An Old Man and His Grandson
One of the things that bothers me is that some of us run through life acting as if we know it all. In reality, a know it all...doesn't. We are all dependent upon others who are our mentors in life. As I age, I have a duality of issues regarding mentors staring me in the face. The first issue is that after 70-years, I have had many mentors to whom I owe a great deal. The second issue is that after 70-years, I know that I have a finite amount of time left to receive mentoring and of equal importance to help mentor others. Therefore, this in my initial attempt to address both issues.
I would like to share several stories of others who have mentored me. I would hope that their mentoring of me would benefit you in some way. Some of my mentors are no longer with us. There are some that I haven't had the pleasure of meeting in person or even corresponding with them as of yet but would look forward to doing so.
Brooks Oakford was the first mentor outside my immediate family when I was growing up. My grandfather and his father were twins; therefore, Brooks was my parents' age. His father started a candy store called Aunt Charlotte's in Merchantville, NJ, which he inherited from his father. Brooks went about expanding the business and built it into a thriving store for his children's generation and their children. Back in the early part of his expanding his business, I happened to come to the store. It was in the early fall when I was in 5th grade; I was 9-years old. Why I went to the store that day, other than for candy or ice cream, I don't recall.
Nonetheless, I was enthralled with Aunt Charlotte's over 60-years ago. I loved to walk around seeing things done and then tasting the product. I don't recall what I was sampling that day a half dozen decades ago, but I missed a message that Brooks gave me. He asked me to work for him for a couple of weeks either after school or on weekends. What I thought was that Brooks was giving me an early Christmas gift...candy and ice cream. However, I missed his message, and it took me many of years before I understood it.
Many decades passed before I realized what Brooks was a mentor by having me work for him. His message was that as a 5-grader I was capable of working in his candy store. Nonetheless, it helped change my life. Brooks thought I was capable and he made me feel capable of working in a place that made candy. By hiring me, he told me that he trusted me not to get hurt and that I could perform some of the duties that his adult employees did daily. One of the jobs that I loved as a 9-year was putting pretzels on a conveyor-belt that coated them with chocolate.
After I realized what Brooks did for me, I did finally and officially thank him a few years ago when we went back to see him in Merchantville. Brooks did for me in Merchantville what Louie Palmer did for me Muskingum College. Louie taught The Arts, which was a required class for everyone who attended Muskingum. It was a two-semester class taken in either your junior or senior year. The Arts consisted of 5-hours each semester that consisted of 3-hours in large lectures and 2-hours in smaller subsections each week. Few students signed-up for The Arts without a real sense of fear and trembling. The Arts was hardly a cake-class at Muskingum.
Why I took the class in my junior year, I don't recall. Many of my classmates waited until they were seniors hoping that they would be better prepared by then. Looking back on reason for taking The Arts then paralleled not knowing why I went to Aunt Charlotte's that day years ago. It just happened.
Regardless, I signed up for it and took it as a junior. There were some students that aced both semesters, but I wasn't one of them. However, I did fairly well with my grades and enjoyed the class. At the end of the year, Louie called me to his office. He wanted me to be his teaching assistant during my senior year. I accepted and asked what my job would entail. Louie said I would be teaching a handful of subsections weekly. Then Louie stopped...as if to say, what else would you like to do? I told him. Louie allowed me to write and grade both the midterm and final for both semesters. I taught as an undergraduate to many of my own classmates. It was a hoot and a tremendous learning experience.
By this time in life, I didn't miss Louie's message as I had Brooks' years before. Here was a professor who saw something in me, and I was not going to let Louie down. And I didn't, and we both knew it even before I began. A few years ago, I took a trip back to Muskingum hoping to see Louie, but he had already passed away. I wish that I could have told him exactly how much he has influenced my life.
This was a subsection of The Arts... This is where I learned about and taught paintings like Ghirlandaio's An Old Man and His Grandson along with hundreds other paintings, sculptures, buildings, and music.
My next mentor was light-years from The Arts. He was Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist, who was a genius at two levels. He knew and understood things that most Americans did not know. He was extremely gifted...one of the greatest thinkers of our time.
