Guest Column

My Senior Mentors: The Boys of Summer

by TONY ARMOCIDA

Four men huddled in a circle talking strategy about how many pizzas they would need to feed the middle school students working the phone bank. It was the Saturday before our school district’s income tax levy, and the student volunteers would be reminding citizens to vote.

This scene would not have been noteworthy except that the men directing the process were all in their 70s. Their children had long since graduated from the school system. They were comfortably retired. They had rich, full lives, but here they were campaigning for one of the most difficult issues possible—an increase in the local school tax.

I wish I could say it was my deft leadership skills or charisma that inspired these senior citizens, Wally, Sam, Carl and Shelbert, to spend 60 to 70 hours a week for the three months leading up to the vote. In fact, the story here is not how I inspired them but what they taught me. They became my senior mentors.

Easy Finds
The first thing I learned is that extraordinary people are not hard to find. Every community has committed, well-respected people who bring with them a lifetime of credibility. Each one of my mentors either approached me or was part of an existing activity in our district so they weren’t hard to find.

Wally spent years as a successful organizational consultant. He invited me to lunch soon after I became superintendent. Accessing his wisdom came at the modest cost of a sub sandwich at a local eatery. Sam, widely respected in the community for his intelligence and kind manner, had been treasurer of our levy committees for many years and was more than willing to continue in that role. Carl was a member of our district technology committee. After one of our meetings, he expressed the idea that an income tax might be a better way to fund our schools than a property tax. All I had to do was ask him to serve as co-chairperson of our income tax committee. Shelbert, a retired chemistry professor, never stopped teaching. It was a small step for him to move from tutoring in our afterschool program to immersing himself in the income tax campaign.

I was lucky to have these people available, but the fact is that every district I have served in as a teacher and administrator has people like Wally, Sam, Carl and Shelbert, who are willing to share their knowledge and do real work on behalf of the public schools.

A second lesson I learned was to listen, to allow myself to be tutored and nurtured. In practice this meant trusting their wisdom, maturity and common sense. There is a tendency in my generation (the baby boomers) to be polite but patronizing of our elders. It is as if we think they did all their important work raising us.

What I learned is that often the insights of my senior mentors were more accurate and up-to-date than those of my contemporaries. Their opinions were not tied to ego or the need to impress anyone. Each was firmly established in the culture of our community. I realized during the income tax campaign they had definite ideas, and the more I listened and took their advice the better the campaign ran. This may not seem like an extraordinary realization, but how many superintendents can honestly say they acted upon the advice given them by members of their parents’ generation?

One final thing I learned was to trust my senior friends to do real work. I am not exaggerating when I say they became dynamos in planning, coordinating and carrying out much of the legwork in a difficult campaign. The fact that the income tax passed by only 119 votes (out of 2,000 cast) demonstrates that everything they did was important. This included the typical campaign strategies of developing brochures, placing signs and writing letters to the editor. However, my mentors also did some special things such as handing out campaign literature at high school football games or reaching out to individuals who had expressed negative opinions about the proposed tax. Try refusing to accept a campaign brochure from or engaging in a friendly chat with an icon of the community.

I saw my elder friends bond as a group as they handled the nuts and bolts of the campaign. Early morning e-mails and late-night skull sessions became the norm as they threw themselves into an all-out effort to pass the issue. Their commitment and dedication to pass a tax that would cost each of them more money every year was inspiring. I saw them live their beliefs without regard to self-interest. Maybe that is what Tom Brokaw meant when he called them “The Greatest Generation.”

Open-Mindedness
The experience with my senior mentors was just a snapshot in time, and of course many other people contributed to our income tax campaign. But the most important point is that this experience does not have to be exceptional. While they are with us, many of our elders have the credibility, dedication, stamina and work ethic to help us do the best work of our lives.

As school leaders, we must keep our eyes open for opportunities, our ears open for advice and our hearts open to the prospect of seniors doing meaningful work for the public education of our children.

Tony Armocida is superintendent of the Yellow Springs Schools, 201 S. Walnut St., Yellow Springs, OH 45387. E-mail: ys_aarmocida@mveca.org