I DON’T believe there is enough mentoring in the world.
If there was more mentoring, the world might be a better place.
I am happy to say that I have had the benefit of a mentor.

Jack Strait was my mentor. He is the person that I feel was most responsible for what I became in life. Yes, there were others that provided influence and tutelage. No person grows up without the impact of parents and the multitude of family and friends on their attitudes and personality. So, there are obviously others to whom I also owe homage. But, it was Jack Strait that provided the greatest example and training and mentorship.

What exactly is a mentor? A mentor is someone who not only teaches and counsels, but is also a personal and connected participant in the “Coming of Age” process. Coming of age is different than just merely growing up. Coming of age is all about what a person does after they have grown up, after they have physically matured. Coming of age is the point where the awareness of the responsibilities and privileges of being an adult is reached. For me, that happened as a result of and during Jack Strait’s mentoring.

To understand his role as a mentor, it is first necessary to understand his role as a grandfather. He was the best, pure and simple. I have so many memories of my grandfather…and they are all good. I remember things that happened when I was a kid and as a teen-ager. I remember family gatherings. I remember going to special events and places with him. I remember his laugh and his infectious smile. He was a grand grandfather.

He took us to movies. Every family gathering included a trip to see whatever the latest blockbuster was. Star Wars. Indiana Jones. We saw them all. We always knew Grandpa was up for going to a movie. And, he always insisted on paying for the tickets. We didn’t debate the cinematography or the acting in these flicks. We didn’t care what the premise was or what the plot contained. It was just Grandpa taking the family to a film. Every time we’d get together, he’d have already referenced the newspaper to check the listings and show times. He’d already made the plan. He was always ready with an adventure. The adventures were always fun.

He took us to the theatre. One year, the entire family went to see “Phantom of the Opera” in Detroit. It was a very special treat. Another time, we went to see a production of “Noises Off” in a small downtown theatre. He and Grandma had already seen it, but their enthusiasm for it hadn’t diminished. And, they wanted us to have the experience too. Still another time he took my mother, my Aunt Connie and I to see “Les Miserables”. It was a tough ticket to get, yet he managed. We had a wonderful time.

When I was still a young kid my grandparents purchased a new home and I remember all of us walking through the empty rooms to check it out. The house had a large backyard. It had funny doors that slid into the walls. It had a finished basement. It was in a picture- perfect neighborhood. It was a cool house for grandparents to have because it could fit an entire extended family comfortably at holiday time. I loved every visit to that house and I dreaded every time we’d have to leave. I would live with my grandparents in that same house many years later.

My grandfather favored butter pecan ice cream. He loved animals, especially dogs. Sailing and water sports were special for him. He enjoyed golf. He loved his country club. He loved the state of Michigan. Grandpa shaved while driving. He drank iced tea, with lots of ‘pink stuff’. He didn’t like fish. He drove his car like he always knew where he was going, always with a purpose. He only put Thousand Island dressing on his salads. He’d eat soup every day. He adored his family. He loved having his family near.

He took us to a Detroit Tigers game the year they won the World Series. My sister and I flew up for the visit. It was her first time on an airplane. It was the first time for both of us to attend a major league baseball game. We had a blast. I wore the t-shirt and ball cap he purchased for me until they were worn out. When the team won the Series later that year, we called him to celebrate over the phone. And, he’d talk about Kirk Gibson for years.

As a teenager, I remember spending time with him at the family lake cottage. Every day we’d swim and have fun. Grandpa would drive the boat around the lake. He’d let each of the grandkids sit on his lap and drive. No kids ever got better attention from their grandparent. When I was ready to learn how to water-ski, it was Grandpa who taught me how to do it. And, an entire day was spent in the effort. The boat wouldn’t ever run properly. Every time we’d start a run, it would stall. The casual observer surely thought we were a bunch of yahoos. Grandpa never got agitated about it, though. And, since it didn’t faze him, it didn’t faze me. At the end of the day, when the water was glasslike and the light was nearly gone, I finally figured it out. I finally stayed up and made it around the lake without wiping out. And, it was Grandpa who had the biggest smile.

