Merlin, Mentors and Gratitude

For all those non-Iowa residents who read this Blog, excuse the obscure references.

Dr. Jerry Deegan


My wife and I had dinner the other night with Dr. Jerry Deegan, president of Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, Iowa. My oldest son went there for a year before we moved, and my second oldest son took some AP classes there. I also worked at Dowling when I was the director of the St. Joe Ed Center, and Jerry was my administrative supervisor and mentor. Our family loved Dowling as a school and I loved Dowling/SJEC as a place to work. It was (and I assume still is!) full of joyful, hard working people who made coming to work a pleasure. There’s a certain depth of character in Iowans, an understated greatness, that my wife and I were happy to have our children grow up surrounded by. Iowa, while like all places being not perfect, really is a well-kept secret and a fabulous place to raise a family.

When we left Iowa, I posted on this Blog some of the things I most appreciated from my years spent living and working there, and among those things I said “I will miss Jerry Deegan, a personal hero, mentor, a man of noble character…”

Visiting with Jerry again last night reminded me of why I said those words, and how much I miss being nearby his office. I would often pop by to talk about this or that problem, share a success story or just shoot the breeze. But whatever the reason for my visit, I always left his presence feeling more clear-headed, stable and confident in whatever it was that I was facing at the time.

Is that not the greatest gift a mentor can offer his protégé?

It’s all about you…

A philosophy professor of mine once said that the greatest joy of a teacher should be found in seeing his student excel and exceed his own level of excellence. Envy and rivalry, he’d say, are symptoms of a sick and narrow soul. Indeed, the people I most admire in life have been those for whom personal success is identified with other’s success. “He must increase, I must decrease.”

In the medieval English-French legend of King Arthur and the Excalibur, Arthur’s wizard-mentor Merlin grows in greatness only inasmuch as he leads Arthur closer to his divinely appointed destiny to be king. A mentor’s éclat, his brilliant success, is to be found in evincing a protégé’s latent nobility, excellence and goodness by means of wisely posed encouragements, challenges and a relentless commitment to love another into fuller existence. The mentor doesn’t seek to mold a protégé into his own image and likeness, but rather seeks to unfold God’s unique image and likeness stamped deep into the heart of each man and woman. As Robert Frost once put it, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” In fact, that’s how I try to look at parenting. On my better days.

For me, that’s Jerry Deegan.

As I honor Jerry in this way, I honor also all those who selflessly give of themselves every day to mentor others into greatness and I honor those many men and women who, from my earliest days, gave of themselves to help me to better resemble the thought God had of me when he created me. May I be judged worthy of their gifts and pass on to others what I myself have received.

I encourage you to also honor those mentors in your life and commend them to the God who placed them along your life’s path.


Jerry, Patti and I after dinner at Ye Olde College Inn in New Orleans

14 comments on “Merlin, Mentors and Gratitude

  1. Thomas, thanks for this! Shared with a friend and colleague who has been this kind of mentor for me. What a gift these people are in our lives!

  2. jerry says:

    These lines caught my eye:

    “I always left his presence feeling more clear-headed, stable and confident in whatever it was that I was facing at the time.”

    “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”

    Both seem insightful for any person seeking to live his or her lay vocation as a boss, supervisor, manager or business owner.

    Thanks for telling us about your hero who, BTW, also has a great first name.

    • He does have a great name, Jerry! And I agree, as did Dismas Dancing, that mentoring is a universal factor in the cultivation of greatness and excellence in others. My father always grieves that it is a lost art. Maybe not so… Thanks also for your response to my email. Let us continue our conversations as circumstances warrant. Godspeed, Tom

    • Jerry — I still think of you and your questions now and again. Here’s an article that revived my memory:
      Peace to you, Tom Neal

      • jerry says:

        Thanks for your email, Tom. I’m touched that you even remembered mine from so many months ago.

        I look forward to reading the articles you forwarded to me (which are timely, since I just saw The Hobbit movie!) And I’m happy to see you are back to your blogging.


    • Terrific to hear, Jerry. God bless.

