I struggled with how to approach the topic, mostly with how to identify those people. There were many men and women I learned from but few who met the criteria for "mentors." As the days rolled by, two men I learned from passed away.
One was the former mayor of my home town who I got to know well when I was covering City Hall for the local paper. I met pretty much daily with Mayor Edward D. (Mike) Bergin Jr. as part of my rounds of City Hall offices for news. I covered his campaigns, his wins, his governing and his losses.
Mike passed away Aug. 10 at 74.
I got my first real exposure to politics through covering the mayor and my first exposure of how a larger city (about 110,000 population) was run, a good microcosm of governing and politics that came in handy as my career moved from journalism to politics.
Bob Veillette, who was my city editor at the Waterbury Republican-American, died last Wednesday. Bob was a talented journalist, master pianist, Shakespeare aficionado and a very fine husband and father. A little over 10 years ago Bob suffered a brain stem stroke that left him paralyzed and “locked in” – his brain functioned as always but he couldn’t move or speak.
Bergin was the longest serving mayor in Waterbury history, winning seven terms, not consecutively. He was a slight man with a big Irish sense of humor. It was often thought Bergin was “crooked” and my publisher especially thought he was. I often was assigned to look into allegations and came up empty each time.
Each time I looked into an accusation, at some point I approached the mayor and each time he took it seriously, obviously knowing there was nothing to each charge. But he handled it up front, pointed me to friends and/or appointees who would confirm his view and provide, when possible, paper to demonstrate his innocence.
Later in my career, when I began working as a spokesman for politicians, I applied many of those upfront, transparent approaches that the mayor exhibited, and they came in most handy.
Bob Veillette was the other end of the spectrum, in many ways. I was a natural cynic, it pays to be one when working as a reporter. And Bob was a guy who wanted to print, as do responsible journalists, the truth and be fair to both sides. He went about that in what came across to some as almost an innocent, childlike (in a good way) approach. He didn’t assume the allegation he heard was true but he wanted it pursued if it came from a legitimate source. And he only published when he thought his reporters had done all they could on a story.
He also was a generous, kind and gentle man. There was office politics, of course, and while Bob often seemed to always side with management, it was later in life when I looked back on those times that I saw Bob was playing office politics to the news’ best ends. He was an upbeat, fair-minded editor, giving his reporters the space we needed to our jobs, but always asking the right questions when we thought we were done.
After his stroke and the locked-in syndrome, Bob continued his optimistic approach to life, working hard to overcome the limits the syndrome put him under, communicating only with his eyes. Locked-in sucks every physical strength from you – touch, speech, walking – but not hearing or cognizance. He knew everything going on around him.
He and his family – who were his dedicated caregivers -- were dove into finding answers for those who would suffer the same syndrome, knowing it would never help Bob. Bob joined in, lobbying in the state legislature and others.
I can’t imagine how much he wished he could hug his wife, kids (all quite accomplished) and grandchildren as his eyes and ears experienced things around him but his ability to reach to those things was physically impaired. The cruelest cut of all for him, I have no doubt.
When I heard that the mayor was under Hospice care, I dashed off a note to him, thanking him for the lessons he taught me. But I know the letter didn’t arrive before he passed.
Bob was grace, strength and belief in more ways than I ever will know. But I try, partly because of him.
I wish I had sent Bob a note, but I didn’t, it was too late. Lesson? Tell people what you need to tell now because tomorrow may not come.
I'll get to the mentors but, for now, may Mike and Bob rest in peace, and may I continue to learn their lessons.