However, at another level, Sagan was able to communicate things about the cosmos and astrophysics with people without any real background in science. I admired his ability to think but also to explain. I watched every one of the award winning Cosmos program and have revisited many since then.
This is just several minutes of one of the programs, but it is Carl Sagan.
Sagan knew vast sums of technological information and could explain it so that even I had some semblance of what he wanted me to understand. In one program, he relates the story of some French aristocrat who is getting old but is redesigning his landscaping around his chateau. The aristocrat tells his landscaper that he wants a certain type of tree used throughout the landscaping project. The landscaper, realizing that this tree is a very slow growing tree, tells the landowner that the tree is too slow growing for what he wanted...meaning that the aristocrat would be long gone before any of the trees matured. The aristocrat reply was instant. He told him to plant the trees now. I wrote to Carl Sagan about the actual storyline used in Cosmos so that I could quote him correctly.
Sagan responded to my request. Carl Sagan wrote me, a nobody, about something with which I was interested. There is a mentor. He didn't know me, but I was important enough for him to write to me and to make sure I understood. There is a lesson for all of us, which I learned and hopefully you will learn.
Then there was Bobby Kennedy. He wasn't a god, but he was what my generation had for hope in a very troubled America. He gave us hope when things seemed hopeless. I realize, unless you are about my age, you can't really know the impact that he made upon our generation. It was a time when I was not certain that America would make it to celebrating our bicentennial as a nation. There was racism and the Vietnam War. Moreover, he held my generation and me together with his assurance of hope for the future of America.
Yet, there was Bobby...a hope for an America when it seemed hopeless. He said many things that helped me more forward. "It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope." Unless you lived back then, that just sounds like a nice couple of sentences. It wasn't that for us. We had some hope amid a time of seeming hopelessness.
Yet, with all the problems of life and living, Bobby reminded us, "All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don't. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity." Pain can produce action to change the pain into gain. That is a critical lesson. No college class in the past two decades that I have taught has not heard the no pain no gain statement.
Finally, Bobby changed my Weltanschauung with something that George Bernard Shaw said in a play. This is Bobby's version: "Some men see things as they are and say, why; I dream things that never were and say, why not." Anyone who has ever received an email from me in the past 2-decades has seen that sentence as my signature on my email.
My next mentor was Steve Biko. My son turned 7-years old on Monday, September 12, 1977. He was happy with only a day in school separating him from his birthday party and presents. Things were not so bright and happy for Steve Biko on the other side of the world in a prison cell. The apartheid security police had just beaten him to death on that very day.
In a hauntingly accurate prediction, not only about his own death but also about the future of South Africa, Biko wrote, "It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die." Again, that is a great sounding statement. However, how many of us would utter that statement and face our personal deaths. I do not know what I would do facing that situation, but I have a great mentor that knew what to do and faced it.
Biko also wrote, "So as a prelude, whites must be made to realize that they are only human, not superior (to blacks)." Having said that, Biko did not want blacks in South Africa to buy into a second-class station in life. Biko was calling for liberation...first, of the mind of the oppressed. He knew that the days of apartheid would soon end. It was merely a matter of time. He was more concerned with what he called Black Consciousness.
Unless blacks set themselves free mentally, they will remain mentally in apartheid even when physical apartheid ends. He wrote, "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." I never met nor have we ever corresponded, but he was a great mentor of mine and millions of others...blacks and whites.
The next mentor was William Forrester who I met in the movie, Finding Forrester. For over a dozen years, every class has had to watch that film and have been mentored by him. Forrester was an amazingly interesting mentor for me. We both like to write. He told me as he repeated in the movie: "Write your first draft with your heart. Re-write with your head. The first key to writing is...to write, not to think!" I have gotten that instruction from Forrester down for many years. I understand his point.
Interestingly, I just spent a month in Scotland researching the independence movement that Scots will vote upon on September 18, 2014. There are few people more pro-independence than I am...even compared to many in Scotland. I have felt it and then have written many articles about...then I edited them like Forrester suggested.
