Thank faculty mentors while you can

A few years ago, I ran across a graduation card with a handwritten note from David Fortney, one of my journalism professors — a man I knew as a mentor, a very talented writer, and a friend.

David was a Vietnam veteran. Prior to his years teaching journalism at Truman State University, he’d worked as a journalist for The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Stars and Stripes, and Radio Free Europe.

He was a robust man. An unkempt white beard framed his face. He had big, sometimes flaring, nostrils. He wore buttoned down shirts with his sleeves rolled up. David wasn’t the best classroom teacher. In fact, he was a very “last minute” kind of guy — often asking us students to run copies of that day’s assignments just before class began. I rarely received any of my graded assignments, so I never really knew what my grade was until I received my report card.

All this aside…the man could write! His fingers danced across a keyboard and the resulting words were poetry.

In addition to being a professor, David was the director of student publications — overseeing the student staffs of the yearbook, the weekly newspaper and a regional travel magazine called Detours. I served on all of those staffs — including time as sports editor of the newspaper and editor-in-chief of the magazine — so David was a constant presence in my life during my four years of undergraduate work.

In 1998-99, David helped me during a trying academic year. He mentored and encouraged me through a time of indecision, a time when I had little confidence in myself or my abilities to be the editor-in-chief of Detours.

After several months at the helm of the magazine, I wasn’t having much fun. Any fun, really. I didn’t feel like much of a leader. I didn’t feel that the staff respected me. (In fact, I know they didn’t.)  I thought, “This is no way to enjoy my final year of college!”

I wanted to quit. 

I called David and told him I needed to talk. We agreed to meet at a restaurant off campus, where we each ordered a bagel and a coffee. For many long minutes, David listened to my myriad gripes and woes-are-me as he ate his bagel. He was patient.

Eventually, I finished my ramblings with a punctuated “I am going to resign.”

When it was his turn to speak, David ever so gently and sternly reminded me that I’d made a commitment to be the editor-in-chief of Detours. He told me that the commitment lasted the school year and that there was work to be done. He also informed me that he, as a professional reference who was listed on my resume, would have to be honest with any potential employers.

He even played out a conversation for me. 

“Yes, I know Eric,” he said he’d tell the employer. “He showed promise to lead the magazine. We hired him. He quit.”

David — my friend and mentor — a man I respected and wanted to impress — was going to tell people I was a quitter.

He let those words settle for a minute. I received the message.

I didn’t quit.

And I’m thankful for the life lesson. It’s a story I share with students today.

David and I parted ways after graduation in 1999. Aside from a few phone calls, our paths never crossed again. He died in 2011.

Finding the card he gave me on commencement day and the note written inside is a sad reminder that I never thanked him properly for his investment in me.

Here is his note to me:

Eric –

That confidence mentioned on the cover [of the card] comes from confronting our fears, rather than running from them. That’s what you did when you decided to stick it out and finish the job we gave you to do with Detours.

You did a good job and grew a lot in the process. I’ve enjoyed knowing you and watching you mature over the past four years — especially the last one. Take some time now to reflect on the path you’ve traveled and what lies ahead.

Remember you’ll always have a fan who hangs out at Dave’s Sidewalk Cafe. Good luck, young friend; stay in touch and keep me posted on your journey ahead. And any time that confidence starts to sag, drop by and we’ll go have a bagel.

– All the best

Dave

My advice today is this: Thank your mentors for their investment in you.

A note. A phone call. An email. A meeting for a cup of coffee. Perhaps a bagel.

Just something special to let them know where you are, how you’re doing, and how much you appreciate all they did for you.

Then, pay it forward.

Mentor someone. Encourage someone. Invest in someone’s life. Give that person the gift of your time and your God-given talents to help them.

How have you thanked your mentors?

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