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Requiem for a Mentor

"Are you the sort of person who will wear good shoes?" he asked during the job interview. There would be many such riddles to answer.

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Someone plays a role in your life. They take some time to teach you. They enlarge, they direct, they focus what you do. They even populate your dreams.

Bryant University
William T. O'Hara

And when they are gone, you are a rowboat surprisingly at sea. Missing your rudder, though they were not your family. No keel -- though they were not a spouse or lover. No oars, though they were not, in the strictest sense, a friend.

Mentors straddle the boundaries of existence. They slide through its cracks. Mine was a Bryant University president named Bill O’Hara. He hired me as his speechwriter and assistant when I was as young and green as a shoot.

Though my resume said pencil and paper -- this was before computers -- he took a look and saw some part of me that he could chisel into an administrative role. In my interview for the job, he asked this: “Are you the sort of person who will wear good shoes?”

I wasn’t at all sure that I was.

For reasons I still do not understand, I was hired. And after a visit to Jos. A. Bank, I was presented with a stack of files. Files that were empty except for labels that the executive secretary had carefully typed up. “Deferral and Denial” said one. Another, adorned with an orange dot, had two words. It was clear that a “Tracking System” of some sort was in my future.

Related: Why Good Mentors Don't Tell You What to Do

My new boss did not look pleased when, after a month, I summoned the courage to ask him what exactly we would be tracking.

“Peter!” he bellowed. “Look around you. Workflow in the office is broken. It’s long past time we kept track of everything that’s coming in from students and faculty and staff, and everything that’s going out.”

“Okay,” I said. I understood even then that he was right about a black-hole quality in the president’s office -- and maybe in all offices. Everything was about the latest crisis. Nothing was followed up on. And nothing was about the future.

Still, I tried as hard as I could to put the empty folders aside. I was a newly hatched speechwriter. I wanted to concentrate on my craft.

In case you haven’t done it, this is what speechwriting entails: 1. Trying to take notes while your boss pontificates around the perimeter of what he would like to say. 2. Presenting same boss with drafts full of desperate guesses at the structure of a deliverable speech. 3. Getting chewed out, cut to size.

Related: Find a Business Mentor -- or Fail Trying

Still, thanks to Bill O’Hara’s high-decibel tutelage, I gradually began to learn that speechwriting, and writing of all sorts, is really about telling stories, not about statements of fact. Among other things, I learned that thanking people isn’t a small thing -- it’s a big thing. And that while it’s okay to get angry, you shouldn’t allow anger to last.

One afternoon, during one of my post-speech lectures, my boss began a protracted yell. “Have you forgotten your projects, Peter? Things around here are falling through the cracks!”

When you’re under the tutelage of a mentor, you undergo plenty of shouting. You try to take your lumps. But after bitterly deconstructing my work and my brand-new wing tips for about an hour, O’Hara stopped. Just like that. His office window had a view of a pond.

“Peter,” he said, in a voice of complete calm. “Aren’t those geese beautiful?”

They were. I hadn’t noticed. Somehow, tension evaporated from the room. We tracked the birds in silence, gray and white and orange, as they moved around the edge of the pond.

Long after I left that job, I came to realize a particular thing. The content-free file that said “Deferral and Denial.” I’d never, ever filled it. Never found out what it meant.

Decades later, when Bill was failing in health, I had a chance to ask him. “Peter,” he said, rather hoarsely. “This was to be our project about the thing that none of us ever plans for. The part of life that none of us chooses to face.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

My mentor didn’t answer. He just looked at me the way he had, so many years ago, when we’d watched those geese.

Bill O’Hara died on January 16, 2018.

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