It was about 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning when my cell phone rang. It was Pete. As an early riser, I was already up studying, but my head was a bit cloudy. The night before Pete had talked me into one too many gin martinis.
Even though I was a 26-year-old grad student and he was an 89-year-old man, he could drink me under the table without blinking. I wasn’t drunk when I had left his high-rise apartment overlooking the United Nations, but the buzz certainly made it harder to find the last train off Manhattan.
Pete and I had seen each other almost weekly for the last several months, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to call me early. But it was uncommon for him to call me the morning after. Pete had so many “orphans” he looked after that capturing his attention two days in a row alarmed me.
Some of us had taken to calling ourselves “Pete’s orphans,” not because we didn’t have parents, but because it felt like we were somehow his; treasured children who belonged to him because he cared. Over the years I have met dozens of his orphans (including my own father), and each and every one of them is an extraordinary person. Some of the orphans were like me in their 20’s and some of his orphans were up in their seventies (Charlie Osgood, was 76 years old when I met him, and he still gets advice from Pete).
To be in the ranks of Pete’s regular dinner companions is a privilege; but one that I will say has to be earned. While he will have dinner with almost anyone, he only latches on to certain people. I remember asking him once how he chooses people to look after and he just laughed and said “Vance, who knows how many dinners I have left- so I am only going to go to dinner with people who have passion. I also think sitting across from smart women makes food taste better.” Pete has amazing passion and as best as I can tell, he selects people that are able to share their passion with him.
When I met Pete
I met Pete after hearing stories about him for my entire life. 40 years earlier, Pete had counseled my father. When I moved to the East Coast for graduate school- my father introduced us.
We were instant friends but it took me months to learn his biography. He grew up as an orphan during the great depression. He fought in World War II, earning two purple hearts. He single-handedly saved the leader of the Dutch resistance. He came back to the U.S. and became a salesman (selling blankets) while going to school at night. Worked his way up the corporate ladder to eventually become the head of Springs Industry a Fortune 500 textile manufacturer.
While I could have endlessly listened to his stories, it always felt like he desperately wanted to know more about me. His questions were boundless; wanting to know what I knew, what I believed, and what I wanted.
Getting to know Pete could be likened to falling in love- when I was in his presence the whole world fell away. He demands a level of depth that feels something like meditation. It required focus to keep up with his lightning intellect. From the moment I entered the door to his apartment I could be quizzed on anything. He would want to know what I thought about an obscure article written in the Wall Street Journal, and he expected that I knew who was on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. He would give me books on sculpture, philosophy, and history, fully expecting that I would read them on top of my graduate studies. I had never been challenged on that level, and I had never been listened to on that level either.
To fail his expectations was crushing.
If ever I showed up unprepared or disengaged, his pale blue eyes would stare right back at me speaking volumes in a single glance. They told me that I could be more and therefore must be more. His eyes could see me in a way that I could not see myself. Over time, I began to see myself the way his eyes could. My intellect, my integrity, my passion were all so much larger than I had ever dreamed. He expected that I was the person he saw. His expectations were higher than any normal person’s, I thrived on it.
I embraced the challenge to be this fuller, better person- the one that Pete imagined me to be. But, his expectations also came with grace and compassion. Pete willingly waited to be asked for advice, and followed up weeks and months later. His heart was full of compassion when I brought him legitimate worries, and he was graceful when telling me that I was wrong about something. His advice was incisive, and I didn’t always agree with it. But on further reflection I usually realized that it was not that Pete didn’t understand my problem, it was that I was worried his advice was difficult to fulfill.
When I got the call that day...
I had no idea what Pete was going to say, but I would take a call from Pete at literally any time- he deserves that level of respect from me.
“Hi Pete! What’s up?” I asked trying to cover my croaky hangover voice.
“Hi Vaaaaaance,” he bellowed into the receiver. “I was going over my notes from last night and I have some things I want to go over with you. Do you have a minute?”
I chuckled realizing that of course Pete jots down notes after I leave- he never misses a beat. Although I was nervous about what he may be calling about, it made me feel extraordinarily cared for, that this man with so much else in his life, would think enough of our conversation to take notes after our dinner. Not only did he not want to forget what we had said, he felt so compelled to tell me his reflections that he called the next morning.
I braced myself, knowing Pete was a candid and direct man- I might not love what he had to say. I agreed to hear his thoughts.
“Vance, its just a few things- but I think I should just come out and say it.” He didn’t wait for me to agree. “Vance, you need to start dressing better. I was going to take you out to dinner, but the way you showed up; we had to stay in. Do you even own a suit?”
I was shocked! I thought that I was dressing up to see him. My face warmed as I began to blush. My ego was bruised, but it was undeniable that Pete wasn’t saying it to hurt me; he was saying it to help me. Looking back, I was wearing cheap clothes that made me look poor and not well put together. But I had no idea, because we don’t know what we don’t know.
Most people will spare your feelings so you think well of them, not Pete. After reflecting on his notes he had considered that perhaps I didn’t know that I was not dressing well. He figured out that I didn't know that my clothes made me look silly in his eyes and presumably in the eyes of other people, people that could hire me or help me.
When I told him that no, I didn’t own a suit, he was already moving forward. “Ok, well we need to change that- what are you doing Tuesday evening, why don’t you come over here and we will go together and I will show you how to buy a suit.”
