Sunday, May 24, 2009

My mentors and what I have learned from them

Some years ago, I began collecting pictures of the most important mentors in my life. When I became Director of American University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, I posted them in my office. Each day, they look down on me as I meet and work with faculty members, administrators, students and CTE staff members. Since I will be disassembling my office before long, making way for my successor, I am looking up at them more often. I though it would be a useful exercise to capture what each of them contributed to me in a phrase. My exploration of this topic will span several postings since I have been blessed with a number of mentors. A single posting would be too long. This is Part I.

[1] My father, John Richardson. My father was a world-class tennis player who then became a highly successful attorney in New York City. He enjoyed his work because of the interesting intellectual challenges it posed and the interesting people he met. His work was never a passion, however, as mine has been. He exemplified the importance of keeping the different parts of ones life in balance (a model I have been loath to follow). As Dormgrandpop readers know, he lived a full and vigorous life through his 96th birthday. He taught me how one can accommodate the infirmities of the aging process with grace and love one’s children without attachment.
[2] My mother, Rita Richardson. Before marrying into a rather traditional, somewhat Victorian family, my mother lived an adventurous life as one of Trans World Airlines first “Stewardesses.” She accommodated to the more circumscribed role of stay-at home-mom with some difficulty, but compensated by pouring her creative energies into her eldest and, for ten years, her only son [me]. She was a brilliant conversationalist who, in a different era might have presided over one of the great salons in enlightenment France. She taught me the the importance of integrating whatever one learns into day to day life as a living, present reality.
[3] Donella Meadows. Dana Meadows is perhaps best known as principal author of The Limits to Growth, recipient of a Pew scholars award and a MacArthur Genius Grant. We collaborated on several projects and books, though only one of them, Groping in the Dark: The First Decade of Global Modeling, bears both of our names. Dana was a surpassingly gifted public intellectual, who used her brilliant mind and communication skills to make the idea of sustainable development, for the good of all humankind, widely accessible and comprehensible. She taught me how it is possible to live a life that exemplifies unflinching commitment to one’s ethical principles.
[4] Elizabeth Harper Neeld. Elizabeth Neeld is one of the best teachers of writing I know. Following the tragic death of her husband, she resigned from a prestigious tenured professorship to pursue a more uncertain career as a writer. She and I collaborated on the complex project that produced the book Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time has Come. Her book, Seven Choices: Finding New Life After Loss Shatters Your World provided solace to survivors and family members whose lives were impacted by the September 11 attack. Elizabeth taught me how important it is to be clear about one’s intentions and then to have those intentions be a source for living one’s life.

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