When All Become One, True Mentors Are Gifts for Life

(Greensboro) This has been a difficult year for most of us, no? A crisis of unprecedented magnitude is upon us and taking its toll in countless ways. It sure feels that way to me. I am told repeatedly of being overly sensitive to this gargantuan mess. Get a grip, Michael. Alright, I say to myself, which neighbors might overhear and wonder about the fool living next door. Let me try again just for today, I remind myself repeatedly throughout the day. It’s weird because the more I do this I also recognize how truthful and honest criticism can become a tautology, in other words, totally false, if not challenged. After all, what is truth but in the making of it?

What suddenly does seem clearer to me – oh no, a lightning bolt of conversion – as I consciously aim at a better grip of what’s real is this. Many of us still sense we are swimming in a current toward something better, even if we only feel it in our souls. But isn’t this what’s keeping us afloat now? Does it matter whether we are guided by religion or philosophy? Hopefully, there will be enough of us combined as we make our way downstream, the river ever widening as it empties into the sea of humanity.

For me 2020 has proved the most difficult year I can remember, to the point where it was life-threatening not too long ago. Alone after nearly 25 years, I devolved into despair. It is difficult to know how much to share. But I will say that it was the worst of times to me. I’m still not sure how I got beyond it. Maybe one should not worry that much about not remembering.

Still, as I sought relief from the sorrow and grief knowing what I had done to create it, I also found solace in grabbing hold of what I had learned as a student of history and life itself from two seminal thinkers and activists of the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx. Their backgrounds and paths were strikingly different, but they wrote in a unified and resonant, philosophical voice that there is never progress without struggle. If I had learned anything from decades of study and research, it was this. How I managed to get there, however, would depend on the advice, training, and counsel of mentors along the way. Regardless of how they differed with respect to areas of expertise or even core beliefs, these mentors helped me to understand how things do happen in history and why, and how a sound method of inquiry whether historian or journalist is central to getting the story right.

As a Marxist who has written a book about the origins of American fascism, I have come to know the world of Late Capitalism to be chock full of mentors. Then there are the real ones who give you lifelong gifts.

The Classicist and One of a Kind

Louzonis and me
Joe Louzonis and I not long ago at one of his favorite restaurants in Brooklyn Heights.

My first mentor was Joseph Louzonis, a man not much older than me when we first met in September 1966 at a small liberal arts college on Long Island. I was not prepared for teachers like Joe, who was my instructor for the Western Civilization survey, then standard fare for college freshman. Young, brilliant, articulate, he was dazzling and polished compared to a ruffian like me who was clueless to the verities of history and the serious study of it. A classicist by training who was writing a dissertation about the work of a Christian writer of the fourth century influenced heavily by Greek philosophy, Joe was well beyond even the ablest of his colleagues as a classroom teacher. Sitting before him as he paced up and down before us decorously, as he spoke in the most elegant style ever heard in any classroom, it was like having a spaceship land in your backyard in broad daylight and you’re the only one in the family who sees it.

It is only fitting now for me to see the irony of it all. Here I am the avowed Marxist whose first mentor was not only a classicist himself but the product of an area of study that is responsible for the word itself. As I lunged forward a day or so before writing whatever this is, I consulted the dictionary to discover its source in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, where we are introduced to Mentor, the man who Odysseus entrusts with the life and learning of his son Telemachus in his father’s 20 year absence of fighting and journeying.  Here was a meaning figuratively if not literally cast in stone. From this we derive the modern mentor as an experienced and trusted advisor who guides and trains a younger colleague.

From Joe Louzonis came my enduring love and fascination for the study of ancient and medieval European history, especially the latter which I eventually took up as a doctoral student at Boston College  in 1972. I had already earned an M.A. at the University of Rhode Island with the help of outstanding teachers, one of whom was a brilliant and affable guy named Josiah Morton Briggs Jr., who taught a fairly new area of historical studies at the time, the history of science and technology. While not a mentor, he instilled in me a curiosity about the role of technology in history that was intellectually fulfilling – and fun. Mort Briggs was a grand fellow. I wish I had one photo of him, though I always see the chiseled handsome face of a man who held degrees from three Ivy League schools but deemed academic life to be just plain silly.

But it was Joe who prepared me for the challenge as a culturally deprived student no matter how earnest and passionate in his quest. Michael, you need a working knowledge of Latin, said he, whose own expertise of Greek and Latin was a given. So the summer between my last semester at URI and first at BC, I took an intensive 100-level Latin course at Hofstra University, five days a week four hours each day, and aced it. I also studied French that summer and did the same.