I agreed to next Tuesday, knowing he didn’t intend to buy me a suit and that I was going to need to dig into my bank account. Although I was in my mid-twenties Pete must have realized that buying a suit was scary for me. He didn’t give me advice and then leave me to fix the problem myself, he put some skin in the game by offering to go with me- and teach me. He knew that I didn’t know what to look for in clothing and I needed to be taught how to make a purchase like that.
As a mentor, knowing what your mentee doesn’t know is hard; but if you reflect and if you inquire about the person you will learn a lot very quickly. Pete put two-and-two together and just came right out and asked me.
“Next thing…” Pete went on to point out that he had looked up an artist, he corrected what country I thought they were from. He wasn’t being a know-it-all; he was making sure that I wouldn’t repeat my mistake.
The third thing.
“Finally Vance, I have to ask you… have you been gaining weight?”
Stunned again, I stuttered and agreed that yes, perhaps my regiment of studying had cut into my exercise. “Oh bullshit Vance- the kind of weight you are putting on is from eating poorly. You need to take better care of yourself. You are going to be interviewing for a job and people get a big impression about how you will work based on how take care of yourself”
Again Pete was right. It is so easy to put on weight and deny it to yourself. Pete was willing to tell the emperor that he wasn’t wearing clothes. It hurt my ego, but he was spot on. He risked my resentment of him because he cared and wanted to help me. Again he didn’t wait around for me to move forward. “Vance, I am going to put a book that helped me understand nutrition in the mail. I want you to read it, and then tell me what you think. Can you do that?”
I agreed. There was no apology for hurting my feelings, but frankly there was no need. He wasn’t giving me that advice as a mother or a friend- he was telling me as a mentor; someone who wants to see me succeed and has a more objective view. I could absorb Pete’s candor and therein lies the power of a mentor.
Now I can laugh about that story- there I was sitting in the cafeteria surrounded by books and suffering a hangover and Pete called to tell me I was poorly dressed, wrong, and chubby! I loved him for it even if it bruised my ego. I started loosing weight and I bought a suit. In a few short weeks I was fit and trim, and donning a new suit. (To celebrate Pete and I crashed the bar at Le Cirque on Valentine's day- with no reservations!)
Over the next few years, Pete introduced me to dozens if not hundreds of people. Some day I will write the story about how Caroline Firestone and I almost started working in Afghanistan together, or about how Midge Richardson introduced me to a bunch of fashion models on my 27th birthday. Pete prepared me to put my best foot forward, and those people helped my career, took me to art and fashion shows, and provided me hours of fascinating conversation. But most importantly Pete got me ready to meet my wife just two years later- without his guidance how could I ever have woo-ed Helen of Troy?
Like the parent that teaches their child to hold a fork correctly, or to write thank you notes, Pete wanted me to be ready to interact with the world. Certainly, the people I met were good people and wouldn’t have denied me their company if I was overweight or poorly dressed, but I can look back on that time and smile knowing that Pete helped me be ready with good table manners.
What we can learn from Pete
When I tell stories about Pete, and the impact that he has had on my life, I invariably hear the longing complaint that “I wish I had someone in my life like that.” I have heard it so many times, that I have become reticent to talk about Pete. It hurts people’s feelings to know that there are guides out there, and they have not been fortunate enough to find them.
I care so deeply about my relationship with Pete that I have avoided writing down my stories about him. I have never felt that my writing abilities are strong enough to convey what he has given me since I met him years ago. Although I will never be capable of conveying my deep love, respect, and admiration for Pete with words, I am writing this story because there is value in sharing what he does.
Pete hears me when I speak, and he cares about my future. He isn’t a pushy helicopter parent, and he is always prepared to let me make bad decisions. He is able to tell me I am gaining weight, or that I don’t dress well because I trust that he wants what is best for me out of an evolutionary tendency towards altruism. Pete’s mentoring of orphans is a beautiful form of living prayer, an homage to the fates that kept him alive during war, and gratitude for the life he has led.
For all of the times we are tempted to try and make a “difference in the world” Pete is a living testament to the power of listening and caring; the acts of being a mentor.
Finding a mentor
For anyone wondering what you can do to find a mentor like Pete, I can only offer two pieces of unsatisfactory advice. One, if you are open to people; it is natural for them to mentor you. If you find that older people aren’t taking an interest in you, try to reflect on ways that you could show that you are open to their advice. Pete has never suggested a single book that I have not read, and if I miss his telephone call, I am sure to return it within hours (if not minutes). Responding is my way of showing him I am listening.
The second piece of advice comes from my mother. If ever in this life you feel like you are deprived; you didn’t have the older brother you always wanted, or the life-changing teacher you always heard about, you should become that person to someone else. If you didn’t have a great mentor and you can’t find one, then perhaps the universe felt you are ready to lead, and now you need to become the thing that felt like a gap in your life.
To be sure Pete is an amazing person, but his mentoring is amazing for simple reasons. When I called Pete before I posted this blog, he laughed and said that he didn’t need a blog written about him and his mentoring. He said “Vance my secret after all these years is very simple- I try to do small acts of kindness whenever I can, it has made all the difference in my life. We do not know what a small act of kindness can do. But people seem to like it.”
Leave your comments below about the mentors you have had in your life. If you are one of Pete’s Orphans- tell the story about how you met Pete. Subscribe to this blog by putting your email address in the bar at the top of the page.
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