Nearly 20 years ago, “Tuesdays With Morrie” was a best-seller. It’s the tender story of the relationship between writer Mitch Albom and his favorite college professor, Morrie Schwartz. On graduation day, Albom gives Morrie a gift and promises to stay in touch, but he never does. Sixteen years later, Albom remembers his promise and reconnects with Morrie, who he learns is dying. For the next 14 Tuesdays, a student and teacher meet again for their final class together to discuss the meaning of life.
Last Friday, I attended a retirement reception for former St. Mary’s College Dean Steve Sloane. Before losing their Lake County ranch to last summer’s devastating fires, professor Sloane and his wife, Kit, ran a foundation that helped people with disabilities gain self-confidence by learning to ride horses.
His Politics Department chair eloquently recalled Steve’s many contributions. Then, fighting back tears, Steve reached out to embrace several former students, saying, “It was always all about you.”
Last week, I also attended a celebration for another former St. Mary’s colleague, Dr. Paul Zingg, who is retiring after 13 years as president at CSU Chico. Numerous faculty, staff and community leaders praised Paul for his remarkable record of achievement at Chico; however, it was Student Body President Taylor Herren’s comments that were among the most compelling.
Ms. Herren recalled how, as a first-year student, she charged into the president’s office to demand a meeting to discuss consideration of a student proposal that urged the university to no longer include fossil fuel companies in its investment portfolio. To her surprise, President Zingg came out, invited her into his office to listen to her concerns, and then took her group to lunch to talk more and plan a response.
Ms. Herren, who also heads the California State Student Association, thanked President Zingg “for being willing to listen to a student who had no power or credibility.”
Dr. Zingg recalls, “I took Taylor’s concerns seriously, treated her as partner in the work of the university, and recognized that no one could speak better for students than students.”
While I long ago forgot the specifics of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” I often begin campus talks with an adapted quote therefrom: Teachers touch eternity, they never know where their influence stops.
On Sunday, my wife’s former student Sami Abusaad came to visit. Sami traveled to St. Mary’s College years ago from the historic town of Bethlehem and currently lives in Yountville. I left them alone in the living room but could hear them talking and laughing over the next two hours.
As they reminisced, it was clear that a young man who came from halfway around the world had forever been positively influenced through a relationship that would eternally bind him and his former teacher. The next day he texted, “Thank you, Nushi, you’ve been such a blessing to me and countless others. I feel so privileged that our paths crossed.”
My boyhood friend and longtime colleague, Dr. Mario Rivas, often shares with students and educators that he flunked out of Oakland’s Laney College at the end of his first year. After serving in the Air Force, Mario eventually returned to Laney and went on to obtain a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.
When asked why he went back to Laney, Rivas quickly answers, “Mrs. Johnson,” adding, “She smiled at me!” Mario and I went to an all-boys Catholic high school and few teachers ever smiled at us …
I recently visited Mario and my alma mater, St. Mary’s High School in Berkeley, with another of my wife’s students from Barcelona, Dr. Toño Peña, who would like his daughter to study there. While touring the campus, I encountered two of my own former students. Amy Gonzalez, or Ms. G. as her students call her, invited me into her Diversity Club meeting, gave me a hug and whispered, “You’ll always be my dean.” Andrea Panlilio and I also embraced as she asked about my granddaughter, Briahn, whom she had advised about college last year.
As high schools and colleges graduate another class of young men and women in the coming weeks, countless teachers and students will say goodbye to one another — many promising to stay in touch. The years will pass and some students will recall, or someday realize for the first time, the powerful impact that a former teacher had on their lives. Many will reunite in the years ahead and rediscover that they are bound together forever.
Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: firstname.lastname@example.org.