Meeting A Mentor For The First Time

In the second quarter of his freshman year, he took an introductory economics honors course taught by Samuel Bradford, a professor beloved by students but a constant irritant to the University’s administration.  Bradford was small of stature with an enormous personality.  He dressed frumpily in crumpled suits and stained ties and wore wire-rimmed eyeglasses hanging from the tip of his long, patrician nose.  At rest, he was easily missed; while lecturing, he was a whirling dervish of ideas and gesticulation, spouting complex thoughts and ideas.  He never used lecture notes.  Instead, he used a dog-eared topic outline he’d had for years: it gave him the freedom to reinvent and invigorate depending upon what he felt any given class might comprehend.  Before beginning a lecture, he’d take off his jacket, hang it over the back of a chair, roll up his sleeves, and prowl the dais without speaking, searching for anyone willing to be engaged by his inexhaustible supply of energy.

Professor Bradford had a left-leaning past, having been a member of the Communist Party for a brief period in the Thirties.  He refused to publish.  At a University steeped in the tradition of publish or perish, his refusal was considered treasonous.  Accordingly, he’d never been made a full professor, although he did have tenure.  His refusal to write was not due to a lack of erudition or skill but arose from to his belief that since he had been hired to teach, then teach, by God, he would.  Teaching was his highest, his only, priority.  He taught with energetic abandon for the pure joy of discovering the occasional flickering light of understanding in a dull-eyed sea of incomprehension.  He was fiery, challenging existing beliefs and encouraging independent thought, all the while hoping for push-back.  He engaged in histrionics to prove a point, but they were not intended to shame or belittle students; they were intended to drive home matters of importance, to awaken sleeping minds, to stoke the fires of imagination.

One day in mid-term, Professor Bradford was lecturing about paper money, making the point that it had no intrinsic value in and of itself.  To demonstrate this, he yanked a five-dollar bill from his wallet and waived it about over his head as he spoke.  Then he wadded it into a ball, threw it to the floor, and kicked it under the front row of desks, a row usually left vacant due to the twin fears of being called upon and of being hit with sprays of exuberant spittle.  “Look,” he thundered, “it’s just another piece of paper.”

Derek was sitting in the seats to the left of the classroom’s left-hand aisle.  When class was over, he sat patiently as the large, tiered classroom emptied, keeping his eye on the crumpled bill.  He had no intention of taking it; he was, instead, curious about when and how Professor Bradford would retrieve it, for Derek was certain he would.  He was the last student in the room when Professor Bradford, who’d had his back to him answering another student’s question, bent over, picked up the bill, and began carefully straightening it.  Derek must have moved then; he didn’t later recall.  But something caught Professor Bradford’s attention, and he spun and saw Derek watching.  “You, what’s your name?”

“Derek Taylor.  I’m one of your honor students.”

“Ah, that’s right. Come with me.”  He stalked out of the classroom without waiting to see whether Derek would follow.

Derek did follow because he didn’t have another class but would have done so even if he had.  He’d often wondered where the professor found all of his energy and enthusiasm and had a hunch he was about to find out.  “Where are we going?”  he asked when he caught up.

“To my office.  You obviously saw through my b.s. or you wouldn’t have been sitting there.  You did, didn’t you?”

“Well, I accept your argument that dollar bills are nothing more than a representation of value, but I also take from your retrieval of the bill that they do have value in and of themselves in the sense that there is societal-wide agreement that they do.  Does that make sense, or have I got it wrong?”

“You have it exactly right.  If we want something to have value, it does.  After all, what’s so special about gold?  It’s just another metal.”  Bradford studied him.  “A few people have seen through my crap from time to time, but no one ever called me on it by waiting after class to watch me grovel on a dirty floor for a lousy five-dollar bill.  I think I’m going to like you.”


When Professor Bradford asked what his major was, Derek said he hadn’t yet decided because he found too many things of interest.  When Professor Bradford asked if economics was on his list of potential majors, he hesitated, then said he wasn’t certain he cared for it.  Professor Bradford grinned and asked why not.

Derek didn’t want to offend the Professor but opted for honesty in the reckless abandon of pursuit.  “There’s a reason it’s called the dismal science.  It’s a bunch of guesses, an attempt to rationalize the irrational – human behavior.  All economists want to find a simple answer to our behavior that assumes everyone behaves rationally, when all the evidence is to the contrary.  Most people haven’t a clue what’s going on around them, and they have about as much common sense as God gave a goat.  Economic theories ignore the irrational and the dark dreams that motivate all of us on occasion.  They don’t reflect any earthly reality I’m aware of.”  He looked up into laughing eyes.  “Sorry, but that’s the world as I see it, and it doesn’t match what you preach.”

“You’ve summed up the discipline’s biggest problem quite nicely.  What’s your goal after college?”

“Law school.  I can’t tell you why because there aren’t any lawyers in my family.  I’ve made up my mind, but I don’t know which major will be of the most utility.”

“None in particular.  One is as good as another as long as there’s a lot of writing involved and a significant breadth of learning.  But we’ll come back to that.  What law school are you hoping to attend?”

“The best I can when the time comes, but probably the University of Michigan.  My best friend’s father went there and he’s encouraging me to go.”

“It’s a damned fine school,” asserted Professor Bradford.  “Will you have the necessary grades?”

“If I have anything to say about it, I will.  I just need to figure out a major.”

“You need an excellent liberal arts education, one that forces you to write and teaches you to think.  A major is unimportant; exposure to ideas is.  So, choose economics and I’ll be your advisor and assure that you get what you need.  It doesn’t matter if economics isn’t your thing; it’s mine and it’s the only way I can help.  I’ll tell you which are the best courses on campus because I make it my business to know.  I can ensure that you’ll find the quality liberal arts education you’ll need, and that you’ll take only classes taught by the best – those who’ll work your balls off, teach you to write, and leave you with a semblance of an education.  I promise I won’t advise you to take any more Econ classes than are necessary for you to graduate.  Up for it?”

He was, at first, surprised by the earthiness of the Professor’s remarks, but then found them funny and his challenge invigorating.  Professor Bradford was the first academic he’d met who was a down-to-earth guy, and he decided to take his offer.  He appreciated true worth when he saw it, and Professor Bradford was the gold standard.

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About Stephen Ellis

Stephen Ellis is the author of Fortunate Son, a novel of Sahaptin Valley
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