Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted a mentor. Someone older and wiser who would take me under his wing and show me the ropes, teach me his secrets and short cuts, offer sage advice and look out for my best interests. Someone caring and compassionate who would revel in my achievements, pick me up when I fell down and cheer me on along the way.
It sounds like I’m describing a father, which I guess I am — my old man didn’t have much of a knack for parenting and I’ve gone through life figuring out for myself most of the stuff that needed figuring out. On the whole, learning by osmosis or trial and error has served me pretty well and I’ve taken a certain pride in accomplishing things without anyone else’s help. Still, I often think how much easier it might have been if I’d had someone there to take my hand and show me the way.
And for a little while, I did.
Luke Skywalker had Obi-Wan Kenobi. Henry David Thoreau had Ralph Waldo Emerson. Bob Dylan had Woody Guthrie. The closest I’ve ever come to having anyone like that was Bob Speisman. Bob wasn’t exactly a mentor — he was only two years older than I was — but he was definitely a friend as well as the first person ever to take a real interest in guiding and encouraging me.
I was fresh out of college, working at a music-industry trade magazine, and Bob, whose nickname was Woodstock, immediately recognized me as a kindred spirit and treated me like a younger brother. He mainly did so by cracking jokes at my expense and playfully punching me, but I knew this was his strange yet affectionate way of bonding. Between pummelings, Bob taught me the finer points of conducting market research (we were responsible for compiling the Top 100 Singles Chart), as well as how to conduct myself as an adult at work (I learned the importance of listening) and at play (I came to understand the importance of truly letting go).
More than anything, Bob made me feel special, bolstering my then teetering self-esteem by anointing me his “project” (which, he joked, was the guy term for protégé). I didn’t care what he called me because I was happy to be a sponge. He nearly filled a hole in my heart that my own father, who had spent most of my childhood in prison and never worked an honest day in his life, was unable to fill. Bob taught me the meaning of a strong work ethic and was always there to patiently nudge me in the right direction whenever I veered off track.
Bob went on to become an executive in the music industry then, of all places, in the diamond business. As often happens, we just sort of naturally fell out of touch. Many years later, I was devastated when I learned that he was on American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
The most important lesson Bob taught me — and I think about it every time I think about him, which is often — was how rewarding it is to mentor someone. I’ve been fortunate enough to have that symbiotic relationship with several people who, not coincidentally, have become some of my closest friends. Teaching them whatever knowledge and insight I’ve picked up along the way then watching them grow and succeed has given me a greater sense of pride than anything I’ve done for myself.
It’s the same way I feel about being a father to my two sons. I revel in whatever they achieve, pick them up when they fall down and cheer them on along the way. And it goes without saying that they’ve finally filled the hole in my heart.