An example of this, I wrote an op-ed article to The New York Times about the Scottish independence movement. However, when I edited as Forrester told me, I thought that the Times might reject, because it didn't have any bearing on us as Americans. See? I do learn from my mentors. Therefore, I concluded my letter to the editor with very specific reasons why especially blacks and women need to understand the Scottish independence movement for themselves.
The New York Times tells those submitting letters that if they do not contact you, they would not be publishing your letter... Three days past without hearing. Hmmm. Forrester, when he finds out about this rejection, will ask whether the editor's last name was Crawford...a relative of Professor Crawford who had issues with Jamal.
Speaking of Forrester, aka Sean Connery, I want to get an interview with him prior to the Scottish referendum on independence. I too wish to return to Scotland...to a free Scotland. If anyone that reads this article and knows an email address of him, please let me know or let him know of this article.
I spent a year in post-grad work at New College at the University of Edinburgh 45-years before and returned this past spring for a month. However, we both will be able to return to Scotland after an affirmative vote next year.
Forrester also mentored me about education and learning. We can learn even when we are mentoring. There can be mutual mentoring between teacher and students. In fact, perhaps that is the most important mentoring.
I did not get a teaching job because I followed Forrester's mentoring about dealing with all students and that has been a very strange blessing.
My next mentor was Dr. Anne Perry who is the Dean of Academic Affairs at DeVry University. I have taught at 4-different universities over the past 20-years. There are very few people at any of these schools that are in the same league with her. Beyond that, no one surpasses her in my eyes...and that is not meant as a hyperbole.
She is balanced in how she does her job as a dean. She knows the rules and knows when to act and when not to act. She teaches and listens in the same time when having a conversation. Anne can be supportive of you as a person but can tell you what the policy is without being dismissive.
I have been in her office about a list of different reasons. She listens and then is able to explain the situation from her position as the dean. There have been a couple times that I responded to her with a "yes, but reply." Anne would respond with restating the rules or policy and do without being rude. I am amazed with her ability to listen to a professor's points and concerns and be able without being pushy restate the school's position or policy. I have left her office more than once being told "no" and laughed about it. I hope that I will be able to be direct without being overbearing in my dealings with everyone. My mentor is an expert at this.
One other issue is my complete trust in her and her complete trust in me. I know that I can trust her, and she knows the same about me. She has supported my decisions as I have supported hers. This is an interview that I did with Anne several years ago.
Barack Obama is my next mentor. He and I, while we have never met, have corresponded. He has received some limited campaign money and a moλωυ λαβε tee shirt from Greece from me. In return, I have received an invitation to his first inauguration and a thank-you from him for his tee shirt.
You will see a picture of President Obama in my office. I took that picture during a campaign swing in Gary, IN prior to the nomination as the democratic candidate for president. I look up to that picture every day. Above his picture is the invitation to the inauguration and below it is the below it is the picture of Leonidas who first said, "moλωυ λαβε (or Come and get them)."
President Obama is an interesting mentor for me. I have always been left of center in politics and social issues...way left of center. However, after the senseless killing of Bobby Kennedy, I had disengaged from being interested in politics, as I was when Bobby was still alive. I along with millions of others had lost a leader...one who was concerned about issues and people and not merely about being elected. I went about my life with the same concerns but not with any real leader.
During the Christmas break from teaching, I went to visit my daughter, Michelle, in South Africa where she volunteered at an orphanage near Durbin. She had been there for over a half year when my wife and I visited her. We landed in Cape Town just before Christmas in 2006. My wife and I had flown halfway around the world to visit Michelle. She met us at the airport and would be our guide for the next couple of weeks in South Africa. Along with spending Christmas with Michelle, I wanted to do some research on Steve Biko and the apartheid period in South Africa.
When we landed at Cape Town, we hugged and kissed after seeing each other for the first time in over a half year. We went to an airport restaurant to catch up with each other. After we finished with the chitchat, Michelle verbally swept everything else off the table, and then looked at me: "Dad, I've been out of the States for almost a year, and I haven't heard what's been happening with Barack Obama. What do think about him and do you think he has a chance to become president?"
