Mentors and Intangibles: Remembering Gary and Greg

As applicants and search committees look forward to the upcoming Modern Language Association convention in Seattle, Rosemary Feal has been listing “intangibles, not visible on CV”  on her Twitter feed. She means characteristics like integrity, maturity, honesty, and empathy, which while hard to glean from job materials are nonetheless very important to employers. I’ve been thinking a lot about these kinds of intangible characteristics recently, but not because of the MLA. When I think of the intangibles that I would claim for myself, I trace many of them back to my college swim coach and mentor Gary Troyer, who passed away last week, and to Greg Colomb, who passed away in October. I am a different person — a better person — for having known them, but it is hard to quantify what they taught me. As I reflect on what the world has lost in the last two months, I felt the need to think about how much I learned from these two mentors.

Probably the most specific characteristic I associate having learned from both is self-confidence. Greg ran the writing program at the University of Virginia, and every graduate student who came through our department worked closely with him. A memory I deeply cherish is from my first time teaching a college course, as a teaching assistant in Greg’s “academic and professional writing.” I led a once-a-week workshop, which complemented the lectures. Around mid-semester, about an hour before my class, I happened to meet Greg in the hallway. “I’m coming to observe you today,” he said (while some professors give lots of advance notice before coming to observe a TA, I soon learned that wasn’t Greg’s style). The class went fine, and when I went by Greg’s office a few days later to talk to him about it, he told me “you’re a born teacher.” This remains one of the greatest compliments anyone’s ever paid me, and meant so much more coming from Greg. Whenever a class doesn’t go well, or I feel like I’m not doing my best, I remember Greg’s confidence in me.

Gary had been coaching for thirty plus years when I first met him, and one way he had learned to keep track of the swimmers was to recruit them to play water polo. I’d never even seen a game before, but was happy to fill out the bench and stay in reasonable shape. I wasn’t very good at water polo, and probably didn’t try as hard in practices as I could have. After a successful performance in the 100 fly in one of the first swim meets, Gary confessed to me, “a few months ago I wasn’t sure you could even finish a 100 fly.” This was blunt honesty, which some found off-putting but which I appreciated. And that he could be this honest meant that when he was excited about something, it was genuine. He wasn’t given to large outward displays of emotion, but I remember winning a race and looking over to see him with both arms raised in victory. The image stays with me.

The more I think about it, Gary and Greg had a lot in common, and would have gotten along well together. Both were inveterate lovers of knowledge: Gary did the crossword every day, and Greg was never shy about sharing something he’d just learned (he taught me everything I know about curling, a sport I never thought could be interesting.) Both loved to cook, and would have students over to their houses (I can’t begin to guess how much carne asada and tri-tip sandwiches Gary cooked us). And both were repositories of institutional memory: Gary coached at Pomona for over thirty years and we loved hearing his stories and meeting alumni whom he’d coached years ago, and Greg could draw on decades of experience in the writing program to aid in any of the administrative questions that came up (I witnessed this first-hand in weekly meetings.)

But most of all, both were great men: happily married, they loved their jobs and were loved by their students. There are many people to whom I look up intellectually and professionally, but when I think of the kind of person I would like to be, I’m hard pressed to imagine better mentors than Greg and Gary.

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