      • Dismas Dancing says:

        Thanks, Professor, for posting those two articles for Jerry. It gave me an opportunity to read them. Perhaps in my arrogance–more likely, ignorance–I think of myself as a simple man who finds it difficult to crawl down into the weeds of philosophical discussions about economics vs socialism, consumerism vs poverty, and the entire gamut of discussions involving the impact of government on the human condition. That in reaction to Mr Pearce’s piece at the Imaginative Conservative web site, a site to which I subscribed a few years ago. Great stuff therein. The piece on Shire economics fascinated me in that it reflects, for me at least, how most of the people and cultures I have met in my travels throughout the world long for something akin to the “simple life” where “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are relatively unencumbered by over-reaching government and the obnoxious bureaucrats with which it is universally over-populated,

        As a fighter pilot, one quickly comes to know that rules are a must, i.e.: gravity rapidly overcomes lift when the flying machine runs out of fuel. That axiom defines the rule–land before you run out of fuel. Another: put the wheels down before you land. These may sound trite and silly. But many a pilot, and not a few helpless passengers, have suffered terrible consequences when such silly and trite rules are bent, broken, or ignored. There is a universal caveat, however. One of the things we “nuggets”, or newly-minted aviators, are taught early-on by the older guys is the KISS principle: “keep it simple, stupid”. In other words, what will keep one alive in a real and terrifying emergency, is simply following the procedures you have been taught without overthinking or over-complicating them. Too much thought requires minutes when seconds are all one has to save your bacon. That is how I try to life my life, in both physical and spiritual aspects.

        The mentor about whom I wrote to you last year followed that simple philosophy to a “T”. In my career, I tried my best to emulate his approach to governance with a bit of minimalist attitude toward the panoply of “rules” thrown at us. Like most things, rules are not intrinsically “bad” in and of themselves, unless they are unnecessary, needless, stupid, used as punishment, etc. I’ve known far, far too many men and women who, because of their lack of true leadership, lay a foundation of terror based on actual rules; and, when those fail, some they invent to further mask their ineptitude. I pity their charges. They deserve better.

        Most folks I know, along with thousands my bride and I are privileged to have met, want lives based on that KISS principle. Jesus had two rules that starkly, and remarkably, illustrate,and validate what the secular KISS “rule” implies: “Love God. Love your neighbor”. Amplifying the second rule, He told us, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” With God’s help perhaps I can do better at applying Jesus’ rules universally in my own life. As St Francis said in his beautiful appeal, “Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with ME!” There aren’t many things simpler than that.

        God’s peace and blessings, my friend.

  3. Dismas Dancing says:

    Before I went into the Marine Corps, I was a lost soul. I had spent a small amount of time in a seminary post high school. Upon leaving it, the world was my oyster and I consumed several sacks, leaving only empty shells in the wake of unfettered consumption of the world’s pleasures. Oyster shells are notoriously brutal to the soles of unprotected feet. My profligate ways left many a damaged soul as I broke promises as quickly as I made them–both to God and to man, eschewing any desire of returning to the right paths upon which my beloved parents originally set me.

    But the world, as it always does, abandoned me as I had abandoned so many others. With our country at war and I uncommitted to anything, when the draft notice blared, “Report to the Armed Forces Entry Station for……”, I suddenly became all too aware that payback was, indeed, going to be hell. A bit of God’s Providence kept me out of the army and an instant ticket to the jungles of Viet Nam. I ended up in the Marine Corps, boot camp, infantry training, and ultimately, to OCS and a commission–another guiding providential hand! That entire experience owns its separate story; but to the meat of my own mentor story, I’ll fast forward to 1977.

    I was in a squadron with a command structure that I hated. The angst, anger, disappointment, frustration in that command drove me to seriously consider leaving the Corps. But I had not yet completed my degree, so leaving the military at that time would have been tough. My bride and I were home on leave when I received a phone call from a Colonel I had served with on a deployment to Korea in 1974. He was serving as the Commanding Officer of a senior Marine Corp Reserve command on a Naval Air Station north of Chicago. It was our way out of the current command. After discussing it, my bride and I almost instantly said “yes” to the invitation. A few weeks later, we found ourselves in Chicago land.

    Vincent P. Hart. A small man physically; but a giant in persona, genius, charisma, integrity, compassion, and leadership skill. When I first met him, he was a Lieutenant Colonel serving a one-year tour on the island of Okinawa. I was a Captain, also serving a one-year tour with a different unit. We met in Korea under some interesting circumstances, events that would unwittingly cement our later relationship. From the beginning, his calm, but overwhelmingly powerful leadership skills impressed me mightily. My own father was possessed of similar characteristics, and he used them to raise all of his children well. Why I went off the deep end after leaving home was a source of discussion (and some tears and laughter) for us for the rest of his life. This man, Colonel Hart, reminded me much of my father. So it was a “natural” fit for me to want to follow him—and learn from another master.

