TWENTY-FOUR YEARS AGO, a college journalism professor kept me from making the biggest mistake of my life – and in doing so, saved it.
I was a broadcast major at the University of Missouri, which tells you how little emphasis the school placed on looks. My face is far better suited for radio, so not only do I have my professor to thank for steering me into newspapers, so does the American public.
I never forgot that night or the professor’s pleading, or his joy when I finally agreed to change my major and join him in the Columbia Missourian newspaper’s newsroom.
But until recently, I forgot about the drink in his hand. I forgot his slight stagger and impish grin peering from beneath his scruffy smile.
I wish I knew then. But I was in college, I was having fun, and now I had a mentor who wanted to work with me, a man who earned a Pulitzer Prize. The biggest award I had to that point was a bowling trophy, so I figured I better do what he said.
He was the “cool” professor, the one who had “meetings” at his home that turned into parties. He had a pool, so for those of us taking summer courses in the ungodly Missouri heat, his house was a lifesaver. He was a gracious host, and over time, we became great friends.
But I forgot how this mostly quiet, soft-spoken man (I’m deliberately not using his name to protect his privacy) would on those evenings talk for hours on end, more animated than a cartoon. I forgot about the ever-present glass of wine. I was young and drinking with a professor at his house was a badge of honor. I thought that this must be what it is like to be a journalist – discussing politics and culture into the night, stimulated by intellect and cocktails.
MANY YEARS LATER, after graduation, after a career in journalism, and after I went into business for myself, he contacted me out of nowhere. We occasionally kept in touch but our lives, as lives do, parted ways. So I was both surprised and excited to see him again, my mentor and friend who set me on the right path.
We met at a Starbucks. He was divorced and out of work, having been laid off or let go from his previous jobs, it’s hard to say. He had his resume with him and was talking about some interviews for which he was preparing.
It took a while to process, but I soon realized that my former professor was asking me to be a job reference for him. The same man who helped me get started in journalism was now asking for my help to get back into the field. And not just that, but he asked me if I knew of any jobs or if I could point him in the right direction.
How I wish I knew then. Until now, I had forgotten about his slower speech, the pleading smile cracking his graying beard.
Until now, I thought I had seen and spoken to my mentor. But that wasn’t the same man sitting across from me.
It was a ghost.
FOR THE NEXT TEN DAYS, from the Jewish New Year and leading up to Yom Kippur, I will apologize and ask forgiveness for my sins. I will apologize for sins of commission and omission, for sins big and small. I will apologize for sins committed this past year, or decades ago.
I will reflect on one night in 1986, when a journalism professor saved my life.
And I will beg for forgiveness, because after years of chances, I couldn’t save his.