American Culture

Who helped me become me?

I am 62 years old.

More than 40 years ago, I met Dick Dils. He became my climbing partner for two decades and friend. He taught me about the wise assessment of risk in life.

I met Joseph Hartshorn, a geology professor at UMass. Ever since, I could only bring myself to address him as “Dr. Hartshorn,” never “Joe.” He taught me to observe and listen to life around me with great care.

I met Bob Dolan. He became the editor of my hometown newspaper at which I worked for 20 years. He taught me much of what I now teach to my journalism students. He taught me to pay attention to the smallest details.

Within the past few weeks, I learned Dick, Dr. Hartshorn, and Bob died.

It is a normal but stressful fact of life: I am at the age where mentors met young die. But these three long ago left a sage residue in a forming mind that eventually matured into a principled guide for behavior, attitude, and opinion.

For several days, I grieved, albeit selfishly. What was to become of me without their ready, unselfish counsel?

For more days, I wondered which mentor, which hero, would die next? It was a frustrating, fatalistic, self-centered exercise. But it made me take account of who most helped me become me. It’s not a long list, perhaps a dozen friends and mentors beyond my parents.

I am applying for promotion at my university. I’ve sought letters of support from my own students 40 years my junior who have graduated over the past dozen years. As I learned of the deaths of my long-ago mentors, these letters have begun to arrive.

My students have laced their letters with anecdotes and remembrances of their time in my courses, of the moments when what I taught stuck with them. One wrote that “Dr. Denny has become a voice in my head …” The letters, in varying language, echoed her words. It has been a humbling experience, reading these letters.

Well, they’ll outlive me, as I outlived Dick, Dr. Hartshorn, and Bob.

But as I pray that these three men find their heavenly reward, I realize their passing is only that.

They haven’t stopped talking to me. They never will. They remain voices in my head, teaching me how to cope with every damn thing life throws at me. How ironic that a professor holding a surfeit of academic degrees could not figure that out that simple truth by himself.

I have to describe my teaching philosophy in my application for promotion. The pedagogical gibberish I’ve been writing will be thrown out and replaced with this: to become a voice in a student’s head.

That’s a damn good goal for a prof, don’t you think?

Categories: American Culture, Education

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5 replies »

  1. it is Dr. D. At least you, as a professor have had and will continue to have ‘the audience’ to impart. for those of us who are not in any field of consequence, we have the ‘important’ job of teaching our kids. I feel somewhat ambivalent about it as I have many opinions and insights I wished I could share with more than just my kids. Heck, as kids go they don’t and not always will consider it worthwhile hearing. I do think you’re not that selfish to be grieving the loss of mentors.. consider yourself lucky to have had them.
    Recently, I read a quote by a singer who, after finding herself in her mid 40s, figuring that she had to become a mentor herself as she just was ‘too old’ to be among the young vieing for attention.
    So I guess Dr. D.. it’s your turn to not only pass on the force, but accept that you are now, a mentor who needs mentoring no more..

    good luck with your promotion


  2. The voices in your head have transformed you into a voice in other heads.

    Personally, it has not been my fortune to meet mentors. Instead I’ve received life lessons from people I never deemed formidable enough to dish them out.

    I learned to separate the message from the medium. Pretty humbling to get some of the best advice from the people I respected the least.

  3. I’ve never lost a mentor, so I can only imagine the bout of self-reflection this series of deaths must have touched off. I HOPE that I have had the kind of impact on people that they did on you, but I’m hardly certain of it.

    In any case, I think you can rest assured of your own influence….

  4. Denny, my dad died nine years ago this week at the age of 61, a casualty of cancer. The obit I wrote about him and submitted for paid publication in the Seattle Times was picked up on by a reporter who turned it into a little feature story in the paper’s north end edition, a zone in which my dad had spent a 35-year career as a junior high and high school P.E. teacher. My stepmom received several letters from students who had had my dad, years before. One was from a 42-year-old guy who was never much of a team athlete in 7th and 8th grade, but my dad turned him on to track and field (my dad’s lifelong sport himself) and taught him how to compete against himself, where it didn’t matter whether he received a pass or could toss in a lay-up — just whether he could improve against himself. The former student said that that encouragement from my father helped shape his self-confidence for years hence. More than 350 people attended my dad’s memorial service — this rather quiet, average, humble suburban teacher and outdoorsman. It was amazing for me, as his daughter, to learn of how widely his impact reached. That experience has made me stop to contact a couple of former teachers who are still liiving, to let them know while they are here, what they meant to me, the influence they had on who I became. And all I can say to you, Denny, is that there must be LEGIONS of students who will, 40 years from now, think back vividly on their days at SBU (or CU, for that matter) and reflect on what a big man Dr. Denny was — and not just as an image on a billboard! For what it’s worth, you’ve had an impact on me, too.

  5. I never had you as a teacher, Denny, and I’m quite sure that, if I had, we would have clashed rather violently. This has nothing to do with you. When I was young, my attitude towards any authority figure was “show me whatcha got.” Funny thing. This didn’t help me with my grades in the slightest, but it did turn every teacher who was up to it into a whetstone for a dullish intellect. Most of my deep learning was informed by conflict. It’s a painful way to learn, but it sure teaches you to think on your feet.

    You may find, someday, that even those students you thought hated you look back on you with great respect. I know there are a few that resonate in my head, and always will. Sometimes, it just one thing they said that has changed my life. Other times, I think of the grace with which they handled the ravening pit bull in the back row.

    I’m glad some good karma is coming home to you.