The heroes of the young are not always who would think of as heroes. They don't have to save a cat from a burning house or fall on a grenade or land a plane safely in the Hudson River, these heroes of the young. They only have to represent something—hopefully something bright and good in the human experience—that the young person admires and would like to emulate. They don't even have to be real, these heroes. They just have to have a quality that the young person would wish for himself.
So I don't feel at all silly in admitting that Spock was a hero of mine when I was young. And I don't mean a child. I was in my early 20s before I even started to watch those old reruns. Yet I thought of him as one of three men I wanted to be like: my dad, Pete Rose and Mr. Spock. My dad for the same reasons every well-raised young man wants to be like his dad; Pete Rose because he was as passionate about what he did as I wanted to be about whatever I did (this was "Charley Hustle" Pete, not Pete the gambling hustler); and Spock because even atheists need a little spirituality in their lives.
Which is what I admired in the Vulcan, what I wanted to have in my own life. As much as any character in pop culture, fictional or not, Spock followed—most of the time, at least, when he wasn't getting mixed up with some mind-altering, pollen-spitting flower, or a mating ritual back on the home world—a creed, alien as it was to our standard human sensibilities, that called on him to conduct himself in a manner respectful of intellect and curiosity, resistant to emotional extremes and violence and kind to all creatures living—all while behaving with honor and integrity. Maybe it was the slaughter going on in Vietnam, maybe the cruelty of those opposing the civil rights movement, maybe the corruption of Nixon and the loud-mouthed stupidity inherent in the rise of Jerry Falwell's "silent majority," but something was making me think even then (late '60s, early '70s) that Mankind could definitely use a better model, even if he was a fiction.
I don't really know what kind of man Leonard Nimoy was. By all accounts, he seems to have had a lot of Spock rub off on him, and I am sad he's gone. I'm not young anymore, and not prone to worshipping heroes. Especially actors acting as heroes. But it doesn't mean I still don't think this particular heroic vision has a lot to offer. Even, perhaps, some salvation for an emotional and violent species, on their own in a dark, cold vastness.