Three years into my doctoral program I had passed the French and Latin qualifying written examinations. I then pondered whether to substitute Spanish for German as my third language requirement for the Ph.D. in medieval history. My advisor was an expert on medieval Spain and the reason I went to BC in the first place. The fellow in question was a celebrated and quite serious scholar of medieval intellectual history with impeccable credentials, and whose British aristocratic pedigree, wealth, and standing earned him annual summer retreats on the family estate in Majorca.

Here was another spaceship landing in my new backyard, Boston. His courses on medieval intellectual history, which included the history of the medieval church as a subfield, were so damn impressive for content and delivery that it took me decades to discard the notebooks I kept because their pages were filled with his erudition. This chap was bona fide Cambridge and Harvard material, a product of both as student and teacher.

My dream of becoming a medieval historian ended when he rejected my dissertation proposal on medieval attitudes toward nature and their relation to early capitalist development in parts of Western Europe between the fifth and ninth centuries. My proposal was based on extant documents and writings as well as rising attention given to archaeological evidence. I thought I was merely doing what we were being taught as budding historians, that each generation is expected to write its version of the past. Well, this guy said no because it smelled like Marxism. Honestly, I had no idea what he meant despite the fact that my closest buddies in the department howled when I told them what he said.

The Quiet Man Who Wrote and Taught Deftly

Scott Van Doren and Michael Roberto
Scott Van Doren and I last September at his home in Brighton, MA.

So I was pondering an exit from BC when another faculty member who had just gotten tenure while all this was happening, invited me to consider changing my two major fields of study from Medieval to Early Modern Europe and keep Medieval Intellectual history as one of two minor fields, the other being Contemporary European History. Scott Van Doran was then a rising scholar and teacher in all respects and a pioneer in the archive and the classroom but never once did he seem even remotely full of himself. And to this day, he epitomizes the pure historian. Though incapacitated by illness that forced his retirement from BC far too early from a profession he loved – and still does – Scott now lives the solitary life of a scholar whose home is not far from campus yet must for him now seem eons away. Yet he is still working and will soon complete a very important article to send to a leading journal, which should accept it for its soundness and freshness of vision.  

It was Scott who taught me how to study and analyze the content of history by instilling the importance of narrative flow and recognizing what caused great junctures or watersheds in history. As graduate students, we read and wrote about the big topics being discussed at the time, such as the great crisis in Europe during the 1600s as capitalism shattered all vestiges of traditional European society while enslaving Africans in its making of the Atlantic economy.

It was also as his teaching assistant over a period of two academic years that Scott left his greatest mark on me as a mentor. Long before the PC and PowerPoint, Scott spent hours and hours over the span of a decade taking photos of pictures in books and turning them into slides to use for lectures. He had built up an amazing collection of canisters for each of the undergraduate courses he taught. As his grad assistant my job was to move from slide to slide in unison with his delivery to a class of 250 or more students in a large lecture hall. Never relying on notes, Scott would discuss clearly and always interestingly and engagingly the image or images. I grew to admire his command of the material and the way he delivered it.

Years later, I employed his method of presenting images in the same way – first using an overhead projector until I finally got over my own irrational fear of PowerPoint. I used that medium as effectively as I could while always bearing in mind how easy it was for me to do what Scott had achieved by more primitive means decades earlier.

Two Radical Historians Who Mentored Me on the Meaning of Revolution in History

I had changed course and successfully studied Early Modern History toward the eventual and successful passage of my comprehensive exams. I then set out to work on a dissertation in French social history that Scott had pointed me to and had provided reels of microfilm he had taken by archivists in the municipal archive of Romans, a small city in southwestern France. I wound up hating the thing because it wasn’t me and gave it up. I left Boston College in 1978, with a promise from Scott and other younger faculty that they would make my return possible if and when I chose to do so. One was Paul Breines, who had joined the faculty in the mid-1970s as the Modern European intellectual historian. Another was Roberta Manning, also a newcomer I got to know quite well because two of my buddies, Arch Getty and Bill Chase, quickly became her prize students. Radical politics blurred the boundaries between faculty and grad student in an inspiring and enchanting way. The times hanging out together or at parties and gatherings were magical because we were all sure we were part of a better world in the making.

