Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Richard P. Soter 1927-2007

Some bosses make you grow while others do all they can to stifle you. This is a truth of the workplace that is hardly novel – until it becomes relevant to you and your workplace.

My first job, the sort that paid an actual salary with benefits and even promised not only a career but a future, was as an assistant philosophy professor at Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

With a new Ph.D. in hand, and fresh from applying to over two-hundred colleges and universities in a miserable job market, I began work in 1975 at a college that had been founded in 1939 and was on only its third president. The place was a bit moribund, a bit stuffy with many faculty still rooted in “the old ways” – among whom was the then-president, himself a product of that faculty.

Dick Soter was hired as the college’s provost around 1978, his totally unpublic charge no doubt to kick ass and bring about change. He did that, but he needed help, and who better to ask than an untenured new professor who would have shined the shoes of the dead if it would enhance his tenure chances.

He appointed me to a committee concerned with the future of the college and liked my work. Further responsibilities came along and I like to think I did well at them, but what affected me most of all were the many talks I had with Dick. His office was the sun room of an old mansion on the campus, and I spent many a late afternoon or Saturday morning with Dick in that office.

He was kind of a running back of a man, not tall, with dark curly hair. During those informal times he’d be wearing a turtleneck and slacks and I, ever the academic supplicant, in sportcoat and tie. I’d sit in his office smoking cigarettes while he puffed away on fat cigars (we could do that in those days, and on Friday afternoons he’d also pull a bottle of bourbon from a file cabinet), and he’d lay bare his soul about the difficulties of his job in turning a fading, if promising, institution, into the direction of that promise.

I was not, of course, his only toady (a mandatory role for any young faculty member), but we got along so well and shared so many views of higher education that when he offered me the chance to leave teaching and go into higher education administration I took it with enthusiasm and trepidation.

I never regretted that decision, and still remember what he told me when the president confirmed my new appointment: “Never forget the person who gave you your big chance.”

Eventually we parted and kept in touch only sporadically, but I never forgot his words, and I never forgot the man. If I never said it before (and I think I did) I’ll say it now, Thanks, Dick.


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