This week, my life partner and sweetheart, Martha Halda, and I will be returning to my alma mater, Carlsbad (Calif.) High School, where I will be inducted into the CHS Hall of Fame. The news of my nomination and induction came as a big surprise, but in receiving this award — along with five other CHS grads, two of whom I attended high school with — I’ve thought deeply about what this honor means.
First of all, the honor isn’t given lightly. With our induction group, CHS will have 25 members in its Hall of Fame (out of approximately 50,000 different students who have attended since CHS opened its doors in 1957). These include highly successful and influential people like Robert Stromberg, who won the Academy Award for production design on Avatar and is directing the upcoming adventure movie, Safari; Greg Nelson, my old Boys Club coach and inventor of the Don-Joy knee brace; Dr. Sally Melgren, one of the top ophthalmologists in the country; and Sal Masekela, a familiar face for more than a decade to millions of action sports fans who have tuned into the Winter and Summer X Games on ESPN.
Among those being inducted along with me is Patti Regan, who recently was featured as one of L.A.’s top 50 businesswomen. Our families grew up together on Basswood Ave. in Carlsbad, so that makes the day a little more special. Meanwhile, Martha and I went through all 12 years of grade and high school together, so having her there completes what will be a very sweet day.
High school is a where we’re supposed to study intently and zero in on our career aspirations. What I realized while thinking about the Hall of Fame is that I’m still doing the same things I was doing in high school — writing, distance running, listening to music, and mentoring. I began my professional journalism career while a junior at CHS in 1976, ran on highly successful cross-country and track teams, and tutored other students in Latin, writing and social studies. In a day and age when so many high school students feel aimless and are not necessarily getting good life/career direction from their overwhelmed teachers, this above all else feels very gratifying.
I was one of the lucky ones. The early and mid-70s were watershed years for diverse education and teachers who tried anything to get through to their students. Testing was a once-a-year inconvenience. The man who will introduce and induct us, Tom Robertson (known to countless thousands of thankful students as TR), was one such teacher. In 1973, while futilely trying to teach our freshman English class the romantic poets (Wordsworth, Longfellow, Keats, Shelley, Byron, etc.), he realized we were, well, clueless freshmen. He switched gears, and brought in a stack of records along with printed lyrics. These weren’t just any records or lyrics; they contained the music of Cream, David Bowie, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Fleetwood Mac (pre-Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham), Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and others.
For the next six weeks, we listened to music and studied the relationship between the lyrics, their meanings, and the feelings and thoughts evoked by the musicians as they sang them. When we returned to the romantic poets, we suddenly understood what they were conveying.
Almost 40 years have passed, but on the few occasions I’ve seen TR since high school, I remind him of this brilliant move and thank him for it. During those six weeks, my love of poetry, writing, music and innovative teaching crystallized. I knew I wanted to write publicly like these musicians, I loved the beauty of language and imagery conveyed by poetry, and I knew music would always be central to my life. By the age of 17, I was writing poetry, writing professionally, and writing regular concert reviews for The Blade Tribune (now North County Times), where I worked as a sportswriter. I was also the sports editor for Excalibur, the high school paper, and won the San Diego Union staffer of the year award for high school students in San Diego County. The paper’s advisor? TR.
Talk about the impact one teacher can make! Talk about the value of a single teacher in unlocking the doors of one’s potential!
I never forgot this. Many years later, my teaching opportunities came, first through writers conferences and workshops, later as a high school track and cross-country coach, and more recently, as a writing professor at Ananda College. I always looked for the opportunity to bring out the very best in my audiences, athletes and students — even if they could not yet see their higher potential. I also employed this approach with many of the more than 100 authors whose books I have edited or ghostwritten. The experiences with my professional writing and college students, along with the authors with whom I have worked, have built the measure of much of my life to date. When I think of my Ananda College students, for instance, I am filled with love for them as people, and admiration for their wonderful writing talents. Our class sessions resonated with mutual love, respect, and a deep desire to become the best writers, editors and people we could be. They pushed me as hard as I pushed them.
Meantime, my career has been quite an adventure aboard my pen, whether through newspaper writing, magazine writing and editing, book writing, scripting videos, or website writing and blogging. I have worked with the Apollo astronauts, great sports champions, Olympic gold medalists, iconic filmmakers like George Lucas, top business leaders, the men who planted the flag on Iwo Jima, surfing’s ASP World Tour during its formative years, great artists and artisans, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame musicians like Jefferson Airplane’s/Jefferson Starship’s Marty Balin (he wrote the mid-1970s megahit Miracles, among many other great songs), American Idol-launched stars like Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry, marathon superstars like Bill Rodgers (four time Boston Marathon champion), innovative healers and spiritual leaders of many different faiths, and medicine men in both South America and Native American traditions. I’ve also run three Boston Marathons after renewing my love of running at age 40. This included a number of training runs with Bill Rodgers, with whom I formed a friendship about five years ago.
The book I just co-wrote with Dr. Steve Victorson, The Champion’s Way, sums up what my drive has always been: to take the measure of someone’s greatness, find out how they got there, and tell the world about it. And, hopefully, integrate a trait or two within myself along the way.
Now, 36 years and quite a few books into my writing career, here is what I have learned: Nothing is more gratifying than knowing you made a difference in someone’s life through giving of yourself without consideration of reward. The happiest people are those who give selflessly to others. This has been my goal with every client, author, student or fellow runner with whom I have worked. When you ask me how many books I’ve worked on, I’m just as likely to say, “I’ve edited more than 130 books” as to give you my own book count. Giving to others is what makes us great human beings.
So on Friday, when I walk onto the stage at a packed assembly at Carlsbad High School, I will do something long overdue: I will give TR a handshake and a hug, and thank him for unleashing the writer within me. While I have had other great teacher/friends over the years (Steve Scholfield, Dr. Bev Bosak, Dr. Don Eulert, Dr. Madeleine Randall and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder top the list), TR started a ball rolling that has defined my life.
When it comes to greatness, what can top that?