I just returned from a short trip to Sacramento to visit my mother (who turned 70 this year – happy birthday, Mom!) and my stepfather, Dale. They live in a duplex in the South Land Park neighborhood of California’s capitol city.
Not long after moving there, Dale found a small community of like-minded people at the local Starbuck’s, a mile from their home. He walks there every morning, to get his daily cup of coffee, and join his friends for conversation. They talk about their lives, their children and grandchildren, and compare notes on lives well lived.
My stepfather, Dale, has recently taken up skydiving. Given the fact that he is 82 years old and legally blind, this is quite an accomplishment. So, needless to say, much of their talk these days has been about that.
While I was visiting, I tagged along with Dale one morning, eager to meet his new friends and get a sense of his community. One of them in particular, Bill Jackman, wanted to meet me. Before his retirement, he had been a high school biology teacher and a guidance counselor, and apparently there was an ex-student of his that he was eager to ask me about.
Turns out, this ex-student was none other than Ray Rodriquez, a well known geneticist in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at UC Davis. In the early days of his research career, Dr. Rodriquez developed techniques that were foundational to the modern biotechnology industry. He c0-founded the laboratory for High Performance Computing and Informatics at UC Davis and is a regular advisor to NIH. During my time at Benjamin Cummings publishing, I was briefly his editor after he co-authored one of the first lab manuals to bring recombinant DNA techniques down to the undergraduate level. The book was called Recombinant DNA Technology and it was published, to great acclaim, in the late 80’s.
Bill had lost track of Ray over the years and didn’t realize the heights to which his former student had climbed. But a chance meeting with him, on the streets in Davis, brought them back to together again and, apparently, Ray was most eager to spend some time with his old high school biology teacher. Over a series of lunches and cups of coffee, Ray explained to Bill how influential he’d been. Ray had very fond memories of his two years in Bill’s classroom at Kerman High School (outside of Fresno, CA) – first in his biology class as a student, and then later, as his teaching assistant.
Ray particularly recalled Bill’s genetics unit and the passion he shared for the newly emerging field. He reminded Bill of the day he’d brought in an issue of Life magazine, with a diagram of DNA’s double helix on the cover. Bill had held it up to the class, to show them how important this one molecule was going to become to all of their lives, and offered to share the magazine with anyone who was interested. Ray remembered snatching it and reading the entire article many times.
As I sat and listened to Bill’s story – and thought about Dale’s blind jump out an airplane at 13,000 feet – I couldn’t help but reflect on the power of mentors – those people in all of our lives who clear a path for us and shine a light. How important it is to acknowledge and thank those people, while they are still alive to hear it. As Bill unraveled his story to us, you could tell he was touched by Ray’s memory but unaware of its significance at the time. Each one of the men and women in my stepfather’s coffee group has influenced the lives of others in countless ways. How wonderful that Ray Rodriquez took the time to make sure that his mentor knew what an impact he’d made.