The Mark of a Mentor

Basketball under blue sky (Photo by Mong Mong)

As I prepare to call it a career and start retirement next week, I can’t help but reflect on the people that made my career so fulfilling. There were many, but one in particular; the man who officially launched my professional career by hiring me out of college 43 years ago—my mentor, Ron Wickman.

Next to my father, Ron is perhaps the most influential man in my life. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater with a BBA degree in marketing and advertising, I answered an ad for a creative writer at Snap-on Tools Corporation, the world’s largest independent manufacturer of automotive tools and equipment.

Ron, the hiring manager, supervised the Sales Promotion department and was first to interview me. It took less than an hour for me to realize he was a man of integrity, marked by kindness and humility. During the course of several interviews, we built a rapport, but he still had to sell me to his boss, Jerry, a bombastic, cigar-smoking manager (yes, you could smoke in the office then) prone to favor certain opinions—usually his own. It wasn’t an easy sell. I was young, naïve, short on experience, but long on ambition. I was a rookie, a project. In the end, somehow, I won Jerry over—or Ron was a good salesman, and they hired me. The first thing I learned about Ron was he was more than willing to invest in this project.

Jerry was more bark than bite, but he was a straight-shooter and once told me, “You were the least experienced candidate we interviewed.” But I got the job, I thought to myself. And just as I was starting to feel good about myself, he added, “You were also the least expensive candidate we interviewed.” That was my first lesson in how budgets rule in Corporate America.

As I prepare to retire next week, I concede I was a “project.” I suppose we all are when we’re young. And while Ron didn’t have to teach me how to write, he did teach me the fundamentals of sales promotion, graphic design, convention planning, incentive travel, and tradeshow management. Yet, he taught me something more. Something I can take into retirement—and into life. Patience with people, think first, speak second, how to manage the unpredictable with a sense of calm, cooler heads prevail, and kindness wins the day.

But he didn’t stop there. Almost without my noticing he modeled a meaningful marriage with his wife, Carol, before I was engaged, he taught me about owning a home before I owned one, he taught me about a healthy diet before health was all the rage. And along the way, I recognized the mark of a mentor.

“Who passed the ball to you when you scored?”

                                                                               Author Unknown
A mentor gives you “eyes to see” who you are—and what you can become. But that’s not all. They set you up to score. So, when I started dating Karen, I already knew what a solid marriage looked like. When I bought a home, I already knew something about how to finance and maintain it. And when the world shifted to healthy lifestyles, I already had a head start.

Shortly after I resigned my job at Snap-on Tools in 1991 to launch my executive speechwriting and advertising firm, I wrote a handwritten letter to Ron. I expressed how much I appreciated the depth of his influence in my life. Recently, almost 30 years after writing that letter, Ron said, “I still have that letter, Jim. I keep it in my Bible, where I’ll see it every day.”

As I anticipate retirement now, I can’t help but be forever grateful for a mentor who not only cared about my livelihood, he cared about my life.

Thanks for taking a chance on me, Ron. 

Thanks for passing the ball to me.

And thanks for giving me a chance to score.




Do you have a mentor that significantly influenced your life?
Have you had a chance to thank them?


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