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Who helped me become me?

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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?


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

September 6, 2008 at 5:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. I love that goal — and I think you’ve already achieved it with many students. And you’re right — you will never stop hearing your mentors’ voices in your heads. You’ve heard me and others talk about continuing to hear Russ Jandoli, among others.
    But I am still sorry for your losses.


    September 6, 2008 at 9:27 pm

  2. My sympathies on the passing of your friends.


    September 7, 2008 at 12:19 am

  3. Damn, that was good! It made me think of my mentors and how up until now, I’ve never imagined my life without them. I guess in some ways I’ve “immortalized” them in my mind. I still run crying to them whenever I have a problem, and each stills know exactly what to say to put things into perspective for me.
    It sounds like your mentors are still living through you.


    September 7, 2008 at 6:38 am

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