Thinking of the people who have been mentors and teachers in my life, and how thankful I am for them.
It covers a broad spectrum, beginning with parents and we mostly think of our school administrators, teachers (coaches) and our bosses as "mentors."
But it's also our spouses, our friends, our co-workers, our kids and their friends, and now even our grandkids who can teach us.
Really, if you're paying attention, and if your philosophy matches mine, you can (or should) learn something from most anyone you encounter.
I was thinking of some teachers and some fellow employees who -- frankly -- I did not enjoy. But perhaps they taught me about people skills, an area in which I had much to learn.
There is a long list of people, though, who were important to me, personally and professionally. Forever grateful for them.
|Willa Smith's photo from the yearbook section, 1965 Woodlawn High|
School Accolade (she was the main reason for outstanding yearbooks)
Posted about her on Facebook and in e-mails -- to our Woodlawn High School friends -- after our conversation in mid-November, but I want to write more about Miss Willa Smith.
She was not a journalism teacher per se, but she taught journalism principles which stuck with me forever. I will get to those in a moment.
Part of the note I posted about her:
... Miss Smith was the excellent yearbook advisor (and also typing/shorthand teacher) at Woodlawn from its start in 1960 through May 1968. I have stayed in touch with her over the years ... but I had not talked to her in maybe five years (my fault). So I called her ... with trepidation, not knowing if she was even still alive.
She is; she is 90, using a walker because she had both knees replaced at the same time, and then subsequently fell a couple of times, broke the femur in one of her legs and spent five months in a Hattiesburg hospital. She is back home now in Tylertown, Miss, and the last of her large immediate family (most lived into their mid-90s) and a sister-in-law live closeby.
The good news: She is as sharp mentally as she always was. She is very proud and fond of her Woodlawn years, and those All-America-rated yearbooks -- and she should be.
That was the note I posted. Here is more -- we had a good talk, and she remembered, and reminded me, that she shares a birthday (Oct. 23) with granddaughter Josie (our first grandchild).
She asked about Terry -- yes, Bradshaw -- and if I had seen him (other than on TV). The answer at that point was no, not in almost 30 years.
The answer now is, yes, I was in the vicinity at the Frisco Bowl game last week when he was one of Louisiana Tech's honorary team captains and conducted the pregame coin toss in typical good Bradshaw humor. But he was on the field and I was in the stands, and that's as close as I needed to be.
About Miss Smith's teaching career: In the mid-1950s, she was at Covington, La., High School -- near her hometown. She then came to North Louisiana and was the yearbook advisor at Greenwood High School, just outside Shreveport. That school closed when Woodlawn opened, and we were so fortunate that she was part of what I consider an excellent Woodlawn faculty.
She stayed through the 1967-68 school year. It was the next year when Woodlawn won state championships in football and basketball; by then, she was back at Covington, having moved to be closer to her aging mother and more family.
She retired after 31 years of teaching and said -- in a letter to me -- "took early retirement because [I] was exhausted after putting together 21 yearbooks while teaching hundreds of students."
Through the years, we exchanged a few phone calls and a half-dozen letters -- not short notes -- and she reminded that she had kept them all (and so had I).
Anyway, about Miss Smith and how she was a mentor ...
First, she was so patient with everyone who worked on yearbook staffs. That trait I didn't pick up on all that often.
(There was one day she was no so patient with me; I have written a blog piece about it. She was furious -- only time I ever saw her mad -- and ready to send me to the assistant principal in charge of discipline. But, dang -- a two-out, two-run tying Yankees home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of a World Series Game 5. Who, even stowed away in a back room listening to a transistor radio, would not have reacted and screamed about that?)
Second, she was so careful, so thorough, so focused on details, so aware of meeting (or beating) deadlines imposed by the yearbook publishing company.
The thoroughness included proper cropping of photos and strict layout rules that meant recognizing borders and no "bleeding" photos off a page, and a proofreading process to eliminate most would-be mistakes -- misspellings, transposed words and/or photos.
So our final products were extremely "clean" -- organized, disciplined, sharp-looking -- efforts. Can't remember mistakes in those books through her eight years there.
When I wrote the "mistakes were made" blog piece a week ago, it was an example that Miss Smith's focus on excellence didn't always carry over. But we did our damndest always to prevent errors.
That blog piece was about people's names being fouled up, misspelled. Miss Smith was a stickler about having names correct in the yearbooks, and properly identifying photos. So we double- and tripled-checked names, especially in the class-photos sections. Again, wish in later newspaper work, I had been more careful at times.
Also, she insisted that a person's given name be used; no nicknames. So the guy everyone called Buster was Cecil in our yearbooks. But ... we did talk her into allowing the use of Trey -- star every-sport athlete and one of the best-known, most popular kids in school -- instead of (formal name) Henry Lee. Had to work hard to convince her of that.
She had us count headlines to be sure that they were lengthy enough (one full line) and count the words in our copy block to fit the allotted space.
One principle that stuck with me: On cutlines (photo captions), don't let one or two words jump to the bottom line (no "widows" or "hangovers"). Same on paragraphs, if possible. An aesthetic aspect, but a good one.
Third, Miss Smith made yearbook work serious business.
She stressed -- I hesitate to use preached, although she is a deeply religious person -- (1) that yearbooks were history books, that the information contained would be reference material, and should be as accurate as possible; and (2) that these were not books for cuteness, for making fun of people, no "inside" jokes, or cutting out photos for collages (which you saw in many yearbooks).
I was never a "cute" writer anyway, but I do know some very talented, award-winning sports writers who were great at writing columns for laughs (and, honestly, often to please themselves).
Miss Smith was dedicated to the task, and the kids, and it took hours on weekends to work with editors of each section -- including some eager-but-naive sports editors.
Serious business, yes. I might have been one of the great "light" cut-ups and a raging maniac at times in every sports department I was in; ah, no "might" about it. But also, journalism -- newspapers or sports information -- and effort for excellence was serious business to me. (So was winning in athletics, or making the best effort.)
It was a close-knit family in Tylertown -- seven children -- and it was steeped in military service, religious service and teaching. Family reunions were special.
Miss Smith's three brothers all served as pilots in the military. The oldest was a fighter-plane pilot who flew 72 missions over Europe in World War II, later was a Mississippi state representative. The second-oldest was a bomber pilot killed in World War II. The youngest, with 20 years in the military, served in Korea and flew helicopters in Vietnam.
|A few years ago|
Her closest sister was Alda, who taught at Queensborough Elementary in Shreveport for nine years while our Miss Smith was at Greenwood and Woodlawn. They each remained single, went back to South Louisiana -- Alda also taught elementary school in Covington -- so they could be with their mother each weekend in Tylertown. When she died, they went to live in the old family home.
They each proudly worked on the historical committee of their lifelong Silver Creek Baptist Church in nearby McComb, Miss., which reached its 200th anniversary in 2014, and they helped organize the celebration.
Alda died that year. Near the end, she finished compiling the Smith family genealogy book, which her four-years-younger sister appreciated.
Willa Lee, thankfully, goes on. A sister-in-law who lives nearby checks on her. It is not easy for her to move around, but our friend Miss Smith never lacked for smarts, spirit, drive and determination.
And I know some old Woodlawn kids who have never forgotten what excellence meant, what a teacher and a mentor meant to us, and still does.