Thursday, they again applauded he and his family.

"That kind of sacrifice, especially from someone so young, is incredible," Assistant City Manager Wes Smith said. "He gave everything-- his life, his future -- for someone he didn't even know.

That degree of selflessness is something that we all should strive for."

County Administrator Richard Crowdis called Vinson a "true hero," for his acts down on the river that day and said he hopes the award brings some level of comfort or blessing to his family.

"I think its appropriate that this young man, D.J. Vinson, be honored nationally by being a Carnegie Medal recipient," Crowdis said. "I hope that the knowledge and recognition of his selfless act brings a blessing to his family. He was a true hero."

Albany Herald Editor Jim Hendricks, who nominated Vinson for the award in 2009, said Thursday that Vinson's praise is well deserved.

"The award can't bring anyone back, but it does recognize selfless action and great sacrifice. It says a lot about Mr. Vinson's character that he would place himself in danger, and ultimately lose his life, in an extraordinary effort to help a child. He was a brave young man, and it's fitting that the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission has given him the recognition he deserves for his act of heroism. His family has every right to be proud of him."

Vinson joins Elmer L. Slappy of Edison, Robert Anthony Phillips of Thomasville and Henry Calvin Hackler of Moultrie as a posthumous recipient of the award.

According to the Carnegie Hero Fund, James D. Ledbetter, of Camilla, was the first Carnegie Medal recipient from Southwest Georgia.

He was honored in 1909 for saving Carrie Gresham from drowning after she fell off a ferry boat on the Flint River near Newton.

Seventeen people from Southwest Georgia have been honored as recipients of the medal since 1904.

"We live in a heroic age," Carnegie wrote in 1904. "Not seldom are we thrilled by deeds of heroism where men or women are injured or lose their lives in attempting to preserve or rescue their fellows; such the heroes of civilization. The heroes of barbarism maimed or killed theirs."

Herald education writer Ethan Fowler contributed to this story.