Last week, a random tweet came across my feed that was retweeted by someone I follow but don't know. In it, the tweeter wrote that he discovered an email in his outbox that was never sent that he had written to someone thanking them for the influence they had had on him. He only discovered the unsent email after learning the recipient had died a few days after he composed the email. His tweet reminded me of my own regrets in not expressing thanks soon enough.
Forty-five years ago this coming January, I had dropped out after my first semester as a full-time college student, taken a day job as a costumed employee at Colonial Williamsburg and a night job as an assistant manager at a Hardee's hamburger restaurant. On the nights I wasn't working I took a sociology course at Christopher Newport University when it was still a two-year community college in Newport News, Virginia. Students in the course ranged from people my age to older students, several of whom were active military from one of the nearby bases. Toward the end of the spring-term course at least a couple of students couldn't make class because they were somehow involved with Operation Frequent Wind, the effort in April 1975 to evacuate more than 7,000 people from Saigon as the Vietnam War drew to a close.
But the most lasting memory for me was of the young African-American professor who taught the course. Her name was Charlotte Fitzgerald. Professor Fitzgerald's enthusiasm for the topic, her ability to engage students and her detailed feedback on written work showed me how instrumental a teacher can be to cultivating a lasting love of learning. She influenced my decision to return to school and how I engaged as a student. Years later, I emulated her approach in how I sought to work with students of my own.
It was only in December 2013, after receiving a particularly moving note from a former student of my own, that I decided a note of thanks from me to Professor Fitzgerald was long overdue.
My first attempts to locate her through Christopher Newport University were met with: "Unfortunately, we do not have this information readily available" from the registrar. A year later, I wrote again, this time to the college library, and a librarian immediately responded with a link to a page from Randolph-Macon College's website.
Professor Fitzgerald had apparently moved to teach at Randolph-Macon in 1982. After she died in 1996, the college established a scholarship in her memory for students in financial need who were majoring in the social sciences.
I remember Professor Fitzgerald as a young professor, but then so was I at the time. A cryptic entry on an ancestry database indicates she was 25 while teaching my class at Christopher Newport. She died at 46.
I regret never having had the chance to thank Professor Fitzgerald beyond a few words at our last class meeting in 1975 for the significant influence she had on me. I wish she had known how she impacted me and I'm hopeful that other students after me were far more forthcoming with praise.
After discovering that Professor Fitzgerald had died before I could thank her properly, I have made an effort to thank influential mentors and teachers while they are still around. I'm far from done, but it definitely seems the right thing to do.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to email@example.com.
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