Saturday, December 8, 2012

Memories of a Mentor

It is my understanding that the word mentor has its roots in Greek mythology.

It was the name of a contemporary and friend of Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) who befriended and advised Odysseus' son. Because of Mentor's relationship with the younger man, over the centuries his name has come to mean someone who shares what he has learned with a younger and less experienced comrade.

Well, that's my understanding, anyway. I really have only a modest background in mythology, and I could be wrong.

Nearly everyone has a mentor, I suppose — to some degree. A few of us thrive in spite of growing up in adverse conditions — including not having an older and wiser influence to keep us grounded and focused — but, thankfully, for most of us, there always seems to be a teacher, a minister, a professional role model.

Someone. Usually several someones.

In my case, it was a man named John Ward. He was the editor of my hometown newspaper, the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark. I met him through my mother, who must have known nearly everyone in my hometown. I'm not sure when that was, but it was long before he actually became my mentor.

He actually became my mentor, I guess, when I was in high school. I had always been interested in writing, and my mother encouraged me to apply that interest to newspaper writing. As a result, she prodded me to seek John's counsel, and he was quite obliging.

Many were the days I spent in his newsroom office as a teenager, learning from him and soaking up the wisdom he had acquired. My memory is that John was a large, gregarious man, larger than life in many ways — although perhaps he only seemed so to me.

I know he was a presence in the community, helping to establish Toad Suck Daze, an annual festival in my home county that gets its name from an actual town along the Arkansas River. He was an accomplished musician and probably performed at the early Toad Suck Daze festivals although that would have been after I left Conway.

He was an admirer of Winthrop Rockefeller and played important roles in both his gubernatorial candidacy and statehouse tenure. John wrote two books about Rockefeller, the first of which I bought and gave to my mother. She enjoyed it so much that she asked me to get him to sign it, which I did.

After Mom died, I kept that book. John's inscription read, "To Mary Goodloe, a wonderful friend and a lady I admire very much. ... Glad you enjoyed this. I wish now I could write it all over again."

Those weren't empty words. When John said something, he meant it.

John gave me my first freelance assignments and showed me, when I brought him my earliest journalistic efforts, what I needed to do differently. Somewhere in some musty microfilm room — or wherever such data is stored these days — you can see (if you want to, that is) my first bylines.

Shortly thereafter, I got my first bylines in my high school newspaper followed by my first bylines in my college newspaper — and, after that, my first bylines as a professional writer. I like to think that the stories that followed those early bylines got progressively better; and, if that is so, it is in large part because of John's influence on me.

A life in writing had been launched, for good or ill, and John had been the one to smash the champagne bottle at its christening.

John died a week ago, and I have been trying to think of a way to honor him.

And I have concluded that the best way is what I've been doing.

For the last 2½ years, I have been an adjunct journalism instructor in the local community college system, sharing with my students what I learned in my years of newspaper work.

But I have come to realize that my students are getting more than that. They are getting the benefit of wisdom I acquired from John — and it is often shared, I have discovered, in the same words he used when he shared his wisdom with me.

Such are the often subtle ways a mentor influences.

For all I know, they may have been the same words that were shared with John many years before that. Who knows the lineage of a pearl of wisdom? My students don't know it, but what I tell them is never something that I was the first to discover. Journalism is like anything else. There are truths about it that remain constant.

Sometimes, I must admit, I feel like a bit of a plagiarist when I share things with my students that John or my college mentor, Roy Reed, told me — but I guess that's a reflection of my training. I always feel compelled to attribute that knowledge to my source (even if it wasn't the original source of the knowledge).

I feel I learned from the best. There are/were others almost as good — but none was better.

Thanks, John. Vaya con Dios, amigo.

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