I was only twenty-five when I was hired to teach in the Math/Computer Science Department of a private, religious junior college. I quickly learned how strong the comradery and concern was in our department for each member’s welfare. If I ever had a child admitted to the hospital, or had any other kind of challenge, I could always expect phone calls and visits from the other department members.
Dave, one of the more senior members of the department, always said, “We are family.” But I didn’t realize how true that was until a certain event occurred.
Gordon was my mentor and a good friend. He wasn’t all that old, only in his early fifties, when I was hired. I had only been there three years when he came to talk to me. “Daris,” he said, “I would like you to take over as head of the computer part of our department.”
Gordon was one of the most brilliant men I have ever met. He was not only an incredible teacher, but he was the best programmer I have ever known. He loved the students. He loved learning the new technology. And, in short, he loved that part of his job. So this came as a big surprise.
“Is everything all right, Gordon?” I asked.
He nodded. “I have just felt a little tired lately, and I think is time to let someone younger take the assignment. I’ll continue to work with you as you learn what you need to do.”
I agreed to the new work load and started taking on the challenges of maintaining our computer lab, hiring tutors, and reviewing options for new equipment. But I never made any major decisions without passing them by him for his approval.
However, as he continued to have less and less energy, we all grew more concerned. So did his wife. It took all of us to convince him to go to a doctor to see if there was anything wrong. And indeed there was. He had liver cancer.
That was when I truly learned what good people I worked with. Gordon felt he could do chemo and still teach. Besides, he needed to continue working to have insurance. But we were only a couple of weeks into the semester when Gordon no longer had the energy to even get out of bed. The more senior members of our department called a meeting.
“What can we do to help Gordon?” Dave asked.
“Would the university allow us to teach his classes in his stead, and let him have the pay and keep his insurance?” I asked.
The department chairman nodded. “As long as the classes are taught, it doesn’t make any difference who does the work.”
We immediately divided up his classes. I taught his computer classes, and the others taught his math classes.
But it didn’t stop there. Members of our department continued to check on Gordon to see what he needed. As he grew weaker, we all asked what more we could do. Gordon’s sweet wife was very independent, but she did finally let us help. Gordon could not shave himself any longer, and with the challenges she faced, she had no time to mow the lawn or take care of the yard.
I took on the yard assignment. I asked for volunteers from the computer science students. Gordon was well loved, and each week, at the appointed hour, I had dozens of students show up bringing rakes, shovels, and all sorts of gardening tools. We mowed, trimmed, and beatified his yard.
But what touched my heart even more was watching the older men of our department kindly, selflessly, alternate days that they went to his home to help him shave and take care of his physical needs.
At Gordon’s funeral, his wife rented a limousine and asked me to drive it for the members of our department to be the pallbearers. As I drove, hardly able to see for the tears in my own eyes, I looked in my rear view mirror at the wonderful people I worked with who, like me, mourned for the loss of a colleague. It was then that I again remembered Dave’s words and knew how true they were.
We are family.