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Great Mentors

Do you ever think much about the mentors that have helped you in your life? I think about them almost every day. It’s one of those things I’m especially grateful for in my life. No matter where you find yourself in your life’s journey, I can guarantee that there are people that have helped you get where you are and become the person you have become. Take a minute to think about your mentors. In fact, why not take the time today to call one of your mentors today and say “thank you” while you still can?

One of the reasons I think about this is because some of my most important mentors have passed on. However, I feel their contribution in my life constantly. It’s sometimes said there are some doors in life that you cannot open for yourself. I think that’s true. I’ve been fortunate to achieve many things that never would have happened without a number of mentors opening doors for me.

I’ve been lucky enough to have a few mentors that reached such a high level of success and achievement that many people know their names, people like Earl Nightingale, Jim Rohn, Wayne Dyer, and Tony Robbins to name a few. Yet, I’ve also had equally important mentors that I promise you have never heard of unless you’ve talked with me personally.
Let me tell you a story about one of them.

His name is Paul Sweet. I met him when I was quite young, and he has since passed on, yet I feel his influence in my life daily. My first memory of Mr. Sweet was seeing him walk in the neighborhood where I grew up with his hand on his wife’s shoulder and his other hand checking the ground ahead with a walking cane for the blind.

I remember my mom telling me that he was a great musician but that he had lost his eyesight as an adult from a disease. I remember not thinking too much about it until one summer afternoon when the windows of his house were open, and I could hear him playing his clarinet. I was incredibly impressed by the beautiful sounds coming from the open windows.

A few years later, I found myself at his doorstep collecting money as a paperboy for the Omaha World Herald Newspaper. I was surprised he was on my customer list but I learned that the newspaper was for his wife. I’ll never forget it because I had to collect money from customers once a month so I would knock on his door and he would come to the door and appear to be looking right at me, except I knew he was blind. You would have never guessed he was blind at first glance. He moved with complete confidence in his house as if he could see everything. He was incredibly friendly and jovial. He would ask me how much he owed and then reach into his billfold for dollar bills. Next, he would reach into his pocket for the exact change.

The reason I remember this so clearly is that when it came time to collect around the holidays one year, he handed me the exact change as always but then handed me a twenty dollar bill. I was sure he had made a mistake because not every one tipped and if they did, a dollar or two would have been plenty. So I said, “Mr. Sweet, this is a twenty dollar bill.” He said, “I know, that’s for you for providing such great service. I really appreciate you putting my paper on the hanger of my mailbox instead of just tossing it on the steps.” I was blown away. This was something I would never forget. Then, I asked him how he could tell the various bills in his wallet apart. He proceeded to show me that he had the money in his billfold organized and separated so that he knew what was where without being able to see. He said his wife always helped him organize his wallet.

Mr. Sweet fascinated me because I couldn’t imagine going blind and still having a great outlook on life. I thought he would be bitter or mad but he wasn’t. In fact, he was just the opposite. He had an incredibly positive attitude.

I later learned that as his blindness began to set in, he had to develop systems for just about everything that I took for granted every day. He had the furniture and everything else in his house entirely memorized including a very elaborate stereo system with more records and tapes than I had ever seen. I remember watching him pour a cup of tea one day and using his hands and fingers in such a way so as to know when the glass was full. Yet it was a couple of years after I had given up my paper route that I was to be completely amazed.

I had received a hand-me-down clarinet from my brother, and I was playing it at elementary school. A short time before I was to leave for a concert, I was practicing and something went wrong with the clarinet. It wouldn’t play correctly. In fact, it wouldn’t play at all. There wasn’t enough time to go to the music store to get the instrument repaired so my mom called Mr. Sweet to ask for his advice. He told my mom to have me come over with the clarinet and he’d see what he could do or he would let me use one of his spare instruments.

Even though I had seen him provide the correct change and pour tea and a few other things that surprised me, I had no idea how he could fix something as intricate as a clarinet. Yet, to my utter amazement, he took my clarinet, had me follow him to a workshop in the house, and proceeded to fix my clarinet. He took off keys, removed pads, fixed felt, and cork pieces that had fallen off, and then put all of the pieces back together. As I sat there watching him do all this, I was amazed. But that wasn’t the best part.

I thought I had a very poor quality instrument that didn’t sound very good even when it did work. I was wrong. He put his mouthpiece on my clarinet and began to play. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was incredible. I’d never heard someone play so fast and play so well. His fingers moved like lightening on the keys. When he quickly finished repairing and checking the clarinet, he handed me the clarinet and complimented me on how good an instrument it was.
I hurried to the concert and played better than I ever had before. To top it off, when I later asked my mom if I could take lessons from Mr. Sweet, she agreed. That was the beginning of a beautiful mentorship.

Here’s what I find so interesting. In many ways, this story has nothing to do with me learning to play a musical instrument or being taught by a blind musician, although some of my best memories are of taking clarinet and saxophone lessons from Mr. Sweet. In fact, one of my favorite memories is of playing duets with Mr. Sweet or jamming to “Music Minus One” accompaniment records and tapes that he owned. I learned so much from Mr. Sweet but the most valuable lessons I learned were not about music but about life. Despite unbelievable challenges in his life, Mr. Sweet had an amazing attitude and philosophy of life. He didn’t allow what I considered at the time to be knockout challenges to stop him in any way. He kept a great attitude and persevered. He was widely respected in town not just because he was an amazing musician but because he was an amazing human being who knew how to overcome enormous obstacles. I remember thinking at the time how perfect his name fit him. Mr. Sweet was a kind, patient, optimistic, and incredibly sweet person.

Imagine what it would be like to lose your eyesight after having had it for much of your life? In Mr. Sweet’s case, before losing his eyesight, he made a living by reading music in studio sessions and playing with many professional groups, including sitting in with famous big bands and singers that would come through town. He was known as one of the best sight-readers in Omaha and was in great demand because he could play anything that you put in front of him and get it right the first time. When his eyesight started to go, his ability to make a living dramatically changed. If he couldn’t read the charts, he couldn’t play the gigs. Yet I never heard him complain even one time about losing his eyesight. In fact, he never complained about anything. He simply found ways to work around not being able to see. He had to relearn just about everything but he took it all in stride.

When I asked him about what had happened as he lost his eyesight, he said that he just started to memorize songs and also work more on being able to play by ear so he could still work. He found groups to play with where he could memorize the music. I’ll never forget watching him perform. He would simply put his hand on someone’s shoulder to walk on stage and find his place. You would have never even noticed that he was blind. Once he started to play, he was the center of attention. What an incredible musician. He was an even more incredible human being. I miss him.

When I think about Mr. Sweet, I often think of this quote by Calvin Coolidge:

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“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence.

Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.

Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.

Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.

Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On!’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

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Thank you again, Mr. Sweet!