Mentors 1: Guides who point the way

James Breiner
5 min readOct 30, 2023

Thanks to those who met us just once or gave us one great recommendation

You’re reading the My News Biz blog. My goal is to help digital media entrepreneurs find viable business models. This is the first of a series about mentors -whether friends, family, coaches, guides, or teachers — and how we can be good mentors to others. With rapid change in the digital world, we need to be lifelong learners and teachers.

Sometimes what mentors need to do is give someone a kick in the pants. I needed one while a senior year in high school. The Vietnam war was raging, and most of my classmates were applying to colleges to delay military service.

I knew my parents couldn’t afford to pay my tuition, so I thought I had just two options: either work part-time and pay my way through a low-cost commuter school or serve two years in the military to qualify for education benefits under the GI Bill. Two of my older brothers had been drafted and paid for college that way.

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

The third option. I was walking between classes — this was at St. Ignatius High in Cleveland — when Tom Pasko, my history teacher, stopped me and asked what college I was going to.

It was already December and I was to graduate in May. I told him I hadn’t applied to any schools yet. (This was before today’s college-visit circus.)

Pasko was shocked. He scolded me and told me I needed to get moving. He said that with my grades (very good) and extracurricular activities (drama club, literary magazine), I should be able to get a scholarship to a good liberal arts college. This was a third optionthat I hadn’t considered.

The bonus

It was ultimately the path I followed, and it made all the difference. One of the schools that Pasko mentioned was the College of Wooster. I applied and was offered a generous financial aid package.

It turned out Wooster had excellent departments of English and French and a great independent study program. Classes were small. I was involved in theater productions, the radio station, the school newspaper, and had part-time jobs.

Most importantly, I met my future wife there — the third option’s big bonus.

Shortage of good people

Sometimes the best career guidance comes in the form of a piece of advice from a respected colleague, friend, or family member.

Now in college, I was having dinner with a friend and his parents. The father was a lawyer who had a small, successful practice. I told him I wanted to get into newspaper or magazine writing. But I was discouraged that there were so few openings at big newspapers and such intense competition for jobs.

“Don’t worry when you hear that a profession or some field is crowded,” he said. “There is always room for someone who is good at what they do.” In other words, make sure that you stand out as one of those good people. This is advice I have passed on to many as well.

Unforgettable

Several years later, I was looking for my first job out of graduate school (MA, English literature). A family friend who worked at a trade publisher suggested I look there.

I had written for a public relations office while working on my master’s. The friend mentioned that a magazine about the hydraulics and pneumatics industry was looking for a junior editor to rewrite press releases and do some stories. I managed to schedule an appointment.

The editor looked over my clips, interviewed me, and then adopted a kindly tone. “You could do this job, and you would be very good at it,” he said, “but you wouldn’t be happy here. I can see from your clips that you’re much more interested in the arts and public affairs. You should keep looking. Try one of these small newspapers around town.”

The silver lining

At that point I had been looking for a job for several months. I tried to persuade the editor that nothing would make me happier than writing about hydraulic and pneumatic equipment. But he was kindly and firm. He wished me good luck.

His advice turned out to be right on target. It launched me on a trajectory that was rewarding and satisfying — small newspaper, bigger newspaper, editor, publisher. I never saw that editor again. Thirty-five years later, I tried to look him up to thank him for his sage advice. He had an unusual last name. I googled it and didn’t find him but found his daughter. He had died a few years earlier.

His daughter wrote in an email: “I so appreciate your getting in touch. When I read your recollections, I was taken back to his office, and I could almost hear his voice. Thank you for bringing him so close to me again, and also for sharing a professional side of him with which I was not familiar.”

Paying forward

This editor made such an impression on me, in fact, that I thought I would do the same if I ever had a chance. As it happened, I have. Many times.

As an editor ( Business First newspaper of Columbus) and as a publisher (Baltimore Business Journal), I made it a practice to interview anyone who took the time to write a personal cover letter with their resume or who had the courage to call me.

And I considered it one of my responsibilities to give the kind of feedback that I received from that editor. He pointed out strengths I wasn’t sure I had, and he gave me encouragement. It was the concern and interest he showed that made such an impression.

Final thoughts: This summer my wife and I attended our 50th college reunion. It got me thinking about all of the professors and classmates who helped us get started in our careers and our personal lives.

That’s the topic of Mentors 2: On teachers and being a great one.

Originally published at https://jamesbreiner.substack.com.

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James Breiner

Helping digital media entrepreneurs produce trustworthy journalism. English-Spanish. ICFJ, Poynter, DW Akademie, SembraMedia https://jamesbreiner.substack.com/