Wednesday, October 18, 2006

David Beatty, me and what do in life (3)

By Rick MacLean, June 26, 2006
Last time: Deciding what to do after high school graduation is tough. I went to Mount Allison University with plans of becoming a doctor. I switched to history after two years, wrote a book, headed to graduate school, quit, joined Canada’s diplomatic service, quit and ended up jobless in Miramichi at age 24. A history professor, and long-time friend of mine, Dave Beatty, was shocked when I told him what I’d done. This is the third of three parts.

I didn’t realize it then, but if anyone could understand what I was going through, Dave Beatty could.
Now retired after decades of teaching at Mt. A, he sat in his summer home recently and laughed at the memory of my phone call saying I’d quit yet another career. He raked a hand through his unruly hair, then ran his fingers across the front of his dark green, Michigan State University sweatshirt.
He grew up to become a farmer in the American Midwest in the 1950s.
“Oh-high-ah,” he still calls it when talking about Ohio. Still in his twenties, he married, settled down. His life’s direction was set.
Not quite.
Farming was then, as it is now, a tough way to earn a living. In a bid to keep prices up, the federal government paid some farmers not to farm. Dave took the money and, with the military draft and Vietnam looming, headed to university, which offered a temporary reprieve from a Huey helicopter and an M-16.
He did well, very well. Earning a spot among the 40-some students on the honour roll. But the time slid by and suddenly he was graduating. He’d been so focused on his studies, he’d made no plans for the future. His marriage was stumbling towards divorce and the military draft awaited.
Then, a professor stepped in and changed his life.
Professor Gesner was an imposing woman with a reputation for not suffering fools gladly. One of the most influential academics in the region, she called him into her office.
What are your plans? she demanded.
He didn’t know.
There is a new scholarship, intended to encourage students to study diplomatic history. Did he know about it?
No.
Well, the deadline is the next day. He should apply, she said, then she stared at him knowingly. She’d act as a reference. He needed two others.
It was nearly 4:30. He’d better hurry, she said.
Dave rushed from the office and somehow found two professors who hadn’t gone home for the day. Both knew his work, had given him excellent marks. The application deadline was when?
Oh, Professor Gesner had suggested he apply for the scholarship. The letters would be ready, they both promised.
Dave drove the 23 miles to his home, where he spent much of the night filing out the forms. Ten days later he got word, he had the fellowship. He spent the next few years earning a master’s degree and getting a good start on a doctorate.
Finally, he went looking for work. He received a phone call from Bill Crawford, the vice-president of Mount A. Dave had no idea where it was, but Professor Gesner did. She had family connections there.
Crawford had three teaching jobs in the history department to fill and he wanted the young American to fill one of them.
“Give you $8,000 a year,” he said as part of his pitch.
Well, there are other job offers. New Hampshire. Maine.
“Anything Maine can do, we can do better, $8,500.”
Dave Beatty sat on a chair in the kitchen of his summer home and laughed. He traveled halfway across the continent to a tiny school in a tiny town to teach history, he said, and shook his head in wonder.
But the administration left him alone to do what he’d discovered he loved to do. And that was exactly what he needed.
“Things turned out alright.”
Yes, they did. He remarried, settled down for a second time and taught students like me until mandatory retirement drove him, kicking and screaming, from the classroom. Then he turned his energies to saving the tumbledown, 1840-something house he’d discovered near Northumberland Strait.
He hired a former biology student at Mount A who had a knack for careful carpentry to do the work. Mark turned the house with the rock basement and attached woodshed full of dry rot into a dazzling home of varnish and original wood.
Dave looked at me across the kitchen table and smiled again.
“And they’ve turned out alright for you, too.”
Yes, they had. I’d enrolled in the teaching program at Mount A at one point, but quit before the year started. Joined the Leader, promising the publisher I’d stay a year if he helped me earn my masters degree, which he did. I stayed the better end of 20 years.
Now, after five years as a teacher, I smile each year when students in the journalism program tell me they’re not sure if this is what they want to do with their lives. Some of them are just 20 years old.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to order at McDonald’s when I was 20,” I tell them.
“So how did you figure out what you wanted to be?” someone always asks.
“I haven’t,” I laugh. “I guess I’ll figure it out when I grow up.”

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