“Who in your life do you consider your mentors?”
Oregon author George Wright’s inquiry to me came from his own experience of locating a long-lost store manager who had once befriended him. Twenty-five years later, a search by Wright led to a reunion and frequent luncheon meetings. Pondering the importance of positive influences, especially in one’s early years, gave Wright a plot line for his 2009 book, Driving to Vernonia.
I recently followed the lead of Wright’s protagonist, Edmund Kirby-Smith, whose search for his mentor takes him to a small Oregon town. I sought an important teacher in my life: Augsburg College English advisor Professor F. Mark Davis.
Finding Davis was no small challenge. Internet searches were fruitless. No Augsburg contacts I made were helpful. A letter to another retired English professor revealed that Davis when leaving Minneapolis became a dean of a small, unidentified college in the East.
And then came vital help from a most unlikely source: a financial recruiter combing a list of alumni in the Northwest. We had a friendly visit for an hour in a downtown Portland hotel, which ended cordially, even though I revealed that our estate planning directs an educational gift not to Augsburg but rather to the foundation of the shared high school of my wife, Nancy, and me. That was acceptable to David Benson, who then asked: “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Yes, find Mark Davis!” I abruptly responded.
That he did, querying a contact at Augsburg I had not tried. First to come to me from Benson was a chronology of Davis’s educational degrees and positions. That led to an e-mail to his undergraduate school in Tennessee (Bryan College), which forwarded my e-mail to him. Within days, an e-mail arrived from my one-time professor.
Davis, who had come to Augsburg as English Department chair in 1968 when I was a junior, expressed delight at the contact. During his first two years in Minneapolis, we spent considerable time together in the classroom (including a course in his specialty, Chaucer) and in department meetings (I was a student appointee to faculty meetings). He and his wife, Kay, once hosted Nancy and me in their south Minneapolis home at a gathering of English majors. He even had made the one-hour trip by car to Monticello to visit our hometown and meet my parents.
More amazing than finding him after months of occasional searches was the discovery of his home in retirement in Silver Spring, Md., just weeks before my five-day visit to the same area. One evening, I determined, could be devoted to meeting with my mentor whom I had not seen since the early ’70s.
Mark was waiting outside the entrance to his building in their sprawling retirement community. The professor I knew when he was nearing 38 (I was 22) appeared somewhat like the man in the 1970 picture that carried. For the next hour and a half, the four of us sat in their apartment, reflecting on careers, family and grandchildren, travel, what we read today, retirement activities, people from Augsburg we mutually knew.
There were parallels in our lives: We both have sons in the San Francisco Bay area. We chose our retirement cities to be near grandchildren. We have downsized from larger, single-family homes to urban housing complexes. We reflected, with personal satisfaction, on our working lives—college professor and dean of students (Mark), weekly newspapering (Don) and K-12 education (Kay and Nancy).
Time didn’t permit reminiscing about the courses we shared at Augsburg … or how a former English major and a professor later applied their studies in different pursuits. Nor did we reflect on the frequent campus turbulence during the ’60s from protests against the Vietnam War to the necessary demands for justice and equality by both black Americans and women.
As a gift, I brought a Wright-signed copy of Driving to Vernonia for Davis. In the fictional “Vernonia,” Edmund’s search for mentor Richard Vickerman was (in the author’s words) “awkward, suspenseful and tinged with risk.” Not so for me. Rather my personal (and successful) drive to find Mark Davis was easy to do, without risk, and fulfilling.
DONALD Q. SMITH ’70
Former editor and publisher of the Monticello, Minn., Times; he lives in Portland, Ore., where he occasionally writes “Don’s Column”-like pieces as if he still has a newspaper deadline. He can be reached at email@example.com.