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Lawyers Journal

Mentoring's many forms and paths

The poet and classics scholar Rolfe Humphries graduated from Amherst College in 1915, taught secondary school Latin for about 32 years, and then returned to his (and my) alma mater in 1959 to teach English. Humphries, well regarded as a poet, mentored many poets over the years, including Theodore Roethke. Humphries was lauded by the poet W.H. Auden for Humphries' translation of Virgil's "Aeneid," which Auden called "a service for which no public reward could be too great." Humphries recognized the inestimable value of mentoring and teaching in all its forms. When Humphries retired from Amherst in 1966, he wrote a poem in tribute to Jim Ostendarp, Amherst's head football coach from 1959 to 1991. The poem, in its entirety, is well worth reading, but I quote just the following excerpt:

One last remark: in art, in sport, we see
In application, this philosophy --
Any creative work is better done
In an environment of love and fun
Where a long run, or a good story, seems
Not just one man's achievement, but the team's.
It's all a game -- sure, sure, but what the hell?
Why not, while we're at it, do it well?

And so, from Amherst near and Amherst far,
We thank you, Jim, for what you do and are.

Humphries retired before I was able to take a course from him, but I did get to know Jim Ostendarp -- "the Darp" -- who became, over time, a legend at Amherst. The Darp's legend was not as a great coach, which he was, but as a great teacher, like Humphries. In addition to coaching varsity football, the Darp coached freshman lacrosse. I was a lesser light on an otherwise pretty good freshman team. My modest playing time was consistent with my very modest lacrosse ability.

On an early season road trip, we stopped at an inn for lunch. Shortly after we were seated, the Darp announced that surely someone on the team must be able to play the piano. My teammates pointed at me, and, like a Greek chorus, chanted "Stump!" (MBA past president Dick Campbell previously revealed my college nickname during his tenure.)

I thus was dispatched by the Darp to the grand piano and played "Cool and Caressing," written by the late jazz pianist and composer, Billy Taylor. Like a golfer recalling every hole played and stroke taken, I can remember lots of tunes I have played under a variety of circumstances. That Taylor piece was the only one I could play then as a solo that I thought was worth listening to. The Darp liked what he heard, and that is how we bonded -- over music, not lacrosse. I hasten to add that my lacrosse playing time did not increase in the slightest.

Jim Ostendarp enjoyed taking his players to the Amherst art building to look at and discuss art works. He loved listening to and discussing classical music. But make no mistake about it: as a highly competitive former New York Giants football player, he understood what it took to win and expected only the best from his players. Always the teacher, he famously rebuffed ESPN's efforts to televise the 100th annual football game between Amherst and Williams. In explaining his decision, the Darp told The Wall Street Journal that Amherst was in the education business, not the entertainment business.

After his death in 2005, when a memorial service was held at Amherst College, countless Amherst graduates, players and non-players alike, joined the celebration of his life, such was his impact on so many of us.

I have been fortunate to have many lawyers and judges positively influence me during my career. The late Joe Casey of Lynn, a superb courtroom advocate and gentleman, helped me and many others, complimenting what he saw as good work in the courtroom and providing constructive criticism when he saw something less. Likewise, the late John Jennings of Salem, a trial lawyer of great renown, always made time to take a young lawyer aside to offer encouragement and advice. So, too, did the late Frank Swift of Boston, a superb cross-examiner who was very helpful to me in an early jury trial I had, providing me with invaluable advice and encouragement. The late Superior Court Judge Edward Bennett was exceedingly generous to me and other young lawyers.

I cite these individuals because they, like Rolfe Humphries and Jim Ostendarp, got it. I could cite many others, including lawyers and judges still active, but the list would be too long.

I also will cite a non-lawyer, my father, an engineer, inventor and scientist, who could be difficult.

Some months after his death 10 years ago, we had a memorial service for him in Buffalo, and my middle brother and I delivered some remarks. Neither of us had seen or discussed each other's remarks beforehand. From conversations at the reception after the service I know that many people in attendance wondered if we had the same father. Our remarks were very different, with a notable exception. The common thread was, if something is worth doing, as Rolfe Humphries said, "Sure, sure, but what the hell? Why not, while we're at it, do it well?" My father actually might have said it that way, especially the "what the hell" part, albeit far less poetically than Humphries.

Teachers, coaches and mentors have a lasting impact, not because of the subject or the sport. The subject or the sport is incidental. What has primacy is the doing -- doing whatever and doing it well.

It has been said of artists that part of their motivation to create is that the art they create will outlive them, thus providing a kind of immortality. I think that kind of motivation can apply to pretty much any endeavor. Doing the best we can and sharing that attitude with others provides the opportunity to create something that will last beyond any of us.

All of us, as lawyers, have the capability to do the best we can, regardless of our particular ability. All of us can help and encourage others to do the same. By doing these simple things we can make a difference every day we inhabit this planet and potentially a long time after that.

Just as Rolfe Humphries said to Jim Ostendarp, we all should want and be able to say to each other: from our profession near and our profession far, thanks for what we do and are.

That's a pretty nice objective and would make for a decent legacy in the bargain -- for all of us.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association