Paying My Respects

In 2013, a friend passed away before he and I were able to schedule one final visit. He was a man I had come to consider a mentor, as well as a friend.

He had given advanced warning that his time was winding down—he’d been diagnosed with cancer—and had urged me not to “wait too long.” Foolishly, I treated him like another appointment on my calendar and when I found out he had died and I’d even missed the celebration of his life, I felt like a total heel.

The post I wrote honoring him back in April, 2013, touched on some of these things, but really didn’t do his life and influence justice. Rarely is it possible to perfectly capture one’s life in a blog narrative. So why do it?

Writers write, and often, we process through our craft.

Captured in the piece I wrote about and to Dave Tomm, was the thread that our lives are finite, with a set end date. Technology hasn’t yet solved that one—nor do I welcome “progress” ever offering us a drink from the cup of everlasting life. As to life after we die—I’ll leave that to the theologically-inclined to argue about.

After my friend died, I thought about another man, someone I’d developed an even closer bond to. In fact, it was this man who had originally introduced me to Tomm, the friend and colleague who died in 2013.

Some history is in order. In many ways, I’m summarizing much of what the past decade was all about for me and how the reinvention journey finally got up to highway speeds.

In August, 2006, I applied for and was hired by Bryant Hoffman at the Central/Western Maine Workforce Investment Board (LWIB). A long name for an organization that was never easy to explain to the man on the street. Under Bryant’s capable and measured tutelage, I’d learn all the inner workings of the state’s byzantine system of workforce development.

Hoffman served as the LWIB director from 2000, until he retired in 2010. He’d been hampered by a number of serious health issues that would have rendered a lesser man ineffective. But like the stoic German stock that I’m from, he persevered. I’m sure he was dealing with pain and other issues from a body that had been failing him from our first meeting and before.  He never let on, however.

In 2009, he became very ill. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that this medical condition was quite grave. He missed a month of work. During that time, he remained in close contact with my colleague, Judy, and I. He even convened some working lunches at his home in Winthrop, and the work continued. I wondered aloud whether Bryant would ever return. I shouldn’t have doubted him.

Bryant finally came back to the office in Lewiston. Judy and I both agreed that it was way too soon, and as a result, there were a few weeks when it seemed like our prior boss was gone and he wasn’t coming back. He was short with both of us, and I even confided in her that for the first time, Bryant had really pissed me off when he made some off-handed comment that cut like a knife during a public forum.

There is the realization now that he was in pain, and not himself. The “old” Bryant eventually returned over time, although something seemed amiss. Sometimes, his color would be almost gray, and we knew that Bryant’s health would continue to be an issue as long as he continued in this very demanding role.

His retirement in 2010 was an awkward time. While many think they know the circumstances, only Judy and I ever saw the juggling act required to keep the balky workforce system running smoothly (or at least, help it remain functional). I won’t take readers into the weeds with details. I will repeat what Bryant often said to me, “Baumer, this work will make you schizophrenic.” I came to understand what he meant.

I got an important lesson in the value of working for someone special, when after Bryant retired, the LWIB board installed a weak director that they had handpicked. My guess about the choice had to do with knowing that they’d be able to lead him around by the nose. No unilateral acts on the part of this guy.

Anyone that knows me well, knows how little I respected the new boss. I’m sure he knew this. Finally, when given the opportunity—after using Judy and I to learn the ropes and make him look good—we were shown the door in 2012.

I don’t want to focus on the lesser lights, today. There are plenty of them out there. This is my tribute to someone that I consider one of the five greatest people I have had the privilege of knowing, personally.

Bryant and I forged a friendship. Never before had I bothered to maintain even a cursory relationship with an ex-boss.

His obituary intimates that he possessed the required bona fides and credentials. However, he wasn’t the type to flaunt the letters and credentialing following his name, either. He’d been a former academic, a college professor and a dean, a man with his Ph.D. in English. He often referred to himself as a “recovering academic.” He was self-deprecating, and never lorded his education over anyone.

I've lost a mentor and a friend.

I’ve lost a mentor and a friend.

At the same time, if anyone was paying the slightest attention (and too few were), they would have recognized that this wasn’t some yokel. More times than I care to admit—even given my passion to learn and my enrollment in the University of Autodidactica—I was out of my element with this man. Bryant, with the ease of drawing a breath, would casually throw off a phrase, quote, or reference, and I’d run back to my desk or jot it in my notebook during a meeting, to be sure I looked it up that night; that way, the next time he mentioned something similar, I wouldn’t’ be such an ignoramus.

One time when I mentioned how much I wished I’d have had the opportunity to go on and study for an advanced degree, in reference to his own Ph.D., he said, “Baumer, it only means pile it higher and deeper.” He never needed people to call him, “Dr. Hoffman.”

Judy and I remained in touch after our layoff.  The small team that I was admitted to in 2006 was only three deep. We soldiered on after Bryant retired, but it was never the same. I credit her with helping me understand Bryant in a way that only someone perceptive like her, could. Like when I tried to call him a few months after he retired to see how he was doing and we had a brief and awkward phone exchange.

