The Role of a Mentor

Hello from the Office (in the house, that is),

This morning when I woke up, it is often the case that I will close my eyes again and pray. I give thanks for the many blessings and people that are in my life that make my life such a wonderful thing. It is then the case that I realized that both one of my most important mentors, Dr. Daniel Riordan, and my sister passed from this life on the same day of the year. Not long ago I noted how there was a strange pairing of dates that seem to be characteristic in my life, much to my amazement. I saw the addition to the story of Mary Riordan on Facebook, and realized this yet one more astounding irony in my life. More importantly, it reminded me of a mentor and colleague who continues to bless me in spite of my no longer hearing his inquisitive and caring voice.

I met Dan Riordan first by phone when he called to tell me that the English and Philosophy Department at UW-Stout wished to do a phone interview with me. He was personable and inviting even on the phone. That interview went well because I would receive a second phone call inviting me to come to Menomonie, WI to interview in person for a tenure track position in their Technical Communication program, which was housed, not that surprisingly, in an English Department. The fact that Philosophy and English were in the same department was an entirely different matter. I drove to Menomonie from Houghton, MI, about a 6 hour drive, and found my hotel. I was invited to have dinner with Dan, Mary, and Dr. Bruce Maylath, the program director, that evening. When I arrived at Dan’s amazing home, I was treated to something I had never witnessed. Their house was perched on a bluff overlooking Lake Menomin, and high in a tree over the bank was a nest of bald eagles with two or three eaglets. This was an incredible site to behold, and I learned that the male bald eagle takes as much time in the nest as the female. The baby eaglets are not merely as majestic as they will grow to be, but they are certainly vocal. That evening was the beginning of a relationship that has changed who I am, how I manage my profession, and, perhaps more importantly, how I manage my life.

Dan Riordan was an exceptionally talented individual, and that went far beyond the phenomenal example he was in the classroom. He had this inquisitive nature that found interest and beauty in almost everything. He background was in American Literature, but he became one of the pre-eminent individuals to work toward making Technical Communication what it was, not only for the University of Wisconsin-Stout, but also as a field of study. Through his textbook, his involvement in the Society of Technical Communication (STC) or the Council for the Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication (CPTSC), there Dan was changing our profession and the way we were understood as a discipline. And yet his more prominent role, for me and scores of students he served as a professor and advisor, was that of mentor. Dan was never too busy to listen, to assist, to question, and to ponder with anyone who came to his door. At the end of a semester, he would often take his students in mass to either a pizza place or even The Buck to socialize and reflect on their learning during the previous semester. As the faculty advisor to the Student Chapter of STC, he would regularly help students see beyond their classes to what the world beyond Menomonie might hold. What was more significant he did with a graciousness and enthusiasm that only Dan could do.

When he moved from the classroom to work specifically with the Society of Teaching and Learning (SOTL), he now offered his kind, gentle manner, and yet with strong expectations typical of him, to get us to become better scholars and more effective professors. It was during that time that I believe many others at Stout learned how astounding Dan Riordan really was. During his time at Stout he had weathered many changes, but he never seemed to lose focus of what he believed we were able to, or should, do. When I first got to Stout, I was ABD, not something I would suggest for anyone, but it was necessary for be mostly because of health issues (for those who do not know that acronym it means all-but-dissertation). As I struggled in a new TT position, Dan had a gentle, firm, and supportive way of making sure I had my work done. There used to be a nice eating place on campus called the Heritage Room. Dan would meet me there for lunch once a week to check in and see how I was doing. Those lunches were about physical as well as psychological/emotional sustenance. He knew I had run afoul of our college dean and that was not a pleasant position. He provided both an ear as I worried and advice in how I could manage that plague that was affecting every aspect of my being. When I had emergency surgery in Eau Claire at the end of one semester, he was at my bedside seeing if I needed anything and again providing needed assurance that I had a colleague who would be there regardless the need. 

