Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Remembering the Power of Mentoring

John Gardner

So often in life we have no idea what is going on simultaneously with whatever we may be experiencing on any given day. The day after Thanksgiving is such a moment for me. On that day I drove down from my home in Brevard, North Carolina, with my wife and sister, to visit my two sons and their families, in Lexington, South Carolina, my home county for 30 years when I worked for the University of South Carolina. A lovely day was had by all. But the next day I learned that on the day before one of my most powerful mentors had died, also in the central South Carolina environs, while I was having a most relaxing day just a few miles away.

I refer to my academic dean for the period 1972-1983, when I rose through the ranks from a brand new Assistant Professor to full Professor. It was also during this period when my Dean unselfishly agreed to release me 50% time to take on my career changing role of Director of University 101. My Dean was Harry E. “Sid” Varney, and I owe much of my subsequent career success to him and his great influence on my development. So I have spent the rest of Thanksgiving weekend thinking about the power of mentoring, and his mentoring in particular. Those of us now in positions of power need to remind ourselves every day of the obligation to mentor others—every day, every opportunity.

In my case, I worked with and for this dean for the period when I was ages 28-39. My career could have gone any number of directions. I know that I was consciously looking for mentors. I will use this blog to record some of his influences, my recollections of what he taught me, that I have carried on in my own career.

·         Sid was fond of saying “John, you missed a perfect opportunity to keep your mouth shut”, but he never attempted to make me shut it before opening. Now I try to treat everyone who works for me as if they had tenure, even though they don’t.

·         Sid had not a trace of the pompous pretentiousness that some of us academics display to and about others who are less educated—which means most of the population that happen to pay our salaries.

·         Sid had far greater respect than I did for intercollegiate athletics and saw it as a powerful track for upward social mobility for the nation’s poor. His life had personified this as he moved from an inauspicious background in Pennsylvania lacking in privilege to an All-American high achieving athlete status at UNC Chapel Hill in not one but two sports: football and baseball, in the late 1940’s.

·         Sid had almost an equal sympathy for the children of the privileged who struggled to live up their parents’ expectations that they achieve on equal levels. So for years he ran a kind of shadow advising center for many of the children of the state’s elite. And many of these kids ended up getting assigned to his most sympathetic faculty, people like me, also a child of the privileged.

·         Sid taught me the power of quiet practice of a political value set, speaking rarely in public about his own politics, a closet liberal, if there ever was one. He didn’t wear his liberalism on his sleeves as I did (and do), but he was one of only a handful of voters I knew who would admit he voted for George McGovern in 1972. He was able to work with a much broader range of South Carolina leaders than I was by staying under the radar.

·         Unlike the guy whom pundits are predicting will become the Republican nominee for the Presidency this year, Sid not only had no hair, he had a consistent ideology and philosophy for his work and life. Every day. And it never changed. There was not a hint of opportunism or “idea du jour” in this man. Every day he had one mantra: do what is best for the little guy, the less powerful, privileged and educated; do what is best for the people who pay our salaries; do what is best for the people of South Carolina; the University is theirs not ours; what matters most is using the University to extend educational opportunity to as many people as possible.

·         I had never encountered anybody who seemed to derive such great pleasure from helping advance others, his former football players, students, colleagues, employees, and, of course, his wife and two sons. I observed him on countless occasions doing something to help somebody get a job. I had never seen anybody before, or since, have so much fun helping people get jobs. He deeply understood what today’s right wingers do not: the importance of jobs for all. That all work lends dignity. That most people don’t want handouts. They just want meaningful work. That the role of government (e.g. public universities) is to enhance employment opportunities and literally to do everything possible to help their students get jobs. I never saw any other higher educator work harder to get people jobs.

·         And when he wasn’t helping somebody get a job, he was helping somebody get awarded, rewarded, promoted, paid more money, advanced, in a myriad of other socially redeeming ways, all legal. I watched carefully and absorbed the enormous gratification I saw he derived from advancing others. And today it is definitely one of my greatest pleasures.

·         Sid never wanted anyone else working for him that someone else wouldn’t want working for them. So when it came time to move on, I saw him treat others as he would have wanted to be treated himself. He would help them move on even if it cost him and his unit dearly. When it came to his choosing what was best for his unit or his employees’ individual careers, he always chose what was best for them. I had never seen before such unselfishness.
·         The man was a master of affirmation. He always had the time to give others a stroke, and usually in a short, personal, handwritten note. This is particularly lacking now in the era of e-mail communication, let alone texting.

·         He taught me: “John, praise in public, and criticize in private.”

·         He took me out behind the woodshed one day because he learned I sent one of his fellow deans a memorandum on which I had not copied him. I had committed a cardinal sin: I had failed to keep my boss informed about communications I was having with his peers. I never made that mistake again.

·         Sid was always teaching me, for better or worse. He didn’t have to work at it. It was just who he was. He was my mentor, 24/7. And long after I moved on from his employ, he kept reaching out to me, letting me know he was following my career with respect and support. The job of a mentor is never done. Mentees never outgrow their need for mentoring.

·         I learned from Sid that the rest of my life should be spent in repaying the gift.

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