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  • Writer's pictureMarkie Miller

Mentoring, a Noble Profession

By Samuel Adler

What should be our purpose as we get older? Is there a useful way we can share our valued experiences with our younger fellow human beings?

Or should we just simply ‘fade away’? Should we leave the world’s fate to the young and let them make their own mistakes? Or should we try to take the relevant experiences of our lives, and pass them on to help new generations?

I believe we must and should try, and that we who are in what used to be called a ‘ripe old age’ can continue to have an important and vital impact -- if we are willing to assume a new role as mentors.

At age 88, I finally decided to retire after teaching college full-time for 65 years. After instructing hundreds of students in many different musical subjects at some of the finest schools in our country and the world, I felt it would be more effective to offer myself as a mentor to anyone who might be interested in sharing what I had learned while living nearly a century.

I thought that my experiences in a wide variety of situations could possibly help younger people address their present problems.

I looked up the word ‘mentor’ and found a very thought- provoking and interesting article in my old Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Besides the standard definition, it goes on to mention the legendary Greek Mentor whose gave his name to the practice: “A friend to whom Odysseus, when setting out for Troy, entrusted his house and the education of his son.”

To me the word ‘entrusted’ immediately stood out. The first and main condition needed to establish a mentoring relationship is to establish trust between the mentor and their mentee. I have found that it is absolutely a necessity in forming a successful relationship.

My long life -- I am now 93 -- has been full of important and life-changing experiences which I would like to pass on. Here are just two such examples.

I was born in Germany, less than four years before the dawn of the 12-year reign of Adolf Hitler. As a young boy, I learned and saw how a ruthless campaign of disinformation and outright lies can create a toxic environment and fuel hatred even among neighbors. Falsehoods broadcast and printed daily by the government-controlled media, succeeded in making German Christians and German Jews mortal enemies. We all know what happened after that.

The lesson from this is something we must never let young people forget, especially not now and not in our country.

After finishing my education in 1950, I was immediately drafted into the United States Army. Having lived a rather sheltered life filled with family, music, books, and education, I was suddenly exposed to people from completely different backgrounds. Their priorities and their ways of life were certainly foreign to me, and I had to learn -- not just how to get along with them, but how to realize and respect the different ways people could experience and fulfill their lives. After a brief period of training, our division was sent to Germany only a little over a decade after our family was forced to flee for our lives.

When I arrived in my native land, I must admit I had a great deal of fear. I was also facing a dilemma. How shall I deal with the people who hated us so much because of our religion and ethnicity that we had to leave?

As it happened, my path forward was not in my hands, but in those of my commanding officer. He felt that the relationship between the German citizenry and the American troops there was terribly tense.

The officer knew who I was, because one of my duties was to form a choir and sometimes play the organ for the Christian services he attended regularly. He learned that I spoke German and asked me to go into town and meet with the authorities to try to find ways we could collaborate.

I thought that maybe the answer lay in music. After speaking with the mayor and some of the church musicians in town, we decided that I should take the lead in forming a community chorus.

When I suggested that we combine the chorus of the Protestant church with that of the Catholic, the mayor told me that this would be impossible because the relationship of the two communities was quite antagonistic.

I went to our chaplains, and they immediately agreed that if an American Protestant and an American Catholic chaplain would go into town with me and visit the two ‘warring’ clergymen, we might remedy the situation. Well supplied with coffee, cigarettes, chocolate and other goods then impossible to obtain locally, we visited the local clergy who lived next door to each other, but refused to speak, as if they were still fighting the Thirty Years’ War!

Fortunately, our plan worked. After two hours of negotiations, pastor and priest shook hands and agreed to let both choirs join under my direction to perform Handel’s Messiah for the upcoming Christmas holiday.

The performance we were able to give the community achieved the desired result, both in uniting the local Christian community and cementing relations between the locals and us, the occupying army.

The success of that mission changed my life and my attitude toward the Germans. I made a resolution and remembered a quote my father taught me when we studied the Book of Genesis together. When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he said: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

From that time on I have felt that my task in life is to build bridges between people through doing good, showing respect for them and also love. This was a truly profound lesson, one I’ve tried to pass on to all those I have mentored.


Samuel Adler, who fled Nazi Germany and studied with Aaron Copeland, has been called one of the greatest living composers and conductors. His autobiography, Building Bridges with Music, was published by Pendragon Press in 2017. He now lives in Perrysburg, Ohio. This is the first piece in a series edited by Douglas Neckers, Thoughts after 80.

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