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How an unknown navigator helped Julie in her moment of need

Julie's husband was always her navigator on road trips. After he died, Julie got lost on her first trip without him.
Julie Cadwallader Staub
Julie's husband was always her navigator on road trips. After he died, Julie got lost on her first trip without him.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team, about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

In many relationships, there's one person with an exceptional sense of direction, while the other struggles to stay oriented. That was the case for Julie Cadwallader Staub and her husband, Warren. On road trips, Warren navigated them safely to their destination without a hitch.

"We could get all turned around and he would just think for a minute, get reoriented in a way that always eluded me, and would tell me the right direction to drive," Cadwallader Staub recalled.

But in 2003, at the age of 49, Warren died of cancer. A few months after he passed away, a friend invited Cadwallader Staub to come to Boston for a ceremony celebrating her recently completed PhD. This was a time before most people had cell phones or navigation systems in their cars. But Cadwallader Staub wasn't deterred.

Julie Cadwallader Staub and her husband, Warren.
/ Julie Cadwallader Staub
Julie Cadwallader Staub
Julie Cadwallader Staub and her husband, Warren.

"I've driven to Boston many times for my husband's chemo treatment ... so I had plenty of false confidence about being able to make the trip," she said.

Cadwallader Staub carefully followed directions her friend had given her, and safely arrived in Boston. After the ceremony, she walked back to her car, planning on following the same directions in reverse order. What she didn't account for was being forced to leave the parking lot directly onto a one-way street. She told herself not to panic: she'd just take the first left and another left and then head out of the city.

"So I did that and it took me deeper into Boston," she said. "'No problem,' I thought, 'I'll stop and ask directions.' I did. I followed those directions. I became seriously lost. I had absolutely no idea where I was."

At this point, she was fighting panic. She hadn't had to deal with being lost without the safety net of Warren in years. Feeling shaky and scared, she stopped at a gas station and asked an attendant for directions.

"He looked at me blankly, shook his head kindly, and said just a few words in Spanish that meant, 'I don't speak English,'" Cadwallader Staub remembers. "I was stuck. No map, no idea which way to go ... no husband to turn to. I was panicking. I couldn't think straight. I couldn't even think at all."

As the fear gripped her, a woman at the next pump turned to Cadwallader Staub and empathized, telling her it was overly complicated to get out of Boston. She advised Cadwallader Staub to follow her out of the gas station – she would help get her back on track.

"And I followed her and she did," Cadwallader Staub said. "The last thing I saw was her hand out the car window waving to me and pointing to the highway sign. I was waving to thank her with every ounce of my being as I zipped off onto the highway and headed towards home."

Cadwallader Staub now lives in South Burlington, Vermont. She's a poet, and enjoys spending time with her grandson, also named Warren. Now, 20 years later, she still remembers her unsung hero.

"I have not forgotten your kindness over all these years, and I'm so happy to send this out to you," she said.

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Kwerel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Autumn Barnes