The Master Mentor: Robert Russell Sr.October 19, 2012
Prologue: I promised the first of this series would be a piece on Dr. Alvetta Peterman Thomas, but a sudden change in circumstances has moved me to begin here.
In life, there are those who will give you a push ... and then are those who will run behind you with their hand in the small of your back. For me, this was Mr. Robert Russell Sr.
I met Mr. Russell eight years ago in a chance encounter. He was sitting in an office of the Sandusky Citizen's Coalition, a community action organization in my hometown, and I dropped in to chat with a friend who volunteered there. (My office at Big Brothers Big Sisters was right across the street.) My friend and I were always talking politics and community building. We'd have lively quick debates and, this day, Mr. Russell was sitting in the corner of the room when one got underway. I was rambling on and just happened to look up to see him staring at me with his mouth slightly agape and eyes stretched. I asked him, "what?" He said, "You are a somethin' else!"
From that day on, for two years, he'd visit me in my office to see what big plans I had for the organization I was learning to lead and to pick my brain about thoughts he was having — many times ploys to get me fired up. Ha. But, through those conversations he challenged me to think like no one had ever challenged me before. I had always, up to that point, believed that if I just spoke my goals out loud that somehow they would come to pass. I would work them through, of course. But, many times when I spoke about things I dreamed of doing and becoming, I had no idea how I'd get there.
Not knowing I was afraid of speaking in front of people, Mr. Russell suggested me to speak for the NAACP's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in 2005. I was accustomed to turning any invite of the sort down. My response was always the same: I don't like to get up in front of large audiences. He didn't accept it. I worked on my speech for weeks, wanting to back down at every turn. But, when the time came, I delivered it. And the next day, he told me again, "Girl, you are something else!" I thought, he believes in me and I have impressed him. Good. A week later, he asked me, "What's next?"
This was our relationship. My goals were his goals for me. And his goals for me were my goals for me. Then, in his 70's, he was full of zest and ideas, and most of all — he was full of motivation. I needed that because I was brimming with what seemed like insurmountable dreams. Sometimes, I would call him just to say something I wanted to do out loud. He was my sounding board and handled my aspirations with such care that you would have believed they were already nearly achieved.
Every conversation wasn't easy. Sometimes, our banter left me utterly exasperated. But he didn't take down. Mr. Russell forced me to do more than dream. He, not only drew me to my power ... he encouraged me to steer it.
When I told him, at the end of 2005, that I would be leaving BBBS to pursue my editorship, I could tell that he was completely perplexed. We talked and talked and talked. He asked me a lot of questions and argued that where I was was quite a station for a woman my age. I maintained in every conversation that there was something more for me. Eventually, he conceded.
Less than a year later, when I was offered the job of associated editor with Atlanta Tribune, he was among the first calls I made. His response, (I heard him clap his hands in the background) "Girl! You are somethin' else!"
For the past six years, he continued to be ubiquitous in my life. He believed. He challenged. He celebrated. And always expected to hear what was next.
Yesterday, Mr. Russell — my coach, my confidante, my sounding board, my mentor, my friend — passed away. And I felt that suddenly that there was no hand on my back pushing me to a doubled speed. I thought, I had so much more to show him and felt for a moment that I wouldn't be able to get there. But, this morning I understood that he likely pulled his hand away long before I realized it because he recognized that I finally had my momentum and my steering sure. And that for a while now, he'd been standing back watching me charge on without looking back.
Thank you, Mr. Russell, for the gift of momentum.
Footnote: Be the energy you want to draw out of someone else.