• Teachers Who Have Shaped My Mind and Actions

    by  • July 22, 2013 • On Culture

    The Moody Blues did a tune called “The Balance” back in 1972. It did not get a lot of attention even though it was on a fairly successful album called “A Question of Balance” that featured the hit song, “Question.”

    “The Balance” advises us to consider the origins of some of our feelings and perspectives, especially when we encounter people who get under our skin or with whom we disagree. Here’s an excerpt:

    “And he thought of those he angered,
    For he was not a violent man,
    And he thought of those he hurt,
    For he was not a cruel man,
    And he thought of those he frightened
    For he was not an evil man,
    And he understood.
    He understood himself.
    Upon this he saw that when he was of anger or knew hurt or felt fear,
    It was because he was not understanding,
    And he learned compassion.”

    I’ve loved that song, and it is on my ITunes greatest hits downloads. It may seem a bit corny today, taken out of the context of the Moody Blues’ anti-Vietnam War expressions on the album. But it always reminds me we are products of the people and circumstances that have shaped our lives, good and bad. Now that I have lived a good portion of my time on the planet I find myself reminiscing about that and reflecting more often on those people who taught me lessons and values I have carried with me for a long, long time. My “balance” comes from these men who have shaped my mind and actions.

    I think first of my dad, who was a printer in a small shop in Doylestown, Pa., just north of Philadelphia. He did everything with discipline, precision and attention to detail.

    “Whatever job you do,” he’d say, “do it right.”

    He’d jump on his riding mower and manicure our lawn, every line straight and true. He’d methodically wash his car, paying attention to each spot or imperfection. In everything he did he’d stick to a routine that gave him a structure he valued highly.

    One Saturday morning when I was a teenager he asked if I would go to work with him to help finish a print job for one of the shop’s clients. My assignment was to take the newly printed No. 10 envelopes and stuff them in boxes for delivery. As always, he wanted to get the job done right. I wanted to get the job done quickly, that’s all. I hurriedly jammed the envelopes in the boxes and made him very unhappy when he walked over to examine my work.

    He stopped his print job and meticulously arranged the envelopes in a box, no flaps hanging out, to demonstrate to me the proper way to do that job. I have never forgotten that. It was a lesson in responsibility, accountability and conscientiousness.

    In high school I had a phenomenal English teacher whose lessons have been the primary foundation of my professional career. Robert Hollenbach was a master teacher as well as a terrific basketball player. I first connected with him through sports, but over time I have come to treasure more deeply the writing and grammar lessons he taught. He made English class entertaining and opened my eyes to the value and importance of using language well. Hollenbach would read Time magazine each week and pick out challenging words. We students would get the word list, then have to read the magazine to find the words in context to help us toward a definition. Oh, he was also an unstoppable shooter in the Saturday morning basketball games he played with students in the high school gym.

    Louis Pirnik was a great, dynamic history teacher who could turn a classroom into a theater. He inspired my interest in history and to this day there is always a history book or biography on my night table. He was a demanding, highly principled man who set high standards and held students accountable in everything they did. In addition to being a teacher, Pirnik was an official for high school basketball and baseball games. I remember most vividly a high school basketball game he officiated. His officiating partner called a foul on our team and the student section behind the basket began a chorus of, “Elevator, elevator, we got the shaft,” a popular and profane chant. I was astonished and impressed when Pirnik stopped the game and faced off with the students. The gym went silent as Pirnik told them they were out of line and he would stop the game, even forfeit it, if they did not cease their refrain. I had often seen Pirnik’s commitment to his principles before, but that night he put them on the line in a memorable display of courage.

    I began my professional career with a summer job as a wire service reporter at United Press International (UPI) in Philadelphia, and I was blessed to have a lot of gifted journalists as mentors. Our bureau manager was a long-time and archetypal newsman named Ed McFall. The lessons I learned from him at UPI have served me for a lifetime. Speed and accuracy were the watchwords at that place, so I had to learn to quickly process information and get it down on paper. Yes, paper. We were using museum pieces called typewriters back then.

    McFall was a tough editor and newsman, but he had a heart of gold. He created a tight-knit group of UPI staffers who knew he had their backs in every way. McFall cared deeply about us, and he created a work environment that was fueled by the wonderful camaraderie that permeated the little office in the basement of Penn Center in downtown Philly.

    Near the end of my summer stint, McFall told me he would hire me full-time when the next job opened up. As the fall approached, a position did come open so I was relieved I would not have to enter the job market. Turns out I did have to update my resume. McFall called me into his office and, with tears in his eyes, told me management had required him to hire a minority professional as part of an affirmative action program. He promised to keep in touch and get me back to the bureau as soon as possible. I was hugely disappointed, but I believed in him, his honesty and sincerity, and he came through for me later that year, as I knew he would.

    There are so many more mentors who have gotten me here: Dick Cyert, the late president of Carnegie Mellon University who showed me the qualities of transformational leadership. Keith Moore, Carnegie Mellon’s vice president for university relations, who took a chance on me and taught me to never stop pursuing new ideas and approaches. Art Ciervo, retired vice president at Penn State University, who inspired so many of us in the early days of modern higher education PR practice. Roland King, now retiring after a long run as vice president at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, whose class and kindness have been models for the kind of leader I aspire to be. My very close friend Michael Warden, whose knowledge of our field and whose desire to always learn more have been inspirational to me.

    These men have all been my great teachers (and friends). Who’s on your list? It’s important to reflect on how the influence of our role models and mentors has propelled and catalyzed our lives. At the same time, it is vital, as the Moody Blues suggested, that we come to understand how those who have defeated, disrespected, deflated or disappointed us have also led us down our life paths. With our understanding comes forgiveness. I am still working on that.