In reading over several of the oral history interviews in the Archives recently, I was struck at the important role that mentors can play in a young person's life – often changing the direction of that life completely. While some children decide to become an astronaut or a nurse in childhood, others don't see a clear road in front of them. Mentors have a different view of the young person than they have of themselves, and see potential that others may not. They offer advice, encouragement, and jobs that lead the young person down a path they would never have taken.
When I interviewed Dr. T. Dale Stewart (1901-1997), I was struck how John L. and Mary A. Baer influenced him. Stewart grew up in a small Pennsylvania town and embarked upon a bookkeeping career at the local bank. When family friend John Baer moved to Washington, DC, during World War I, he brought young Stewart to visit the big city. John Baer married Mary Arnold - Stewart’s primary and Sunday school teacher. The Baers encouraged Stewart to go to George Washington University while living with them. John Baer secured a job in the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian's US National Museum. In 1924, Stewart filled in for Baer while he was on a Smithsonian expedition to Panama, but sadly, Baer died while on the trip, and Stewart now had a permanent job. With encouragement from Mrs. Baer, he completed college and medical school, becoming the "head curator" of physical anthropology and one of the worlds most noted physical anthropologists.
Frank A. Taylor (1903-2007) grew up in Washington, DC, where his father owned a pharmacy on Capitol Hill. Young Taylor and friends often passed the US National Museum on their way down to the Tidal Basin to swim or fish. But he never set foot inside the dreary looking place or imagined himself curating a collection, so how did he acquire the nickname "Mr. Museum"? When he graduated from high school, Taylor apprenticed in the construction industry. However, one of his teachers had insisted that students take the mechanical drawing civil service exam in order to pass the course, to gain experience taking professional exams. Taylor did so well on the exam that he was offered an entry level position at the Smithsonian, but that was all he needed to launch his career. Taylor received a bachelors degree in engineering, became curator of history of technology, head curator of the Department of History of Technology and then "Director General of Museums."
Sammy Ray (1919- ) grew up in rural Mississippi. He liked to hunt and learned a bit of taxidermy from a local birder George Vaiden. He recalled, "In the summer of my junior year in high school, I was offered a job as a postal clerk for sixty dollars a month. My parents wanted me to take it because, at that time sixty dollars a month was pretty good change, but I would have to leave school." Ray went to see his mentor Mr. Vaiden, who said, "Sammy, if you don't finish high school, you'll make the greatest mistake of your life." Vaiden hired Ray to do taxidermy, if he stayed in school, and then encouraged him to attend a local college. He introduced Ray to other naturalists, including Alexander Wetmore, Secretary of the Smithsonian. While serving in the Pacific during World War II, Ray collected birds for the US National Museum, corresponding regularly with Dr. Wetmore. At the close of the war, he went to graduate school and is still professor emeritus of marine biology at Texas A&M University in Galveston.
In each of these cases, an older person, outside of the family, opened doors for a talented young person – once opened, they studied and worked hard to succeed, but would never have gone in that direction without the mentor. Who do you see around you that has potential they might not be aware of? A bit of encouragement from you could make a huge difference in a young person’s life.
- When Time and Duty Permit: Collecting During World War II, exhibition, National Museum of Natural History
- War Correspondents, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives