Transforming the Journey:
Mentoring Lives Through Magic and Myth
When Valerian called me to speak at this ABA gathering, my initial response was one of immediate hesitation and some concern. As some of you might recall I spoke at this gathering two years ago at St. Meinrad Archabbey. Any hesitance in repeating such a role was grounded in my belief that what I had to say then was pretty much all that I knew! So, you might understand that I was not all that anxious to get up here again and reveal just how little I have learned since the last ABA. Nevertheless, with what I can only describe as the sesquimillennial force of all things Benedictine, Valerian persisted. He prodded gently, he encouraged, and he even promised: "Carney, if you're only half as good as you were last time, you'll be great!" I admit that I felt honored by his compliment . . . well, sort of. I gave it some more thought and finally acquiesced to his generous invitation. So, here I am, standing before the rock face of humility and grace, text in hand, Power Point primed, committed to the task, even a bit anxious--but only half as good as I was the last time. So have I risen, or sunk, to this occasion?! You, of course, will be the judge of that.
For those of you who do not know me, I am a teacher by trade, learning my craft first in the sweatshops of middle school education. I graduated from St. Meinrad College in 1969, with a degree in French Literature, Philosophy, and Classical Languages, which left me no other choice than to teach junior high science in the Louisville parochial school system. Do you see the logic in that? Besides there are always lots of openings at that level, probably for very good reasons too. As it turned out, after two years in the seventh and eighth grade trenches, I decided I was a very bad junior high school teacher, and found in the midst of that experience a deeper motivation for learning how to do something else--anything else, please! With a few other stops along the way, I wandered eventually into graduate studies in higher education and student affairs administration at the University of Iowa, where I discovered a whole new venue for my interests and developing abilities--including opportunities to teach, to do research, and to write. I began that leg of my journey in 1974 and have not stopped since.
The most fulfilling aspect of all this though has turned out to be the opportunity to advise and mentor hundreds of graduate students in their search for administrative and faculty careers in post secondary education. Let me share a few more recent "family photos" of those memories. I cannot say that I have done that well, in all cases. In fact, I was reminded recently of just how far off the mark it is possible to be when I met up with a former graduate student who at one time I was not sure would amount to anything, judging from the quality of his work when I had him in class. I even recalled in a reference letter I wrote how I praised him up and down for his enthusiasm and commitment, but cautioned about his lack of follow through on important details. Well, that student is now the sixteenth president of a major state university, a campus of about 21,000 students and 3,500 faculty, staff, and administrative professionals. I suppose it is nice to know that others can succeed in spite of what we do to them, and it is particularly helpful for me to know that there is someone out there who can hire me when this gig is up!
Although my gig is not up, just yet, I sometimes tell my students, maybe more so now as I enter my twenty-fifth year in graduate education, that I am not going to learn how to do anything else. This is who I became. But then a recent encounter with a former teacher from an earlier stage of my life gave me cause to think again on that matter. His name is Fr. Theodore Heck, O.S.B., a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey. When he turned ninety-nine he decided he wanted to learn about all this internet-email stuff. Over the past three years repeatedly he has whirled his electric wheelchair up to a desktop computer and has begun his journey into a communication world he could never have imagined the day he rode up to the monastery in a horse cart, as a young man, in 1918. Now, in his one hundred and second year, he and I have exchanged a few digital notes, but what has impressed me most about all this has been his willingness, after a century of breathing and battering on this earth, to again venture out in search of something new. Suddenly the mystery of the half-century that separates us becomes a little clearer to me, and a little more possible. For Fr. Theodore conversatio clearly continues all the way to graduation day. I know that I have more to learn and to do, and the journey does go on for me as it does for each of you. In a way this encounter with Fr. Theodore has been another in a long line of relationships that have served to mentor me through my journey thus far of fifty-five years. My hope is that there will be more relationships yet to come, in the form of mentors both distant and close. We all have benefitted from such relationships. I believe it is important to understand them as best we can, so that we, in turn, can extend their benefits to those whom we serve.