Before what would be my last year at Stout, and after a particularly difficult meeting with the same dean, Dan shepherded me through that last stressful year. That fall, Dan would lose his closest colleague, Clark, to the same cancer that would eventually claim him, but he provided incredible support when at the gathering following Clark’s service when he asked me to sit next to him as we were across from my nemesis. He helped me be involved in a conversation that I was pretty petrified of joining. Dan saw the potential in people and he zeroed in on how to assist them long before they realized what he was doing. That was his nature. While he would tower above most in any room he entered, it was not his height that drew you into his realm. While you would most certainly notice this tall, slender, and bearded man, it was his charm and personality that would bowl you over. He noticed everyone and everything, and he had a way of making you feel like the only person on earth when he spoke with you. He was passionate about teaching and teaching others about it. He was an avid reader and his interests were both varied and voluminous. Whenever I was blessed to come to the house, which was always a treat, he would be almost giddy at times as he explained his newest discovery about something. He was not selfish in what he learned or what he knew; he wanted to share and bring others along on his journey, and yet he never forced you to come along. Instead, he made the journey so inviting, to say no would be ludicrous. Even after I left Stout and moved to Pennsylvania, he never left me. He would call from time to time or I would call him. His emails were always uplifting and supportive. Whenever I went back to care for Lydia, which was often, we would find a time to share coffee, a piece of chocolate, and stories about the program I was creating at Bloomsburg. He would, as always, ask inquisitively about the progress, the decisions, and other things I was doing. I still can hear his simple way . . . “Oh,” he would exclaim with his baritone/bass voice finding a tenor range. Then he would smile and follow with, “Tell me more,” much like a grandfather interested in his grandchild’s newest interest. When a new wine bar opened in Menomonie, we would meet there. His amazing photography decorated the walls of this new establishment. At one point, he took the time to come and visit me in Bloomsburg as an outside consultant. He met with my students, attended my classes, and then offered incredible support and insight about the best way to continue to develop things where I still am. When I finally got all the pieces through the University Curriculum Committee, I think he was as happy as I was. He would both tell me through email and on the phone how happy and proud he was. He was a mentor’s mentor. He was that person you could depend on, the one who had your back. His loyalty was something to behold. 

Perhaps it was the last journey he took that was his most profound mentoring. When he was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer, he did not shy away from what would happen. In fact, he tackled it with incredible strength and an almost throw-caution-to-the-wind abandon. He blogged regularly; he photographed more attentively; he took trips; and he shared his process. If he was frightened, and he was, he never let it stop him. In fact, he shared all the thoughts, emotions, and options that confronted him. He stared right back at them and moved forward. Never once did I see him or hear in his voice or emails a sense of why me? Poor me or anything that seemed to act as if he had been dealt a shitty hand. Instead, the professor, the pedagogical genius, the mentor came to the front and he wanted to merely do what he had always done. Help others more than himself. He mastered wall climbing; he offered more opportunities for others to learn, and that same affable, “aw shucks,” demeanor stayed strong as he was determined to move toward an end in the best way possible. The last time I saw him was in January, the winter before he passed. At this point, he knew he had run the race as long and successfully as he could. He knew it was now a time to prepare in a different way, but even then he was gracious as I came to visit him in the same living room I had first met him. He was moving slower and it was more painful, but he was as gracious as ever. We spoke about what it meant to have done all the things he had done. He had no regrets and he still was interested in how I was doing. We chatted about a wide range of things as was usual, but this time, there was a difference. It was as if he was preparing all of us for the inevitable, but not in a sad, somber, or pitiful way. Instead, he wanted to celebrate a relationship we had established. He wanted to make sure I was alright. It was just like him, teaching me one last time. As I left that day, we stood, I in the driveway and he on the steps. It was icy so he did not venture onto the slippery sloped drive. Instead he stood on the steps and as I turned to say goodbye, that wry, wistful smile was there. I folded my hands as if to pray and I merely said,  “thank you, Dan, I love you. And I will miss you.” My eyes welled up in tears, as they are now. He nodded. I spoke with him by phone once more after that visit.

It is difficult to believe that it has already been three years. During this time of remote teaching, I have thought of him. As my students have struggled and I have worked with some of them through FaceTime, or even in person as possible, as I have spent hours on the phone, texting, or emailing, I am reminded that it is Dan who first got me to think about the rhetoric of technology. I can imagine him how pondering and coming up with all sorts of ways to help both our colleagues and students in this unprecedented time in the academy. Dan loved nature, everything about it. He loved art and music. When I was first a college student, I was introduced to Mannheim Steamroller through Fresh Aire III. This song is built around a cricket, hence its title, and its chirping as a metronome. Dan, thank you for being the mentor, exemplar, and life-changing man you were. What you need to know, and I hope you are smiling, is this. You still are. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. 

Thank you as always for reading.

Michael

 

Published by thewritingprofessor55

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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