    Throughout my time serving in his unit, he offered tasks to me that normally might have gone to more senior officers. He placed a trust in me that unnerved me at first because of my previous history before the Corps. I became his Public Affairs Officer—something for which I was totally untrained—and quickly learned what to do and what not to do as a representative of a large Marine Corps command in the Chicago area. In 1979, the 38th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, he asked me to sub for him and give a speech to a northern Illinois group of the “Pearl Harbor Survivors’ Association”. I was both honored and frightened by the awesome task of facing real heroes who saw the beginning of the most horrific conflagration the world has seen to date. Even in that he taught me how to manage fear with courage founded in knowledge and training. Post mortem reports were all favorable. I smiled when he called me to his office and quipped, “You’re the best politician I have in the command!” A politician I am not; but we both understood what he meant. And laughed. A Colonel and his student having a laugh together. Almost unheard of to have such close contact at those levels, especially since I had only recently been promoted to Major. But that is the kind of leader Colonel Hart is.

    I’ll share one more great lesson of the hundreds I learned from him. At command levels, and depending on the commander’s rank, each commander is authorized non-judicial punishment or NJP. This great man was a master at it, principally because, the fewer he had to administer, the more efficient junior leadership was in his unit. He would often call me as a witness to the proceedings. At first I wondered why; but after a few of them, the light bulb came on such that I ultimately treasured the time in his office where I learned so much. One particularly difficult case would sum up for me, for the entirety of my career, the total package we call leadership and how to exercise it. A young man had committed an offense for which he came to see the boss. In his inimitable fashion, the Colonel brought the young man to tears, NOT through stern reproach, anger, finger-pointing, or name-calling, but, rather, through soft questioning, counseling, teaching, compassion. He offered the lad a choice of punishments, one fairly easy, the other more difficult. At the end of the day, the young man chose the more difficult, not harsh, but one that he could endure and still keep his head up. When the chastised Marine walked out of the office, Colonel Hart looked at me, asked me what I thought, and offered the following, a quote I used for the rest of my career, and still use today when discussing leadership with those that will follow me: “Whenever you punish, ALWAYS let the person leave your office with his dignity intact!”

    There were other great leaders with and for whom I have worked in my life. Of all of them, like your deep respect for Dr. Deegan, Colonel Vincent P. Hart, USMC has earned mine. Without all of those mentors, and Colonel Hart most especially, the circumstances with which I began this comment would surely have had a different ending. God’s Providence is amazing and always treats me to some unbelievable stories. I thank Him profusely for putting me in the company of the many wonderful men and women who have given me life after certain death.

    God’s peace be with you, sir.

    • Dismas — You should Blog. May I use this in a Blog upcoming? It is such a perfect and eloquent witness to mentoring. May I also use it for the seminarians I teach? God has gifted you with a nimble pen, a tender heart and rock-hard character made strong by life. Thank you for making time to comment and share your wisdom here. Godspeed! Dr. Tom

      • Dismas Dancing says:

        Kind sir, you are always most welcome to freely use any, all, some of my comments. I am honored that you consider them worthy of sharing.

        I have thought about blogging but have not given it much serious thought. When I was in the fifth grade, the nun teacher, who herself was an early mentor (hers is a great story, too) added to the comment secton of a report card, “A nice young boy, but works with only spasmodic effort!” It took me decades to truly understand the implications of that comment. In all candor, if I began a blog, I’m afraid that I might be justly accused of giving only spasmodic effort to the task, a task that I know, based on my observation of your beautiful efforts, deserves a passion I’m not yet sure I’m willing to devote to it. While reading your blogs, I am delightfully inspired to recall things/events in my own life that own a bit of kinship with your experiences. In fact, last week when you wrote of Lake Ponchartrain, it brought back great memories of the eight years my family lived in New Orleans. We loved the lake and ALL of the great food that came from it! I was stationed there after I returned from a tour in Seoul, South Korea in 1993. I retired from the Corps in 1995 and worked in the private sector there until 2001 when we moved to Florida, now following my bride’s career path. Four of our nine grandchildren were born there.

        Perhaps one day I’ll reach a commitment for a blog. But I must finish a couple of memoirs I have been writing for years. However, due to spasmodic effort, those projects, too, may require finishing by my youngest son after he hurls the last spade full of dirt over the pine box that really won’t be completely finished either. (Oh, Sister Charles Mary, what a sweet lady you were! Thanks for the memories.).

    • DD, I did not know people knew when I posed responses to comments. Good to remember for me! Thank you for your lovely response and reinforcement of the point that the heart of leadership is love with a KISS. Godspeed!

  4. Jerry says:

    You are too kind! I learned much from you in our meetings as well. I do not have the ability to put is so eloquently but your words can be said about you at our meetings as well. You brought much joy and insight to our meetings and I am forever grateful for the personal and spiritual guidance you gave as a bonus to our meetings and time together. I thank God often for the time you spent with this community and may God continue to bless you and your family.

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