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I have lost my mentor


01/18/18



 One of my earliest memories is of being in a department store with my mother when I was about five years old.  She was holding my hand as we walked through the crowded store — that is, until I saw a toy across the room and bolted over to see it. A few seconds later, I reached up for her hand, but it wasn’t there. I still recall that sinking feeling and the sense of loss.

Fast forward more than 60 years; I had something akin to that same feeling of loss. My academic and professional mentor died yesterday. It was he who took a young graduate student in hand and sanded down the rough edges, encouraged — and sometimes cajoled — me to try new things. When I wrote, he was my harshest but also most constructive critic.  He never praised, but would only raise those bushy eyebrows as if in astonishment that I had met his expectations.
He was more than a professor. Yes, he was a world-renowned scholar, a brilliant teacher, and a truly funny man. He was as skinny as a biblical prophet, and given his Jewish heritage, cultivated, I think, a gaunt, bearded and untidy appearance of a prophet. On the physical level, he could twist himself into positions that would be the envy of a practiced yogi while at the same time doing similarly with any argument currently being discussed.
In one of his YouTube talks, given very late in his life, he counseled that “important questions will never be satisfied with just one simple answer.” “We always have to keep digging with the pick axes of our minds for the truth that is buried deep in the dross.” And yet, he loved his family, his students, and anyone he met who was genuinely seeking truth. He was no elitist, but he insisted on the highest standards of research, for himself and for everyone else.
Curiously, he consistently avoided technology, eschewing computers in favor of writing all of his work out longhand, with footnotes that were really footnotes, and often longer themselves than what he was actually writing. His mind never rested, always seeking to understand more and to share what he learned. Only once in my long association with him did we ever talk on the phone. Instead, we wrote long letters. “If it’s not important enough to take the time to write it out, don’t waste time with a phone call.” Sadly, it was my last time I heard his voice.
There is much of my mentor that I admired and sought to emulate, but he also exhibited characteristics I carefully did not. Still, I am sad knowing now he is there no longer. Mentors are those people we are richer for knowing. May we all have at least one.
Stephen Reno is the executive director of Leadership N.H. His email is stepreno@gmail.com. 





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