We all have mentors, someone along the way who has reached out to help in work, in school or in life. Often we don’t realize it at the time, but at some point, someone has served as inspiration or has given us that much-needed nudge to get out of neutral and slam it back in gear.
One of my favorite mentors was Helen Farlow, head of the Information Services department at the University of Illinois when I was wrapping up grad school. I worked with her for a short period of time – during the summer between classes and submitting my final thesis – but in those brief couple of months, she passed along to me a rather colorful lifetime’s worth of advice. Most of it was unsolicited, but that was what made it easy to absorb.
I was assigned to Helen by one of my profs, a gentleman who once had worked as her assistant editor when they both wrote for the local newspaper. In those days, despite the fact that she was older, more experienced, more talented and, in his words, “a damn sight better at this biz than I ever was,” he supervised her. Because she was a woman.
She was tall, large and loud, and she had served as a foreign correspondent in Paris during World War II. Brash and brazen, Helen (“Mrs. Farlow? Geezus, kid! It’s Helen!”) was a journalist’s journalist. On first meeting her, one had no doubt that she could out-drink, out-eat, out-party and then out-write and out-edit any others who dared to venture into the profession.
She scared the hell out of me. And I adored her.
“Listen to me, kid!” she’d bellow from behind the mountain of accumulated stuff on her desk. Papers would fly as I was blown out of my chair, and I knew then it was time to drop whatever assignment she’d given me and prepare for a long, sometimes wandering, often way off topic story. (The tale of the Thanksgiving turkey in Bisbee, Arizona, is one for the books; remind me to relate it sometime. Too long for this space, but well-worth the story.)
I was her assistant for the summer, and as I understood the position, I’d be writing press releases and indexing her most recent book. I quickly came to understand that being Helen’s assistant meant assisting her with nearly everything, including the shopworn cliché of picking up her dry cleaning. Not that I minded, not at all. She was recovering from recent surgery and, although she knew it at the time and I learned much later, she did not have long to live. But “there’s work to be done, damn it,” she’d bark. Then she’d hand me a 20 and say, “Let’s eat first.”
It’d take a couple of volumes to share what I learned from Helen, but here are a few of her gems.
“I like you, kid; I do. Now shut up. We’ve got deadlines.”
“I don’t care what you’re writing about. Research the hell out of it.”
“Trust your source to tell you the truth. Then verify it.”
“Never be afraid to ask questions. That’s why God invented the question mark.”
“There’s no such thing as a stupid question. If you don’t know, ask. If you’re afraid to ask, maybe you don’t care.”
“You can fail, but you don’t really fail. Get up, brush yourself off. Try again.”
“So you made a mistake. Are you still breathing?”
Helen’s hard-won wisdom was shared generously and often, but she also listened. A couple of times a week, she’d roar, “Kid! Get in here!” and I’d go flying. “Tell me how you’re doing,” she’d say. Or, “Tell me where you want to go.” One day she said, simply, “Tell me what makes you happy.” We spent an hour or so in a thoroughly enjoyable, free-ranging discussion.
The next day, she presented me with an outline. As I look back all these years later, I realize I’ve been following her outline all along.
Helen knew how to be a good mentor. She told. She asked. Style didn’t matter. Making that connection was what it was all about.