Do you know what a “Skutnik” is? For most Americans, a “Skutnik” sounds like some type of woodland creature that lives beneath your home, or a Russian punk rock band.
But for a small number of people, “Skutnik” is an odd nickname that can proudly be embraced on one night of the year: the night of the president’s State of the Union address.
The name “Skutnik” comes from Lenny Skutnik, a government employee who became front page news in 1982 for an incredible act of heroism.
On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C., and fell into the freezing cold Potomac River. As rescue crews rushed to the scene to save the few survivors, one woman, Priscilla Tirado, was too weak to grab on to the ladder lowered from a rescue helicopter. Skutnik, in full site of shocked onlookers, stripped off his clothes, dove into the freezing river and rescued Tirado by bringing her back to shore.
President Ronald Reagan was so impressed by this act of heroism that he invited Skutnik and his wife to sit with the first lady at the State of the Union address a few weeks later. Thus, “Skutniks” — regular men and women who represent the best of ordinary America — were born.
Over the years, “Skutniks” have come to represent different themes or policies that presidents want to highlight during their State of the Union addresses. In 2000, for example, President Bill Clinton pointed out Tom Mauser, the father of a Columbine High School shooting victim to highlight the need for gun control. In 2003, President George W. Bush thanked Hermis Moutardier and Christina Jones, two airline attendants who foiled the infamous “Shoe Bomber” as he attempted to blow up American Airlines flight 63 on a trip from Paris to Miami. Bush then discussed the need for America to stay focused on the war on terror.
This year, President Barack Obama has a pretty long list of Skutniks to talk about during his speech:
- Jason Collins, 35, of Los Angeles, the first active NBA player to come out as gay
- Carlos Arredondo and Jeff Bauman, life-saving hero and survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing
- Gary Bird, fire chief of the tornado-ravaged Moore, Oklahoma
- Joey Hudy of Anthem, Arizona, who started earlier this month as Intel’s youngest intern and impressed Obama at the 2012 White House Science Fair with his “extreme marshmallow cannon“
- Kathy Hollowell-Makle, D.C. Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year
Leaked news reports already indicate that Obama will talk to the nation about income inequality in his speech on Tuesday, but from what his “Skutniks” suggest, he’ll make key points about gay rights, educating young people and the continuing war on terror.
On a night where all the focus is on which party claps for which policy, who looks bored and who acts foolish, it’s nice to know that there is always time to focus on ordinary Americans who are doing great things. Even if they have to have a funny nickname for a day.
This article originally appeared on Headline News.