“Bryant hates talking on the phone. Send him an email—you’ll get a better response,” she said.

I’ll remain forever grateful for that, Judy. You allowed me a window into the man, as well as forging a connection and a bond that would remain strong right up until he died, a few weeks ago.

Last October around this time, Wes McNair was launching his new book, Lost Child: Ozark Poems, inspired by the demise and eventual death of his mother. The stories are about McNair returning to rural Missouri, and his mother’s family.

I knew Wes and Bryant had been colleagues at Colby-Sawyer. Bryant was McNair’s dean, and he always spoke fondly and with great respect about McNair, Maine’s former poet laureate. Bryant admired Wes and his determination to continue writing and staying relevant with younger readers. The talk and book signing was being held at Waterville Public Library, a place that figured prominently in the LWIB work Bryant and I did, and even afterwards.

I sent him an email mentioning I was planning to make the drive up and I’d prefer to have someone along for the ride. It’s an hour away from my home, and to be quite honest—I was only planning to go if Bryant agreed to accompany me (but I didn’t tell him my ulterior motives). My plan was really about getting these two literary giants together once again.

McNair was superb and likely performing as usual. I remembered Bryant saying that “Wes is a great reader,” when he and I would talk about some of my own adventures out on the book talk circuit, and McNair’s name came up. The best part of the evening was standing in the background and seeing that these two men respected one another and McNair was genuinely surprised—and I think pleased—to see Bryant at the event.

I treasured the time up and back in the car. We had one of our great conversations about life that night. I expressed how much he’d meant to me and my appreciation for his continued friendship.

Bryant knew a bit about my struggles and challenges, as I’d kept him in the loop about my free agent adventures since 2012. I also shared successes with him. He was genuinely happy for me when my byline began popping up in places like the Boston Globe. He let me know about his own life, and how much he was enjoying being back in the classroom, teaching again.

I have many emails that I’ve kept from Bryant. On the Tuesday two weeks ago that I received the email from his daughter, Kirsten, sharing the sad news of her father’s passing, I came home and read through them. I was struck by how often Bryant offered an encouraging word—not in some perfunctory, Pollyanna-ish way that is so common—but from a place of depth and understanding. I couldn’t help but recognize how much he’d come to mean to me, even though we only saw one another a few times a year. We did stay in touch through semi-regular email notes, however.

While I’m sad that I’ll never get to see my old friend again, I treasure the memories I have of working for him, and our periodic lunches I’d scheduled with him over the past three years. I worked to cultivate our friendship.

We live at a time when true mentoring has fallen out of favor. It’s been replaced by a misguided faith attributing far too much weight to credentials and degrees—things that are earned by seat time and being able to give the right answer on standardized tests. Real life wisdom and traditional good sense is being lost, and blindly genuflecting at the alter of techno-utopianism isn’t helping.

I waited too long to see Dave Tomm. Once again, I’d been thinking I was overdue reaching out to Bryant. We saw each other in July, just prior to a planned journey down the Mississippi River. He told me he was teaching a class on Mark Twain in the fall at UMA, for their Senior College. The year before, he’d taken on Salinger.

The drive to Winthrop on Saturday was gorgeous, via an unfamiliar and winding route that took me through South Monmouth to the church on Route 135 in Winthrop, where Bryant’s final service was being held. The fall foliage, in peak form, illuminated by the bright October sunshine, was splendid. He had been an active congregant at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church for as long as I have known him, and before. I’m so glad I was able to be there.

Judy was there. We haven’t seen one another for at least two years, after spending much of our work time together for a period of six years, from 2006 to 2012. We both share rich personal memories of Bryant, as a boss, a leader, but also, as a compassionate and caring human being. We had a few chuckles about the difficulty we both had in finding the church, as Bryant was never great with directions and finding places.

His daughter offered a short but touching eulogy for her Dad. She said he was regularly “reinventing himself, always with grace.” She also mentioned being “kind, curious, strong, and brave.”

That’s the Bryant I remember and I’ll keep those memories close.

6 thoughts on “Paying My Respects

  1. How lucky you are to have had such a mentor in your life and how much I appreciate you passing some of that on to me when I was new in the job. And I still miss our trips to Jackman…we always think we have more time…

  2. I always learn something when I read your writing, Jim. It is good to have people in life who accept you and are straight with you but who you know also respect you. Sounds like Bryant was very much like that. We all need someone like that in our life, don’t we?

  3. Reflecting on Bryant’s life and what I think his legacy means for me, I’m struck by his engagement after he supposedly “retired.” He continued as a volunteer, a teacher, and remained someone I could ask advice of and benefit from his wisdom.

    I’m also cognizant that he didn’t go off and forget about key people from his past. He continued to communicate by email, he spent time with them, and always was willing to assist in any way possible.

    That kind of engagement is irreplaceable.

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