Why Mentors Often Show Up in Unexpected Places

I love what I do. As nonprofit fundraisers, we are in the business of relationships, and I am so lucky to encounter amazing people every day who are passionately, stubbornly, and unwaveringly dedicated to making a difference in this crazy world.

Earlier in my career I did not have a lot of traditional mentors. I sort of stumbled along, soaking in everything I could from some pretty darn amazing colleagues. I learned a lot, dabbled in just about everything related to development, and after a few years, fell in love with our profession.

Something really special has happened, though, since I have started my consulting work. In three years, I have formed some of the most significant personal and professional relationships of my life. Mentors have been coming out of the woodwork, and in turn, I am now proud to serve as a mentor for some younger professionals. It is meaningful to see it all come full circle. I love learning from those who came before me, and I also love learning from those who are coming up behind me. It’s exciting, engaging, and as they say – it inspires me to never stop learning.

And I am learning from so many incredible people. Mentors do not always come in the official definition that so many of us imagine – you know, the fairy work godmother who will magically appear and shepherd us through our careers (don’t tell me I am the only one who has wished for a fairy work godmother). In fact, many mentors come in unexpected forms like the colleague in the cubicle next door, the younger professional with inspired ideas and energy, or the co-worker who has nothing to do with fundraising but seems to really understand leadership. If you open your eyes, mentors are all around.

One of these unexpected mentors has been especially dear to me. His name is Frank. Our relationship began about three years ago, when he was serving as board chair of a nonprofit that became a client. Little did I know at the time that this man would become such an important figure in my life.

In Texas, there is a certain type of gentleman that is difficult to define. These men are larger than life – often self-made businessmen and leaders, intelligent, down-to-earth, talented outdoorsmen, salty, spirited, determined, and at the core, the most loyal and amazing people you will ever meet. My husband is one of these men, and I think I saw those qualities in Frank almost immediately. Frank had a sparkle in his eye, but he meant business – and oh my goodness, he did not suffer fools. He was focused, determined, and wholeheartedly dedicated to this nonprofit.

Even in my first meeting with Frank, I knew I had to be on my toes. I saw his fiery spirit and quick wit, and I quickly became introduced to what we would eventually call “Frank-isms”. A meeting with Frank never passed without some Texas witticism from Frank – it would come out of nowhere, and it would sometimes take a moment to register the full meaning. Amazingly, they always were completely fitting to whatever topic we were discussing at the time. For example:

When talking about development planning: “If you stuff enough in the front, eventually something will come out the back.”

One we can all relate to in our world: “Busier than a one-legged man in a kick’n contest.”

“Shoot low, they’re riding Shetland ponies” The origin is from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but it really refers to adjusting your actions to fit your circumstances – something we have to do nearly every day in fundraising.

“If you can’t run with the big dogs, you better stay on the porch with the pups.” Do I need to say more?

I wish I had recorded all of the Frank-isms over the years, but what I can tell you without a doubt is that Frank’s spirit made an indelible impression on me. We spent hours – and hours – in meetings, on the phone, and on email over a period of two years or so – trying with all our might to move the ball forward for the organization he was leading. It was not always pretty – in fact, it was a tough time for the organization. But we were determined.

We didn’t always agree, either. I remember several conversations when I respectfully disagreed with him, and we had some (very) direct conversations (semi-arguments). What I appreciate about Frank as a leader is that while he was very sure of his direction, he always would listen to other opinions. But he wasn’t afraid to push back either – and neither was I. Perhaps that is why we made a good pair. Another board member told me once that they pitied the folks who would come against me and Frank in a meeting – that we were an intimidating duo. I take that as the ultimate compliment. Frank had years of experience building and managing companies in the competitive and wild world of the Texas energy business, and he was a tough bird. The fact that he respected my opinion and views was the ultimate sign of approval.

I learned so much with Frank throughout that turbulent time. He taught me to be tougher – mentally and emotionally – especially when faced with challenging personalities. Of course, I had encountered plenty of characters in the past, but my work with Frank was plagued with countless dead ends, crisis points, and frustrating starts and stops. But he never gave up, and I became even more determined than ever to wade through the mess and make progress. The other quality that made me respect Frank all the more was his willingness to take responsibility when he made a decision that proved to be less than successful. His humility was a wonderful reminder to me to not be afraid to admit I am not perfect and to learn from my mistakes – in fact, mistakes are the best teaching tools. He was not afraid to be humble and vulnerable, often taking more responsibility for a failure than he should. His integrity was admirable. His loyalty was unshakeable.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Frank, but God works in mysterious ways.

Frank left this world on August 9th, 2018. He fought a valiant battle against cancer, and even though he “fought it like he was the third monkey trying to board Noah’s Ark” – that is literally what he said – he was ultimately called home. His wife, Valerie, is a phenomenal Texas woman and I am proud to call her a friend. She allowed me one of the greatest gifts of my life – the chance to see Frank before he died.

It was one of the most precious moments I have ever experienced – this accomplished man, whom I admired so much and had come to love as a father figure – wanted to see me at the end of his magnificent, amazing life. And his first words to me as his blue eyes blazed at me across the hospital bed?

“I love you.”

Is there anything more wonderful?

As I write this, I am seated in the Menger Hotel bar in San Antonio, where Teddy Roosevelt recruited his famous Rough Riders, yards from the Alamo. I cannot think of a better place to remember Frank’s Texas spirit. He was one of the good ones. He was a leader. He was a wonderful man.

And how lucky am I to have a client who was not only a mentor, but also a good leader, co-conspirator, friend, and father figure.

This is what our work, our lives, are about. Relationships. Connection. Mentors can give you hope and inspiration – and can also just be a great life resource. What a blessing Frank and his family have been in my life. I will carry Frank’s spirit, work ethic, and dedication with me always. That is the ultimate gift from a mentor.

And I will always remember that I had the most precious, beautiful opportunity to tell someone how much they truly meant to me.

Frank, I love you, too.

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