Every successful person I know has given credit for that success to a mentor. The few successful people I know lacking a mentor always say the lack of one delayed or detoured their careers. Today, young men and women seek inspiration from seasoned pros in business, athletics, the arts, law, medicine and writing.
Mentors go way back in time.
It’s no stretch to picture a hairy caveman showing a younger, fuzz-faced comrade the proper way to mix dyes and paint bison on cave walls. That way, even if a pterodactyl whisked away the older artist for a one-course lunch, the surviving artist knew how to preserve the tried-and-true skills, but maybe added a few retro futurism touches to spiffy up those walls.
I have had the good fortune to know several mentors. But since I myself am flirting with 75, they are all dead. But I can recall their faces and voiced words with calculable clarity.
The first and most important boost to my career as an author came in the 1960s from Professor Fraser Bragg Drew of the Buffalo State English Department.
Professor Drew had been reared in Vermont, a country boy much like Robert Frost’s swinger of birches. He was mad about horses, accompanying an aunt and uncle to the track to watch their trotter compete. Later his love shifted to wolves, foxes, jays, and hawks. He came to admire the writings of John Masefield and Robinson Jeffers who used animals as metaphors in their poetry.
Sometime in the 1940s, he decided to write authors to ask them to sign one or more of their books for him. If they answered him and agreed, he sent the book and a stamped return envelope. In 1953, he came up with the idea of awarding his three best literature scholars a signed book.
That year, he was spending his summer vacation in Vermont and gathered the courage to write poet Robert Frost, the famed author of the immortal poem, “The Road Not Taken.”
He visited Frost in the latter’s simple cabin. He left with enough fodder for a magazine article, signed books, and some advice about teaching literature to students. A student of his had said every class of Frost’s was “one long wild conversation.”
“Don’t teach them a lesson,” barked Frost. “Show them a lesson.”
And he did. I never missed a class. Even in summer when I dragged myself into his classroom early morning after working all night in excruciating heat as a seasonal laborer in a Buffalo coking coal plant.
Drew always showed us a lesson. He brought signed first-edition books, letters to him from authors, and photographs of him with writers I’d begun to revere.
One day I approached him on the sidewalk as a sophomore. I asked if he would read some of my poems. A week later he called me into his office. His response was guarded, and he had suggestions. But he sensed some wit in my light verse.
That was all I needed — some slight validation that I had some magic in my words.
I made an appointment to see another professor, Annette T. Rottenberg, who taught introductory composition. I had no idea she was a noted expert on argument and persuasion with several articles and books to her credit.
I made a case that writing compositions was beneath me. What nerve a 19-year-old has! I intended to become a novelist. Instead of penning a half-dozen or so boring compositions, might I write an entire James Bond novel?
She laughed and agreed, knowing I would work at least twice as hard as my fellow sufferers in the composition class. At the end of the semester, the novel in hand, she allowed me to read two chapters to the class. Their laughter and back claps assured me I was on the right path.
Unfortunately, I gave the manuscript to my good Polish Catholic mother to read. She gave me a piece of her mind and assured me I was on the path to perdition. One day, my novel went into the trash. But that’s another column for another day.
Drew continued to encourage me. One day, my Dad called me into the living room.
“Do you know that your name is in the Buffalo News?” he asked.
I froze. The last time he said that I was busted. My name was in the paper for a speeding ticket I had somehow forgotten to mention to him.
He gave me the paper. I had won Drew’s Buffalo State contemporary literature award and a book signed to me by poet Louise Marie Nichols.
I began writing after graduation, and Drew kept in touch almost weekly with letters of encouragement.
He was in the audience to escort my very astonished mother when Buffalo State awarded me its Outstanding Alum award, and I spoke at commencement.
“I came to Buffalo State for all the right reasons,” I began. “To play baseball and to enjoy a social life.”
I could see my mother wince but Drew roared with laughter as I delivered a speech that was half comic and half serious. I ended by thanking Drew and told the future teachers in the room that one day they too would change young lives the way Drew had changed mine.
In 2009, Buffalo State College published “One Long Wild Conversation: Selected Letters Between a Buffalo State Professor and His Student, A Writer.”
Fraser Bragg Drew died at 100 years and one day on June 24, 2013. On his 100th birthday, another former student brought him a single rose. He held it between his teeth for a photo.
This New Year’s, my wife Gosia and I will lift a thin stem to Fraser and Annette, two teachers who changed my world.
“And we’ll take a cup of kindness yet…for auld lang syne.”