Michelle knew that I was the most liberal family member and proud of it. However, I gave a non-committal response. She questioned my terse and reserved reply. It was not like me; Michelle assumed that I would be climbing the walls and working for Obama. I told her, "Michelle, I've been there and done that and don't have the heart to do it again. Bobby Kennedy was my dream when I was your age, and that dream was dashed. Politics has not been the same since. Either they are crooks and liars or well-meaning and inept." That was my candid spin on things since the late 60s politically, which was not say much for politics.
After my post-mortem on both Bobby and my involvement in politics, Michelle dropped her questioning. I was not into it...until I returned from South Africa. I was watching Chris Matthews on Hardball who was decrying how dreamers do not become president, which was true since Bobby. However, with Matthew's dissing of dreamers, the union between Bobby and Barack registered in my mind and once again, I had hope for the future.
Obama is a moral mentor...very much like Bobby Kennedy was. Look at the areas where Obama has mentored all of us—
We now have healthcare reform, and we are catching up with the entire Western world that started with universal healthcare in 1912 when Norway took the lead...we are a bit late, but at least we are with the rest of the industrial world. The issue of universal healthcare is an ethical issue for most of the world including us. However, many in America have not gotten the ethical mentoring yet.
We are out of Iraq and bin Laden is gone in 2011. We are soon be out of Afghanistan along with removing much of al-Qaeda top leadership. Obama is mentoring me and the rest of us about making sure our actions are tied to some ethical standard. He is also tying actions to Syria to congressional approval. And the list goes on...
Finally, there is Aung San Suu Kyi. I can think of no women that rivals in leadership and determination. In addition, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi does so with grace and dignity and without being aggressive. She has faced one tragedy after another, but each time she faces each one and moves on to assist others. Her father, Aung San, told the British to leave Burma and they did. However, Suu Kyi's father was assassinated by a political foe when she was not even 3-years old. Aung San Suu Kyi marries a British professor, Michael Aris, who dies of prostate cancer on his 53rd birthday.
The military dictatorship put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for over a dozen years. Nonetheless, as both a political leader and political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi has received the Rafto Prize, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the Nobel Peace Prize, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, the International Simón Bolívar Prize, the Canadian granted her citizenship of Canada, the Wallenberg Medal, and the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from our government. I cannot name another women or man with that list of honors and that has done so with such dignity and resolve.
Aung San Suu Kyi is a great mentor to millions of people throughout the world. She has taught me along with the rest of the world about living in pain without retaliating in kind. That is a lesson that few of us have come close to learning to do as well as she has. It is seemingly second nature for her.
It is interesting that Aung San Suu Kyi is like Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey. Odysseus' name in Greek (Ολυσσενς) is translated as receiver of pain. Odysseus lives much of his life in pain brought to him by the world out there. Aung San Suu Kyi faces the pain but does not give up. Therein lies a lesson for me. Some pain I can endure, but I am impatient to resolve the pain and move on. Aung San Suu Kyi's mentoring by example is not impatient and like Odysseus faced major pains throughout her life. Nonetheless, she perseveres while facing the pain.
Like my other mentors, I get Aung San Suu Kyi's mentoring. The question is whether I can apply her mentoring to my life and the way I deal with others. Actually, all my readers must also face that same question. While I am not sure if I can apply it, I know that, without addressing it in the manner of her mentoring, I will have failed. That should be enough motivation for me to move ahead.
In the meantime, has anyone seen Ghirlandaio? You can't find those Italian Renaissance painters when you need them. Jack and I can't wait forever.
And besides, Owen has already left the room.
While I am thankful for all the mentors in my life, I look forward to meeting more. If you have any idea, please, let me know or tell them to contact me. I'm attempting to find out what I want to do in this next phase of my life. Hint: it is not sitting around with a cold brewskie.
Visit The Mentors and Me page to read more about this topic.