One year he and Grandma took my sister and me to watch the Detroit/Windsor 4th of July fireworks. We took the tunnel to the Canadian side and ate dinner at a restaurant right on the river. After dark, we turned our chairs around and watched the festivities. It was wonderful. The fireworks over the Detroit River are fabulous. And, we had front row seats. (There was even a visit to our vantage point from a Police Boat while we watched. Apparently someone had reported seeing a body floating in the water.) For a young kid, the highlights of the evening were just too many to digest at that time. After it was over, it took us forever to get back to the US side and navigate the traffic. My sister and I had long since fallen asleep in the back seat by the time we made it home. It was another memorable adventure with the grandparents.

Many of my memories have been enhanced because of the pictures that were taken of the events and gatherings. I am fortunate to have been raised in a family that included so many photographers. And, my grandfather valued those images too. He would create a Christmas card every year with photos of the entire family. The annual card was called, The Strait Line, and the play on words always delighted me. I know he sent it out to everyone he knew. And, he spent a lot of time every year arranging and creating the card. It was one of his hobbies. Years later, when meeting some of his friends, invariably I’d be asked about the Christmas card. There was no better re-affirmation of his devotion to his family than knowing he’d been such a public and constant proponent for all of us.

There’s one picture we have that is especially great. I barely remember the occasion, but having the photo has enabled me to better remember it. Grandpa took us to Greenfield Village for the day. In the picture, my sister, Angie, and I are feeding the ducks and geese and swans. Grandpa is seated on a bench behind us with my other sister, Emily. He’s there in his trademark felt hat and overcoat and loafers. Emily is about two or three years old. Angie and I are smiling and having fun. He is smiling too. He was always smiling when his family was around.

Another hobby of his was doing his taxes. At any time throughout the year he always had a table in the basement set up with his work in progress. Receipts were arranged perfectly. Post-It notes were affixed to the piles to help keep them organized. It was a model of efficiency, despite the apparent inefficiency. The image, regardless of the year and my age, of my grandfather’s ‘tax work’ has been an example for me in my life. I, too, like my desk to be organized.

One year he took my father and me to a Thanksgiving Detroit Lions game. I remember very little of the game itself. But, I do remember the time we spent in the car leaving the game. Traffic was horrible, as you would expect. But, my grandfather knew the back roads for us to get through the traffic quickly. He always did this, it seemed. He always knew the best way to get somewhere. He always knew the tricks. He always found a parking spot ‘right up front’, even if we were arriving late. We called it, ‘pulling a Jack Strait’, and we always loved it.

He was an avid fan of all Michigan sports, pro and college. He followed the Lions. He watched the Tigers. And, he obsessed over the Wolverines. He had logo clothes from each of his teams. He never missed a broadcast. Another memory I have was when we were all watching the University of Michigan play Colorado in football. Colorado won the game on a last second Hail Mary play. He was devastated. But, his outer demeanor never changed. He didn’t pout or mope. The game was over, but he still had his family around him…and, we knew that was more important to him.

He was more than just a grandfather, prideful and devoted to his progeny. He was a teacher, in a family of teachers. And, his interests and hobbies came second to our own lives and personalities. True, he would have loved for all of us to live nearby and attend U of M and share his same passions. But, he valued each of us for our own interests. He’d always offer kind words of encouragement in furthering those interests.

So, what is a mentor? The dictionary defines it as ‘A wise and trusted counselor or teacher’. I think it goes a little deeper than that. As I said above, I think a mentor is someone who not only teaches and counsels, but is also a personal and connected participant in the coming of age process. True, his role as a devoted and dedicated grandfather satisfies the dictionary definition. His efforts to expose us to many experiences, to teach us about things in life, and to play the role of the benevolent patriarch were wonderful. But, for at least me, his role as the loving grandfather changed into that of the more personally involved and connected mentor…and, it is that role which so affected me.

