Invincible Mentors

In the debut of her column, A Kinder Campus, Maria Shine Stewart remembers two very different campus presences who shaped her career -- and how she channels them in her dealings with others.

July 1, 2011

This is the first entry in a new column, A Kinder Campus, which explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility, and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact [email protected].

“Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.” – Kenyan Proverb


I was going to call this reflection invisible mentors, and then I went for a walk. It dawned on me that the mark of these two people on my life won’t fade unless I let it. One was a typesetter; one a faculty mentor. Invincible says it better.

Why look back at all? A Talmudic adage suggests that when it’s hard to visualize the positive, “remember the joys of days gone by.” So I sometimes consider those who have shaped my formative years — or a time when I felt a sense of possibility.

If inspiration wanes in your workday, try it.


I urge freshmen intimidated by scholarly texts to imagine how such projects are compiled, to consider the people involved. I did not gain this insight without a model, and I came across a card recently with her meticulous signature inside.

Pat was a typesetter I worked with as a new editor in another era of publishing – a time of detailed coding and a multistep, collaborative process. Projects streamed in from all over the university to be typeset, corrected, re-corrected. Updating even one undergraduate or graduate bulletin was intense work. Commencement lists. Invitations. Fliers. Reports. Ads. Even several journals.

The small staff worked in the basement of a building, since demolished, with no elevator and 15 steep stairs. The ceramics studio nearby left the faint smell of ash lingering. But push open the heavy door to typesetting, and music and gentle laughter were the backdrop. The work was nonstop and sometimes tedious, and with little margin for error -- and had to be done for temperamental and easygoing clients alike.

The team Pat led was productive and exacting. Her students were pleasant. Why? Because she was, and she trained them. Years later, I learned, while studying research by Christina Maslach and others, that quality of supervision is a factor in burnout — or preventing it. Pat was “simply” a high school graduate and spent her entire career at that institution. She knew how to lead.

And although Pat may have been invisible to some and her rate of pay modest, in her life she was a rock. A divorced mother, she planned her tight work schedule around her young daughter. Other family members leaned on her, too. When she was diagnosed with cancer in her 40s, she did not want anyone in the department or at the university to know. Not that long after, a reorganization thrust us to opposite ends of campus. And then life catapulted us to the opposite ends of the country. Without ever having reconnected, I attended her funeral.

Perhaps it’s easy for people to get so self-absorbed with the pressures of academic life that it’s tempting to give short shrift to important people behind the scenes. But if one dares to notice and acknowledge the “invincible” and how they support your campus, morale could be better. Patience is not innate, and is best taught by example. On my better days, I remember that, and I can’t help but notice that its first three letters are “Pat.”


“If you’re going to the library later, will you return this book?” he asked.

I did not know this professor, but as a shy graduate student I was pleased to be taken as someone who would go to the library.

He would eventually supervise my master’s essay. A Korean war veteran, a former seminarian, and a father of four, Dr. Magner was reserved but had a caring quality. He taught literature and creative writing, and I remember one searing poem a fellow student wrote about childhood neglect. We workshopped the poem, and I saw vague shadows of teacher comments on the back. This testimony would not be returned with only a perfunctory grade. On the other hand, I remember his blunt criticism of what he sensed was a poem recycled from, perhaps, another student’s seventh-grade stockpile. The writer stormed out of the room – but returned the next class.

One day smokers from another school lingered outside the classroom door, raucous.

“Get out of here -- and take your butts with you!” shouted the former seminarian.

I took two courses with Dr. Magner -- modern poetry and creative writing -- and we never had a chatty relationship. For him poetry was both invocation and self-discovery. He was dignified, attentive and observant, and his classroom delivery was unlike anything I heard before or since. He was often a little late, and I understood this best after becoming a parent myself.

I would go to his office only occasionally and see on the walls correspondence with writers from all over the world. Thomas Merton – pen-pal? I used to think that reading the walls would be a seminar in itself. When it came time to show him the draft of my master’s essay, I remember feeling terrified despite his record of kindness. I had put it off because it meant the end of studying literature... I was too busy with publications work… I was newly married… I had to clip coupons… it wasn’t good enough …

His affirmative response floored me. And with that shock, I pushed forward.

From Dr. Magner I learned that the help we give students need not be identical to the help that we have received, but should be tailored to the situation. He was supportive without coddling and empathetic without smothering.. After graduation, when dark times fell, I told him.When I re-entered teaching, he was in my corner. When I read poems in public, he showed up, always with an encouraging word.

“Living your life is also a creative act,” he told me, when I was uncertain whether to wade any deeper into the world of poetry.

Years later, I received a message from the alumni office that an evening in Dr. Magner’s honor was planned. He had been battling cancer. Former student after former student – several of whom had become teachers – expressed the impact he had on their lives. That was one of the most moving evenings I have witnessed in academia.

When I was rehired in the same department years later -- and brought my toddler to visit – Dr. Magner pointed to his flowing white beard and said: “Look! It’s Santa Claus!” to allay any fear a child might have about his towering presence. Cancer did recur, and Dr. Magner died.

Adages he shared in class float through my mind on difficult days: “Poets build monuments out of the chaos of their own existence.”… ”Only the mouth that is empty will receive the milk.”… And my favorite (with a nod to Henry James), “Be one on whom nothing is lost.”


Maria Shine Stewart is an adjunct faculty member on three campuses, works as a contributing editor/writer for a northeast Ohio business publication and facilitates a long-time senior citizens’ writing group.


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