What the Death of My Teacher and Friend Taught Me About Mentorship
My mentor died this week.
I say Bob Cole "died" because he would have wanted it written that way. "He didn't 'pass away' or 'go to his maker,'" Cole once explained to our journalism class back at Trenton State College in the early 1990s. "The motherf--ker died."
To this day, every journalist who has ever suffered under me as their editor knows to use "died" in their writing. And none of them has ever met Bob.
Bob Cole died Tuesday, after suffering through a far-too-long decline in health that sapped parts of his mind and his ability to express himself. That was the cruelest of all, to see someone whose career was based on dissemination and communication slowly go inside a shell that robbed him of both joys.
Of course, it helps one's legacy to spawn decades of people who write for a living. No doubt this piece will be one of a compilation of tributes from generations of journalists, practicing or otherwise.
To me, Bob's death has me thinking about mentorship, how important it is and how wrong we get the concept.
We write a ton about the importance of mentors here. Yet, there's a commercial, artificial and transient nature to mentorship. We select a mentor based on an individual challenge or circumstance. What's more, we delude ourselves into thinking that we can "pick" a mentor, like a sweater or ripe avocado.
True mentorship, though, is deeper, and it's something that chooses you. It's a relationship, deep and lifelong -- even generational.
I had never realized that until Bob died.
Robert C. Cole started as my journalism professor in 1990, back when people were shorter and lived closer to the sea. He was a giant of a man -- tall, wide, with an unmanageable black-and-white beard, sans moustache. He spoke with a West Virginian drawl, the kind of accent that suggested a simple view of the world, though only fools would take that as a simplicity of intelligence. He was a character, loud and cluttered -- his office was appropriately nightmarish -- but never tilted toward caricature. He knew his work. He shared his experience.
Above all, he was direct. "Work hard and you'll do fine," he told me once. "Stay drunk and you'll fail."
He taught journalism more as a trade than as a profession. I spent four years learning the skills needed to actually work. The philosophy, dare I say the nobility, of the craft was there, but, to Bob, none of that mattered if you weren't doing your job right. We were trained as much as taught. Some of the tools were outdated -- we were learning about layout with slides and rulers no newsroom used in the early 1990s -- and this was all before the Internet ruled news. I was hired by my first newspaper, The Times of Trenton, a year before the newsroom got Internet access. But the skills he taught -- and drilled -- were transferable to every medium in which I've managed: newspapers, online, television, magazines. I came out of my years at Trenton State, now called The College of New Jersey, prepared to succeed.
I also came out with a friend. Bob never left me. As a young police reporter, I made the mistake of using the term "innocent bystander" in a story. That prompted a phone call: "Have you ever met a guilty f-cking bystander?" I should have known better.
I also should have appreciated those calls more. It wasn't until much later that I realized that Bob probably was the only person alive to read every word I had ever put to page. It wasn't enough to teach me for four years. He had to honor my work with his thoughts and feedback. He continued to teach, long after my college stopped cashing my tuition checks.
We were an unlikely pairing. We disagreed on everything political. Once, I found his Ph.D. dissertation, on the author Henry James and sex, in his bookcase, and I started thumbing through the pages. "I'm not sure you Republicans would like Henry James," he said. "You'd probably want to burn that because it's too dirty." He would often leave out my time at Fox when telling people about my career.
We also disagreed about the future of journalism. I saw limitless possibilities in what digital could provide, and what cable news brought to the national discourse. Bob saw danger in the doom of the daily newspaper. I'm not sure I ever moved him, and I'm also not sure he was ever really wrong.
I was sad when Bob retired in 2006, but I often wondered if that was a blessing, given the changing nature of academia and political correctness. One of the oft-told stories about Bob was a senior project where you simply had to write your resume. It was pass-fail, with a failing grade given if a single error turned up. One student received his resume back with a big, red "F" because he had referred to a former job as working in a "wharehouse." "Your future employer won't know if you worked in a warehouse or a whorehouse," Bob wrote on the paper, "but he will know you can't tell the difference." Nowadays, it's not polite to talk of whores -- the acceptable term is "sex worker," or at least that's what my friends tell me -- and one wonders whether such directness would hurt students' feelings nowadays, something about which professors are far too scared. The creative use of f-bombs alone would get him thrown out of most office environments today. (Trust me on that.)
Which brings us back to mentorship. Bob Cole was, at his heart, a caring man with a love of journalism, a tendency toward meandering storytelling, an insatiable desire to teach and a vocabulary that would make a Longshoreman blush. Until now, I never realized that so many of those words could describe me. My eyes tear writing about it, just thinking of the honor and the unworthiness of it all. Bob was also a devoted friend and a loving father, two areas where I recognize I need a lifetime of improvement to earn that comparison.
There is irony in my writing a piece about his death. My first journalism job, which Bob secured for me, was as an obituary writer, listing relatives, jobs, services as if I were writing resumes for the dead. It was all about "legacy." In retrospect, legacy often is a discussion about the past, forgetting the impact on the present and, more importantly, what is to come. I am blessed at having the planet's finest mentor, and mentorship, no matter how we describe it, is at bottom a dedication to a lifetime of formation. It is a gift, and, like all presents, it is best shared than held close. To appreciate a mentor, one must commit to being one, happily bearing that responsibility. To honor Bob, I need to be as good of a mentor to others as I can, unhindered by my own imperfections and shortcomings.
That means getting back to work, editing, writing and leading, in a profession I couldn't have had if I had never been blessed with knowing Bob Cole and being loved by him so unconditionally. I hope I measure up to the job.