I never chose my mentors, they just "were". And then they are gone. I lost two of the men who helped shape my life within days of each other in 1993. My first real boss, Dr. Earl Suckow, passed away while undergoing aggressive therapy for recently diagnosed lung cancer. He was a smoker, a brawler, and let you know in no uncertain terms when you had crossed him. But in my first professional gig he took me under his wing, making sure I had the capability and the confidence to make my own diagnostic decisions. He encouraged me to go to night school for an MBA, emphasizing that in the years to come mastering the business of medicine would be as valuable to me as mastering the art of pathology. He was a family man, treasuring his annual trip to a Wisconsin resort with wife Char, his five daughters, and all the grandkids. Barb and I still look forward to the annual holiday cards picturing the whole Suckow clan.
My dad, Harold Raff, whom I have written about before and who I resemble in so many ways, died two weeks after Earl. His long, painful fight against prostate cancer informs my decisions each day as I look at dozens and dozens of cores of prostate tissue under my microscope. I can only hope that I have been nearly the role model to my kids that my dad was to me.
Dr. Richard Dufour entered my life two years after those two men left it. In 1995, after doing some school related community service, I was asked by members of the Adlai Stevenson High School Board of Education to run for election to join them. It was as a Board member that I met Rick, superintendent and undisputed master of the school, the district, and possibly the universe. Under Rick's guidance Stevenson had entered the realm of high performing high schools, battling it out for suburban supremacy along with perpetual powerhouse New Trier. Rick was tough, decisive, but with the capacity to listen. Our annual retreats were filled white white boards and wild thinking.
I know Rick had fun teasing me as the perpetual "junior member" of a Board mostly composed of old veterans, but he was always kind as he explained why my questions were way off base, my suggestions a bit bizarre. And we shared a love of music, Rick being one of the few people who could hold his own against me in a round of "Name that Tune."
Rick was not "my" superintendent. He belonged to the old-timers who had chosen him. Most of my tenure as President of the Board was spent with his successor, Dr. Tim Kanold at the helm. By that time, Rick was making his mark on the national scene as a leading proponent of Professional Learning Communities. I had the pleasure of writing a review of one of his earliest books, Professional Learning Communities at Work. I submitted that review to a medical journal, fully believing that Rick's ideas were so universal they could be applied in any setting. Apparently the editors of the American Journal of Clinical Pathology agreed and published the review a few months later.
It was in September of 2014 that I received a call from Rick, telling me he had just been diagnosed with lung cancer, and asking for some information and guidance. I cannot describe the shock and sadness I felt as I spoke with him. Though not an expert in the field, I knew the statistics and the overwhelming odds he faced. But Rick was never a quitter, and along with wife Becky, he would not quit in his last battle. Barb and I followed his progress via the wonderful blog he wrote, always uplifting, never pitying. The last time I saw him, in the summer of 2015, he made it clear that he, and not the cancer, was running his life.
Yesterday, Becky wrote the blog post that we knew would be coming. It was brief, but loving as always, as she told us all that Rick had passed away.
For the third time cancer has taken my mentor. Perhaps I am too old to find another, but perhaps there will be someone for me right around the corner.
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