The year before my college graduation is when the mentoring started. I had been studying telecommunications at Indiana University, but I didn’t have a plan for post graduation. He invited me up at the beginning of the summer and had me take interviews with several of his former colleagues. He even had me take an interview with an agency for an internship. I forget how many interviews I took, but the experience was invaluable. He worked on my personal presentation. He helped me with my goals and aspirations. He offered explanations to the many things I didn’t understand. He gave constructive criticism after my meetings and interviews. I was given the opportunity to see how professionals in the world behaved, under his tutelage, and I warmed to the idea. The slouchy sleepy grungy grouchy college kid persona façade I had been so carefully formulating up to that point was slightly chipped away through his efforts. True, I didn’t immediately go and buy a pin striped banker suit and start reading the Wall Street Journal, but the transformation was begun nonetheless.

I didn’t get accepted for the internship, and none of his former colleagues were hiring, so I went back to school for my final year with only that brief exposure to the business world. My grandfather didn’t end his efforts, though. He called me many times during the school year and continued to work with me. Admittedly, I was only half involved then. I had my class work and TV station job and girlfriend and cycling and beer drinking to occupy me. Grandpa was mentoring a part-time subject. But, we worked on my resume together. We talked about possible career paths. He sent me things to study and read. He stayed on me to concentrate on the future, while also focusing on the present. We discussed my coming to live with him and Grandma after graduation. And, when the time came, I was ready. I knew that my best shot at a career lay in the path he proposed. I had come to believe the advice he had given. I took my I.U. diploma, for what it was worth, and headed north.

The summer I lived with him will always be remembered as the pivotal time in my life. Granted, graduating from college brings changes to anyone’s life. I was ripe for the molding and mentoring. Initially, he readied me for another round of interviews, this time for real jobs. We went and bought a suit and dress shoes. We made final revisions to the resume. He gave me practice interviews. He again helped me work out what my ‘professional persona’ should be. I had a guidance counselor, a friend, a teacher, and a mentor all in one person.

After getting the job, his efforts continued. Obviously his assistance to that point had yielded a positive result. Most people in his same situation would have figured their obligation was complete. Not Jack Strait, though. He wasn’t a part-time or disinterested mentor. He delighted in helping.

In order to beat the traffic and get noticed by the higher-ups at the new job, I’d get up and leave for work by 5:30 am. Most mornings, Grandpa was awake as well to see me off. He kidded me about my breakfast preference of cold coffee and bagels with peanut butter. He would jokingly critique my outfits. He would offer advice on getting noticed and working hard. He’d always send me off with a “Have a Good Day.” After a very long and sometimes not so good day, I’d arrive home and find him waiting for me.

I’d be cranky and exhausted, but he’d want to discuss everything that had occurred. “Who did you talk to today?” “Who did you meet?” “What did you work on?” “What kind of difficulties did you face?” “What’s going on tomorrow?” I’d sit there, at 9:00 at night, eating the dinner Grandma had left for me in the microwave, and I’d have to take him through the day step by step. He’d critique. He’d offer encouragement. He’d crack jokes. It was always beneficial and fun. I’d challenge his ideas and suggestions. We’d debate the merits of working in the 90’s versus the 70’s. We’d discuss whether the company, the same company for which he had worked, was the same or different. And, ultimately, he remained steadfast in his belief that it was a good company. I was the cynic. I was jaded. Why not? I had all of a few weeks to have developed my opinion. He allowed me my youthful irreverence. I know now that he knew, and felt, and believed that I would eventually see it his way. And, that is how a mentor performs.

On the weekends, Cara would join us for adventures and trips to the club for dinner. He’d always flirt with her. He flirted with all the ladies. He told Cara once during that summer that if ever I broke up with her, she would be the one to remain in the family. I’d be pushed out. When she would peruse the menu at whatever restaurant we were enjoying, he’d suggest that she “get a little filet”. To this day, when we dine out, she makes the crack that she’s going to “get a little filet.” He delighted in having her around. That she chose to go to U of M for her Master’s degree surely helped. But, I believe he simply genuinely enjoyed having people around him…people that he could talk with and entertain. He was the consummate showman and he was always on his game.

