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What is, and what is not Important

As one of my primary life and career mentors retired and moved to a location closer to children and grandchildren, this giant in my career made a point of sending some of the physical reminders of his work and craft to his protégés. It was a personal and extraordinarily meaningful gesture on his part. The personal items from his life of work arrived without a note of explanation, or even a signature--none was needed. The message was clear and self-apparent. My mentor knew I would know the meaning of his gift and symbol, and he knew I had no practical need for it.

In my case, this symbol took the form of the leather attaché satchel he had carried to work throughout my graduate school experience, and certainly before and after that time. It was a satchel that had transported all of the scores we studied together. It was the satchel that held my doctoral dissertation and its many drafts. It was the satchel that had contained my research papers and score analysis essays. It was the satchel that contained the drafts of letters conveying ideas and arrangements and conditions that were a part of his career and influence. As a result of this process, his writing mingled for a period of time in that satchel along with mine; his editorial work mingled along with mine; his documents and letters mingled along with mine. Subsequently, all of that work and the lessons gained from academy and performance hall, have made their mark in publication and performance and have influenced other thinkers.

What remained now as an icon was that satchel, which marked a time when mentor and protégé connected.

The leather on the satchel showed the wear of the many years of his career. The leather, like my career, had been shaped by the materials inside the case. The wear on the outside of the case came from transporting the material to every important place in the world my mentor had lectured and performed. In the early years of my career, I retraced many of those steps myself, following in my mentor's footsteps. For the mentor and protégé, this is all perfectly natural.

But of all the characteristics of this symbol that had been given to me at this point in these, the later years of my mentor, it is the handle of the satchel that may mean the most to me. It was his hand that held that handle every working day of his life. The shape of that handle came from the shape of his hand coupled with the weight of the material represented inside the satchel. That part of the case reminds me of what his hand, and the material he introduced to me, has done to guide and weight my life and career.

The satchel sits beside my desk today in Oklahoma City as a visual reminder of who I am, where I came from, and my own responsibility toward helping others find their voice. Since receiving this iconic gift from my career mentor, I used it occasionally to carry the essays, discs, letters, documents, and images gathered for the publication of a Festschrift in my mentor's honor. In a personal way, it seemed important to me to bring this case full-circle to honor the life of the mentor that had given so much to so many protégés.

The desire and ability to help another individual refine a skill set or perpetuate the good in one's vocational pursuit, is most likely symptomatic of the greater desire to help another individual find purpose and happiness in life. While always aware of external realities that bear upon work and home life, ultimately, a protégé is looking to a mentor to help deal with life beyond external circumstances. It is tempting for a protégé to simply parrot the so-called "secrets" of a mentor's success. However, humans are not destined to be clones.

The pursuit of happiness, coupled with vocational success, is both easier and harder than it would seem. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states, "...achieving control over experience requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not."

The greatest lessons a mentor can guide reside in this pursuit of what is, and what is not important.


on August 10, 2010 6:02am
I have had a few emails asking me who this mentor is. This is Donald P. Hustad who was my primary conducting professor at Southern Seminary, Louisville, KY, from 1979-1982. He is author of the book Jubilate!: Church Music in the Evangelical Tradition, which was written and published during my years of study with him. He is editor of the hymnal The Worshiping Church along with other hymnals and church music publications. His research on the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams has forever shaped my thinking about choral literature, and the fact that he was the organist for the Billy Graham crusades has forever made me feel comfortable in the breadth of expression possible in the church. After living over 40 years in Louisville, he returned last year to Chicago, IL, where he lives in retirement with his wife Ruth. He will be 92 in October.
on August 11, 2010 11:46am
We all must have such stories, even though we cannot all tell them with such poetic insite.  Not so many years ago my high school director gave me a set of cufflinks, which were given to him by the parents of his first choir.  Ever since then I have worn them at every concert I conduct or sing, remembering the wonderful gift he shared with me and inturn I have tried to share this with those whom stand in front of me.