Death of a Mentor: Reflections

This is part of my ongoing Series on Mentorship.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving and I was thinking about the many things for which I am thankful. I won't list them here as they are many. But my mind kept returning to memories of a great mentor of mine who passed away earlier this year and I was filled with both gratitude and profound sadness. The intervening months since his passing have really done nothing to ease my grief and I'm sure it's much the same with his family members as well as the legion of loyal friends he made during a truly remarkable life. 

Upon reflection I believe this is because he was a person with an enormous capacity for friendship along with an immense store of wisdom and life experience that he was always happy to draw upon for the benefit his friends. In our increasingly fast-paced and surface-oriented society, he struck many of us as a walking anachronism- always organizing gatherings of friends from the many remarkable chapters of his life and often presiding over celebrations or roasts or fireside conversations that typically lasted late into the night. He was a world-class raconteur, a master of roasts and toasts alike, as well as a formidable prankster and joke-teller. 

He had this great adventuresome spirit and was a complete original in every way. He loved the sea, was a great sailor, practiced maritime law and was involved with a number of other businesses over the years. Right after college he'd signed up with the Marines, ultimately leading his platoon onto the shores of Da Nang as part of the first official combat troop deployment in Vietnam in '65. He'd boxed in his day, acted here and there, traveled extensively and played his share of competitive rugby and squash.  Everyone who knew him had their own stories about him- the legendary cross-country trips he would take aboard his restored and un-airconditioned XK Jaguar 140, the raucous and debauched parties he'd thrown over the years, the elaborate and memorable roasts, pranks and toasts, the cigar nights replete with his decorative fez and on and on.

This is not the place to eulogize him, that has been eloquently done by friends more capable than myself. What I'd like to reflect upon here though, is what qualities made him such great mentor to me over the more than two decades I knew him: 

  • First, I am struck by the fact that he took his role immensely seriously and prioritized it. 
  • He always made time and when we met was never in a hurry. 
  • In our discussions he always got to the core of the matter somehow by asking the right questions and listening carefully. 
  • He never hesitated to directly challenge either me or my assumptions, no matter how difficult it might have been for me.
  • When he gave advice he didn't mince words either- he wasn't afraid to give counsel and direction when he knew you needed it. 
  • Similarly, he knew when you needed to figure things out for yourself. 
  • He had no agenda other than to help you. 
  • Enormous wisdom and understanding of human affairs & motivations.

When he learned he had Parkinsons he accepted it, and, like everything else in his life would face it head-on. He bore its ravages with great stoicism and his huge personality and indomitable spirit burned bright until the very end.

After his funeral yet another story floated back to me. It was from the companion of his later years, a lady-friend he had known since his youth. She'd told the story that a few weeks before he passed they were picnicking beside a river beneath a clear, unbroken summer's sky of the deepest azure, his favorite kind of day. Suddenly, after some time, she saw him somehow wriggle his Parkinsons-ravaged body into an innertube he'd brought along. In an instant he'd slid down a hill into the water and she watched in amazement as he then effortlessly navigated down the river- eventually beaching himself much further downstream. As she approached he flashed that immense smile he was known for and told her "these are the halcyon days of my life".

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