I bet you never recognize your heroes the first time you lay eyes on them. They don’t have letters on their chests, are most often cape-less, and they never ever emerge from burning buildings with puppies draped over their elbow. I certainly didn’t know I was meeting the most heroic man I have ever met twenty four years ago at a summer staff meeting. I didn’t feel it in his handshake, his demeanor, his softly stated introduction. As a matter of fact, it was quite a bit later that I realized he alone had redefined my notion of heroes and ethics and integrity.
I met Don in 1987 at a meeting for new part-time faculty at the University of Akron. It was the summer I was returning from Jamaica to stumble on a teaching gig, working with developmental students teaching them reading and study skills. There were four or five of us there that day, perhaps the typical assortment of oddballs necessary to fill out a rota of reading and study skills courses – given that there were very few “pure” paths to such an endeavor. Who, after all, pines to grow up to teach people how to study? There was me (the temporarily nested sojourner soon to light off again), a displaced jazz singer, a few spouses of newly relocated businessmen, and Don who was perhaps retreating from the steadily deteriorating public school system. I liked him immediately.
I have to say, I am sure my first impression of Don was a very curious one to say the least. He was not a tall man, was very slight weighing a hundred pounds soaking wet if he had a few rocks in his pockets, and frankly wore clothes I thought were somewhat colorful and dated. He spoke slowly and carefully, and quickly established himself as my new jeopardy source on all things Ohio. But there was also something very large in that small, ornately draped frame. A subtle, steel strong dignity that belied his steady, composed demeanor – I suspected there had been pain and history there, and that his sense of decorum and deportment had been forged fairly.
Don and I had very different philosophies and approaches to education, to say the least. I was very creative, energetic, willing to explore and try new things. Don was very conservative, opting to plod diligently through a disciplined process, quietly and methodically. As teachers, I was sure I was entertaining, engrossing even , and that Don was steady but probably boring. In hindsight, I was all over the map accomplishing very little, and he was slowly and surely improving students’ skill sets and self-esteem – the job we were all hired for in the first place.
It wasn’t until I saw Don tutoring that I began to detect that big red and yellow S softly materializing on his chest. I suppose I should pause here and establish a basic set of criteria for hero status. A hero does things you cannot do, not things you will not do. A hero is reliable and constant, and lives his convictions. And most importantly, a hero goes about his business quietly, without any fanfare. Don is indeed a hero – for I cannot sit for hours with a frustrated, struggling student pounding away at apparently simple concepts. I cannot disguise my impatience, my selfish need to move on, to abate my boredom. Don doesn’t have to disguise or hide and such weaknesses – he doesn’t have them. He is the most patient, caring, and empathetic educator I have ever met. I have never seen his limits tested in this regard and that still amazes me nearly a quarter of a century later. Even Batman got a little testy with Robin now and again.
Don also personifies reliability and constancy. I have never seen him angry, nor have I seen him be cruel or disrespectful to anyone. All I have seen, is a caring man working hard to help students many people overlook. When President Proenza appears on television inviting the community to send its young adults to pursue their dreams here, Don keeps him honest. For if those students fail to be admitted directly into the school of engineering or business, and need a hand up, Don is there. His job isn’t glamorous or even deemed necessary by everyone around campus, but if he wasn’t here, the school would be a lesser place. If you don’t believe me, take a walk across campus one day with Don. You will be stopped several times by adoring and grateful students who you probably wouldn’t have met if we hadn’t met Don. This legion of students – at-risk, non-traditional, learning disabled, reluctant, simply wouldn’t be here. They are his legacy. A hero’s legacy indeed.
I am very honored and proud to count Don as my friend.