My wife Kishna and I moved back to Michigan from New Jersey five years ago. Soon after we arrived, one of our neighbors stopped by our home. He looked to be in his late seventies or early eighties – white hair, slightly bent over, careful gait. He said his name was Hal Rice, and he was circulating a petition to have the town install curbs on our street. I didn’t feel our street needed curbs, but Hal seemed like a nice guy, so I signed his petition and he went on his way.
More than a year later, during football season, I noticed Hal slowly, carefully working in his yard. On our street, which was replete with University of Michigan and Michigan State paraphernalia, Hal stood out. He was wearing an Ohio State University varsity jacket.
I decided to razz Hal a bit. “So you went to the little school down South, eh?” Hal didn’t back down one bit. He said, proudly, that he had. Turns out he graduated from OSU before I was born. He said he studied ceramic engineering, and then went to work for General Motors. When I heard Hal say “ceramic engineering,” that rang a bell.
“Hal,” I said, did you ever meet someone by the name of Karl Schwartzwalder?
I could tell Hal was a pretty reserved guy, but he lit up in response to my question. “Yes, Dr. Schwartzwalder was my mentor at Ohio State! He was a really great guy, and he’s the person who got me my job with General Motors – he got my career started.”
As of that moment, Hal and I were connected. Old vs. young, black vs. white, Michigan vs. OSU – all of that melted away. Why? Because Dr. Karl Schwartzwalder, an Ohio State graduate and the godfather of ceramic engineering, had been my mentor, too. I met him in Flint during my high school years, when I was an ambitious science fair contestant and he was the director of research and development at AC Spark Plug. Dr. Schwartzwalder was responsible for me attending General Motors Institute (GMI, now Kettering University), and I felt so indebted to him that I drove out to his home in Holly, Michigan to inform him in person when I decided to leave GMI in 1973. During that poignant meeting, Dr. Schwartzwalder blessed my decision and wished me well. Two years later, around the same time I graduated from the University of Michigan, he died.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the mentors who helped forge my career. I’m grateful to them, and have attempted to pass on to others what they gave to me. Mentorship and internship opportunities have declined in the wake of Michigan’s economic troubles, but we must provide many more such opportunities if the state is to reclaim sustained growth. The cost for a company to hire an intern is small and temporary, yet the effect is large and lasting. I think that hiring interns and providing mentors is one of the key long-term strategies Michigan companies can employ to rejuvenate themselves and the economy.
A couple of years after our sidewalk discussion, Hal Rice died. Afterward, while visiting his family, I shared with them the special connection Hal and I had discovered. They too recognized that ours was an improbable yet meaningful bond, a bond that was forged by the work of a talented, dedicated mentor – Dr. Schwartzwalder. Hal and I were just two of the many lives he touched, and those he touched have benefited many more. Doesn’t that seem like a practice worth spreading?