During my long absence from Boston College it came down to Manning and Breines to make it possible for me to eventually return to the program and complete the Ph.D. in 2001. By then I had settled into what became 40 years of life and labor in Greensboro, a far cry from Boston. Roberta Manning had become my lifeline to BC because she had taken an interest in my doctoral proposal on Marx’s concept of progress as well as some of the work I had published as a journalist about the Iran-Contra scandal, specifically about the much discussed but never entirely proven role of then Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush. Roberta championed all my work as a journalist still bent on getting his doctorate in history. After I successfully defended my dissertation, she urged me to revise it for publication because she insisted that I had demonstrated how Marx was implicitly responsible for a postmodern concept of progress that was central to our understanding of the world then and now.

Roberta Manning's obituary
Roberta Manning’s obituary in the Boston Globe. A great mind taken by Alzhheimer’s.

We lost Roberta to the cruelties of Alzheimer’s in 2018.

As for the knowledge of Marx necessary for me to research and write a dissertation as something of an outlier in the profession for almost two decades, I depended on the brilliance and caring direction of Paul Breines. There is actually so much to say about what he taught me over a period of many years as I digested as much reading as I could to make sense of the actual thing I was doing – it was really insane at times. But what an adventure! Paul’s brilliance would leave me perplexed in the moment but then would challenge me more. For days and sometimes weeks before discussion by phone or letters or emails or drafts of chapters going back and forth, as well as one horrible time in Boston during 1994-1995, Paul stayed with me as the most trusted of mentors. All his graduate students that I knew – men and women alike – felt the same way.

Paul Breines
Paul Breines
Paul Breines
Paul Breines, 2007
Paul Breines and Michael Roberto
Paul Breines and Michael Roberto

Paul claims to have given up Marxism but it’s hard for me not to see it in the way he still lives his life. He was one of the brave Freedom Riders from the North who came to help bring equality and justice to the South. He is included in a splendid photo essay of veteran Freedom Riders and gives talks today throughout the Boston area. Several years ago, he held nearly 200 African-American undergraduate students spellbound at the yearly Gibbs Lecture given at North Carolina A&T State University. Check out the video on YouTube. At times, he’s crying and so are some students. But all are transfixed by what Breines is revealing to them about what he learned as a college freshman from the University of Wisconsin and a Jew from the Bronx whose parents were steeped in revolutionary consciousness.

Paul Breines is still mentoring.

The Most Amazin’ Mentor A Guy Like Me Could Ever Have

Ruthell Howard
Ruthell Howard

In a way that only she would appreciate, I’ll go out on this note and talk about Ruthell Howard.

I can’t recall the day she first walked into The Carolina Peacemaker as I was sitting at my desk banging out a story. But I remember so much after that. Ruthell rescued me from likely oblivion when she arrived with a degree in journalism and experience at another Black weekly paper.

For the next 18 months, she taught me all the fundamentals of reporting and writing that I could squeeze into my brain. We each had to write five stories every week, plus take our own photos when our colleague and friend Joe Daniels wasn’t available because he was still working full time as a Greensboro firefighter. To boot, we even had to stay late into the night on Wednesdays to lay out the paper so our business manager could take the sheets to the printer in Danville where the paper could be printed that night and put on the street the next day.

We worked as a team. She would do the reporting and writing, I would take photos, or the other way round. Yet, she also took the time to edit my stories because there was no one else to do it. A great writer herself, she supported me in my hopes of becoming a solid journalist. She praised me when I did something that showed I was learning and offered constructive criticism when I fell short.

I got paid $6 an hour and never got anything for overtime. She made more but not by much. And besides she was a trained professional with experience. Even though I had two small children at home, I couldn’t blame her. She didn’t own the place or determine how to work people to the bone.

She joined me at the News & Record in 1987 where we worked as colleagues on the night copy desk before she moved on to The Washington Post three years later to flourish on the metro night desk. Ruthell died tragically at age 50 in 2007.

Before she moved to DC, Ruthelll had become a mentor to me in a more important way. She had nurtured my passion to learn from scratch what she was already mastering. More important, she taught me something I wish I had learned earlier in life. She was my first true female friend, neither wife nor girlfriend. It is a wonderful gift for a man to have a woman as a trusted friend and mentor, to respect all boundaries real and imagined, and to recognize how love does make the true revolutionary. What a gift.

It is uncanny that perhaps my most important mentor was a younger Black woman who shared the same birthday with me. Ruthell would smile if I told her that she is still my Rock of Ages.

Posted in The Week in Black and White.