Upon arriving in Terre Haute yesterday, my wife and I took a nostalgic walk around campus.
Of course, I had to begin our tour where it all started—Cromwell Hall. As we crossed Fourth Street, I had a vivid flashback to the warm Sunday afternoon in September 1965 when my parents’ Oldsmobile 98 pulled up in front of that gleaming new residence hall. Roy and Verna Culp were dropping me off for an experience that would dramatically change my life forever. Little did this naïve small-town kid from Remington, Indiana know the true significance of that milestone in his life.
I would have said, “No way” if anyone told me then that I would go onto a career that included traveling the world doing incredibly interesting things like meeting every President from Nixon to Obama, having breakfast with Princess Diana, dinner with Oprah and a private one-on-one conversation with Michael Jordan.
So realizing what the combination of ISU and personal hard work has made possible, our campus visit yesterday took on special meaning. We finished our tour at the offices of The Indiana Statesman. Meeting aspiring student journalists reminded us of our days of helping change our corner of the world, one issue at a time. Indeed, the Statesman did profoundly change my life, since it introduced me to a co-ed from Munster, Indiana named Sandra Bowman. That journalism major has been my life partner and wife for the past 50 years.
The common theme that kept crossing our minds as we toured campus yesterday is how helpful everyone was both then and now. Knowing that a vast majority of us were first-generation college students, ISU administrators and faculty inherently made student success their top priority.
Dr. Curtis now builds on the work of visionary leaders like Presidents Rankin, Landini, Moore, Benjamin and Bradley who strove to turn ISU into something greater than simply where Larry Bird played basketball, although that certainly is a heritage that makes us all proud. Incredibly dedicated faculty also make the bigger world seem less intimidating and, indeed, attainable–even for small-town kids with very little money.
As graduates, don’t forget those faculty members who helped shape your lives. In some cases, you won’t even know the significance of what they did until your career starts to develop.
Several years ago, I helped launch the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, an organization that recognizes great mentors for their selfless efforts to help others. While I had many professional mentors throughout my career, I realized there were a lot of others along the way who may not have considered themselves mentors, but they indeed made my career successes possible. Not surprisingly, I can trace many of them back to events or associations that started at Indiana State. So, I set out to thank those special faculty members beginning with journalism professors John Boyd and Claude Billings, and political science profs Paul Fowler and Bill Maxam.
These four educators played pivotal roles in making my two passions at the time — journalism and politics– come to life through relevant real-world insights and challenges.
Sadly, Dr. Boyd, Dr. Fowler and Claude Billings were not alive when I began my personal “thank you” tour. But Dr. Maxam, who we have stayed in touch since our graduation, was curious a while back as to why we wanted to take him and his wife to dinner. We explained it was just a long overdue thank you for his advice and encouragement over the years. Dr. Maxam humbly smiled, and promptly changed the subject back to us.
Underscoring how the trail from here at ISU to various points in your future is, indeed, an ever-connected line that you might not yet foresee, Dr. Maxam reappeared years later to offer advice to my wife when she was named chief operating officer of the Indiana State Senate and he was ISU’s chief lobbyist. And he again surfaced two decades later to offer guidance to our son Grant when he began working for a congressman in Washington, D.C. and Dr. Maxam was chief of staff for then Congressman Ed Pease. The chain, indeed, cannot be broken.
I also tried to find others who likely had no clue about their profound influence on my career. Instructors like Mary Alice Banks, who taught a one-hour course called Social Orientation (a.k.a. Etiquette 101). Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the important little things in life that she shared—like the proper way to hold a soup spoon when you attend that first professional banquet, or how to properly set a table when your boss comes over for dinner.
For each of her classes, Miss Banks let students pick a social event that made them uncomfortable, so she could help us do and say the right things. Most classes picked business dinners, weddings or other group settings, but our class decided on a funeral. So, sure enough, Miss Banks hauled us off to the Bedino Peace Chapel where we attended a funeral for a homeless man. No, you’ll never forget these kinds of ISU memories.
I also think of humanities instructor Regina Perry, who taught an art appreciation class in the large Holmstedt Hall auditorium. I always sat in the back, but she still somehow made the Monets and Chagals come to life. I unsuccessfully tried to reach her years later when I was in charge of a major art exchange between museums in the U.S. and Russia for my then employer Sara Lee Corporation.
I simply wanted to let her know how she ignited my passion for art, even though back then we were just looking at pretty pictures in used textbooks.
These dedicated faculty members are noteworthy role-model mentors. Like them, each and every one of you here today has the ability to do the same. There are no age limits for great mentors. Just be willing to share positive encouragement and honest advice. And, please don’t wait too long to thank those mentors who have helped you along the way—your professors, supervisors, parents, grandparents and friends—all of whom have one common goal in mind…your success.
Congratulations, fellow Sycamores. Now, be sure to take one more walk around campus before saying goodbye to an experience that no doubt will set you up for both personal and career success.
More from Ron Culp:
- Plank Legends & Leaders Interview
- Legacies from Legends in Public Relations
- Speech: Ron Culp Receives PRSA Gold Anvil
- Speech: Career Realities in a Flash Mob World
- Infographic: 10 Tips I Wish Someone Had Told Me Earlier in my Career