This fall I will begin my seventh decade on this earth. While that idea is frightening in so many ways (so much so that I had to actually confirm with friends and with Google that turning sixty actually meant the start of decade seven), the news is not all bad. Over the last year, I have begun to sense a change in the range of thoughts that occupy my mind. With the passing of our father in 2012, my siblings and I are now the elders in the family. We are counted on in a different and more significant way than when my parents were still with us. I am good with all that. When my son who just entered his fourth decade — ok, that totally freaks me out — decided he needed a car to get to and from his new job, we had a conversation that for the first time in my life made me feel as if I had completely and totally become my father. For me, that’s a good thing as well. My kids have for the most part reached an age and a time in their lives where I feel like they will all be fine, with or without me hovering over them. While that may seem a bit morbid, I actually find it quite comforting. In some ways, I have done my job, or at least a big part of it. I’ve helped get my children through the most dangerous parts of their lives and into adulthood. The task of living their lives well belongs to them now. For that, I am thankful.
This week I had the chance to visit a dear friend in Maine. I went to college with Bill’s son more than forty years ago. After college, I went onto law school and the practice of law. By about year seven of being an attorney, I began to realize that there was likely another profession for which I was better suited. After a five-year experiment in the business world, I started to reach out to friends and acquaintances to see what might be next for me. During one of these conversations, this time with my friend’s father Bill, he asked me whether I had ever thought of working at a college. Bill had had a very successful career in the insurance industry, had served on the Board of Trustees at Swarthmore College, his and my alma mater, and had recently come out of retirement to work as Swarthmore’s Chief Financial Officer. I came to learn later that Bill was looking for a way to retire again and had called his son Tom to check me out. With my clean bill of health from Tom, Bill was looking forward to our meeting, and thus his question to me about my interest in higher education.
My initial response was “What would I possibly do in such a job?” In retrospect, I realize that was not a brilliant response. After he explained in some detail the ten or so responsibilities that such a position would entail, I told him that, while that sounded interesting, I frankly had no experience in any one of the ten. That’s also not the answer I would generally recommend on what turned out to be a job interview. I do, however, recall Bill’s response like it was yesterday. “That’s not a problem at all. In six months, you will have learned everything you need to know to do the job. I am just looking for someone who is smart, honest, hard-working and creative. I think you might fit the bill, so you ought to think about whether you’d like to take this on or not.”
In 2013 it’s hard to believe that that was pretty much the beginning and the end of my application process. There was no search committee or even search process. I did have to come back and see the President. Bill told me that unless I said something really stupid to him, the job was mine. I kept the meeting with President Fraser short, and in just a few months, I began my career in higher education. That was 24 years ago. This month, I am starting my ninth year as University President. From there to here.
Bill is an extraordinary man in every sense of that word. He’s been retired to Maine for two decades and while we have caught up from time to time, we had not been able to sit and talk for a few hours in a very long time. There are people in all of our lives that make a difference. There are very few, I think, outside of one’s parents, that make the big difference. For me, Bill is one of those very few. I had the chance to share that with him when we met this week. As he and his artistic wife Pat are embarking on a new phase of their lives, preparing to leave their beautiful home in Brunswick and move into a retirement community nearby, I wanted to tell him how important he was and is to me. I wanted to him to know how much gratitude I had for his believing in me. And I was able to get at least some of this out. I hope this letter more directly conveys that sentiment. I am who I am and where I am because of him and for that, I am full of gratitude. But Bill, being Bill, somehow managed to turn the conversation from my gratitude to his.
He said many nice things to me. As it turns out, Bill is also grateful to me. Maybe that’s the way life is supposed to work. In the first few years of my working for Bill, I asked if I could go off to the wilderness of Canada for a couple weeks to work on some issues I was struggling with in my life. It was a wilderness group therapy exercise that had a certain appeal for me at that time. Yes, a bit of a wacky idea I will acknowledge now, although I will also say it did do the trick at the time. Anyway, when I returned, I brought Bill back a gift from the woods, an eagle’s feather, and shared with him what the time away had meant to me, how thankful I was to him for giving me permission to go. I remember Bill telling me how much he would love to do what I had just done, but he didn’t think he quite had it in him to try. He was, in some way, grateful I had gone. Yesterday, he shared with me that he still had the feather and that it remains one of the most special gifts he’s been given in his nine plus decades.
Today, back at my work desk, I am full of gratitude to Bill and to others. As one ages, it becomes easier to see the paths others have opened for you. And to be grateful for all of that. That is a very good thing.
Our time together reminded me of how extraordinarily fortunate I have been in my life, and how grateful I am to have people in my life like Bill who have cared about me and for me.