He and my Aunt Laurie were there with me when I picked out the engagement ring. He watched as I signed my life away (oh, the symbolism) to buy it. I knew that he wanted to help pay for it. I also know that he was proud to see me deny his help. He particularly beamed with pride that I had made the right choice in a ring and a girl. He and Grandma wanted to be the first to congratulate her (after she’d accepted, of course). He was so happy when each of his grandkids would meet and bring new additions into the family.

We also went golfing together many many times during that summer. As part of the mentoring, Grandpa knew I would need to be exposed to that aspect of the business world too. I was not a golfer. He was. He taught me golf course etiquette. He taught me the subtle rules of the game. He showed me course management and style of play. He tried to help me become a golfer, knowing that in so doing I’d be a better business man. In many respects, he succeeded. I will never play on the pro tour and I probably won’t see a 10 handicap, but I was better at my job because of the lessons he taught while on the course. I was better at anticipating the needs of clients and superiors because of golf. I was more composed, reserved and professional because of golf…because of Grandpa.

In the end, my time living with Grandpa and Grandma was too short. It was only six months. I got noticed at the company, primarily through his efforts, and was transferred. He had molded me into the exact type of employee they needed. He’d enabled my success. He’d been successful at mentoring me. I wish now that I’d been able to live with them longer. I needed them. I needed Grandpa for his wit and wisdom and his mentoring. There was surely more he could have taught me.

Over the next several years, I got back to visit them as often as I could…but never as often as I should have. They traveled. I was busy. They sold the big house. I got transferred again. I got married. And then his health started to fade. At one summer gathering he was out watering his plants and threw out his back. I had to help him in and out of the shower and in and out of the car a couple of times. It was very distressful for me. I wasn’t able to handle it. I couldn’t bear to see him so frail. I couldn’t bear to see him so weak. I would always choke back the feelings and help him do what he needed to do, but it always left me feeling empty. I was losing him. He was passing away right before my eyes. He always showed a brave face…the stiff upper lip. He was tough.

We visited them in Arizona in the spring of 2001. Cara was pregnant with Anne. We traveled all over Tucson seeing the sights and having fun. We took some great pictures. We created some lasting memories. They were obviously having fun in their new surroundings, and I was glad for them. Two years later, we all gathered at the cottage for Thanksgiving. It was one of the few times recently where the entire family was together. And, true to form, Grandpa was flirting and charming…with everyone, but this time with Anne too. His eyes lit up whenever she would talk to him, whenever she would hug him or hand him something. I got a lot of great video footage of that holiday. And, I am especially glad that I got footage of Grandpa.

On the way to the funeral, I wrote a eulogy. I wasn’t sure if I’d read it. I wasn’t even sure if anyone would ever hear it. But, sitting on the plane, on my way to an event I had known was coming for some time – and had dreaded – I simply had to put my thoughts down on paper. At the funeral, I was outside myself. I wasn’t a true participant. I felt like I was an observer in the back of the church. It wasn’t him. He wasn’t gone. So, I didn’t sound affected by the proceedings when I did get up to do my eulogy. I didn’t sound sad. I didn’t sound defeated. I didn’t appear as if I had just lost my mentor. The truth, though, is that I couldn’t wait to get away from it. I was deeply affected.

What I said, though, in that eulogy was very much a direct result of his mentoring. I was affected by his passing, but at the same time I felt a very strong connection to the ideals which he provided to me. His mentoring was more than just teaching and counseling. His mentoring, his personal connection, gave me an idea and an ideal of what integrity, honesty, honor, ethics and morality are. He showed me how charisma and strength of character can be combined. He taught me about being a good judge of character and having a healthy sense of humor. He was a great mentor.

At times, I have failed to live up to those ideals. But, on more occasions, the lessons he provided have enabled me to make the right choices. I believe I’ve been able to see where wrong action and thought, invariably because of a lack of honesty and morality, would have been the wrong course for me. I’ve been able to succeed in situations where charisma and strength of character are vital. And, I’m able to stay amused most of the time. He’s responsible for this. He gave me those skills. His personal connection and tutoring gave me that advantage. I’m so very glad to have had the opportunity to be mentored by Jack Strait. I will always be indebted to him. I will always miss him.

Copyright (c) 2005 The Jamoker. All rights reserved.