Death of a Mentor

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 5.31.11 PMBy Kevin Woo  For Ann Sliverthorn.com

For the most part, I think the internet is wonderful. I consider myself a hardcore user. Like everyone, I use it to work, send email, surf, connect (or reconnect) with friends and family, and browse the news.

The one thing the internet doesn’t provide, however, is a warning sign when a search you’ve initiated is going to turn up bad news.

Over the years I called periodically my high-school journalism teacher just to talk. He never wanted to talk about anything specific; he just liked the mental exercise of jumping from one subject to the next.

Earlier this week I decided it was time for our annual chat so I Googled his phone number because I could never remember it. What popped up was news that he had died. The article said he had been in failing health, and had been diagnosed with something called multiple system atrophy, which is a rare condition that produces Parkinson’s Disease-like symptoms.

I’m not sure what all that means but it didn’t sound good.

I knew for a long time that Doc – I called him “Doc” because he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy – was not well but I naively chalked up most of his deterioration to age. I couldn’t come to grips with losing someone I’d eaten so many meals with, had so many conversations with, and who identified my ability to write at an early age.

I remember the first time I got a story published by a “big” publication, in this case Forbes. I called Doc to share the news.

“Oh? So tell me about it,” he said. “Is that the best work you can do? Because if it isn’t there are more stories to write.”

It was as if nothing ever pleased him, but as I got older and had kids of my own I knew that deep down he was proud that one of his students had made it into Forbes.

I last saw him about five years ago. I was in his town so I took a chance that he’d be home. Not surprisingly he was outside fiddling with his flowers when I drove up.

He invited me into the house, which hadn’t changed much in 35 years. I swear that stuff I’d seen in the late-70s was still in the same spot.

“So what stories are you working on these days?” he asked. I told him I didn’t have any assignments.

“So what are you writing these days?” he asked again. “A writer has to always write because someday whatever you’re working on will become valuable.”

The internet is valuable. It brings me good news and bad. And tonight it’s telling me to write because that’s what Doc would want.