Thank Your Mentor Day: Bill Clinton, Oprah And Others Recall Their Mentors

02/22/2009 04:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  •, Harvard School of Public Health

Ray Charles

Wiley Pittman, he was the cat. I mean, if it hadn't been for him, I don't think I'd be a musician today. We lived next door to him. He had a little café, a general store, and he had a piano in there. Every afternoon around 2:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m., he'd start to practice. I was 3 years old and--I don't know why I loved him, I can't explain that--but any time he'd start to practicing and playing that boogie woogie--I loved that boogie woogie sound--I would stop playing as a child, I didn't care who was out there in the yard, my buddies, or whoever, I would leave them, and go inside and sit by him and listen to him play. From time to time, I'd start hittin' the keys with my whole fists and finally he would say to me, "Look kid, you don't hit the keys with your whole fist like this (demonstrates), if you like music so much," and he knew how much I liked music because I'd stop everything I was doing and listen to him. So he started to teach me how to play little melodies with one finger. And, of course, I realize today that he could've said, "Kid, get away from me, can't you see I'm practicing?" But he didn't. He took the time. Somehow he knew in his heart, this kid loves music so much, I'm going to do whatever I can to help him learn how to play.

Bill Clinton

My high school band director, Virgil Spurlin, had a huge impact on my life. Not because he was a particularly great band director. He was quite good, but he was a world-class human being. He took a personal interest in kids, and seemed to instinctively know when they were having trouble at home or having trouble in school, and always to know what to say to them and more importantly maybe what questions to ask to find out what was really going on in their lives. He also was always looking for things that young people could do besides play music. We put on the state band festival every year, for example, and he let lots of us help. And he taught us basic organizational skills and how to allocate resources and move things around. But always he was trying to find things that people were good at. He thought that everybody was good at something and if he just looked hard enough he could find it, he could convince them of it, and he could raise their aspirations and their hopes. He was unbelievable. All my life I thought of him. I stayed in touch with him on and off until he passed away. I really felt that my early years with him convinced me that I could organize and run things. That I could do whatever I wanted to do and that I could actually marshal other people in a common effort, and of course if you're in politics that's very important.

I did have a lot of doubt when I was a young person. And I was always holding myself to a very high standard and failing, thinking I was never perfect, never as good as I wanted to be as a person, as a student, as anything, a musician. And I actually think some of that is quite healthy. I think all of us could do with a dose of self-doubt, always questioning. But if it's too strong in your life, it can paralyze you. I think the example of my mother helped me a lot there, because she had all these incredible difficulties from the time she was a little girl, through her marriage, her marriage to my stepfather was quite difficult, and she had difficulties in her profession. She always got up early in the morning, you know, went to the bathroom, made herself up and left the house with a smile on her face. And she told me repeatedly that every day was a gift, and that obstacles were as much a part of life as opportunities, and you just had to go on. And I had this sort of dogged endurance throughout my life. Sometimes your parents or other mentors can have a bigger example just by the way they are with you and with other people, by what you see about the way they live as much as whether they are with you all the time or what words come out of their mouth.

Gwen Ifill

The most important lesson I was taught was the lesson of possibility, and that was taught to me by my parents...I knew I wanted to be a journalist since I was in elementary school. When I got to college I had a college professor at Simmon's College in Boston named Alden Poole. Here is a crusty guy teaching at a women's college, teaching us about how to function in a newsroom but not putting any limitations on how we should function. And it was because of him that I had my idea of my love of newspapering confirmed. He helped me get an internship that led to my first job which was at the Boston Herald American, his old newspaper; which, even though this was the 70's, was a throwback to The Front Page, with lots of old guys...old white guys, frankly, who'd never seen anything like me--a college-educated black woman. And they didn't know how to deal with me. And I had Alden Poole in my head saying, "Ah, you can do it. Just go in there and show 'em, give 'em what for."

John McCain

A former high school teacher of mine, Mr.William Ravenel, changed my life. I was the son of a naval officer who led a transient life. Mr. Ravenel gave me some moorings and a compass. He used his classroom as not only a way to teach English, but also to teach values, and standards, and morals. Mr. Ravenel was so admirable you wanted to be like him. Years later, during the time I was imprisoned in Vietnam, I thought about Mr. Ravenel a lot. I was faced with several decisions and one in particular, would I accept an offer of the Vietnamese to go home early. [John McCain had been subjected to torture while imprisoned, and the offer of early release was extended as a PR ploy because his father was commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet]. I really believed, as I considered it, that Mr. Ravenel would not look favorably upon such a decision, because it was not an honorable one. So, I refused the offer. After I returned home, Mr. Ravenel was the only person outside of my family who I wanted to see, because his approval or disapproval of me was probably more important than anyone else in my life, outside of my father. I regret that I was never able to pay him that tribute. Mr. Ravenel had died of a heart attack two years before my release from prison.

Colin Powell

When I was a boy growing up in the South Bronx, my father was the dominant figure in my life. A Jamaican immigrant like my mother, who worked his way up to a foreman's job in Manhattan's garment district, Luther Powell never let his race or station affect his sense of self. West Indians like him had come to this country with nothing. Every morning they got on the subway, worked like dogs all day, got home at 8 at night, supported their families and educated their children. If they could do that, how dare anyone think they were less than anybody's equal? That was Pop's attitude, and it became mine, too...He would bring home clothes, seconds and irregulars, and end bolts of fabric from the company where he worked, and sell them at wholesale or give them to anybody in need.

Brian Williams

I signed up for an English literature course taught by a teacher named Bob Kitzin, and he turned me around. And I think in me he recognized a case where we had a young man who could go either way. And if you had told me a year prior, when I was working out with the football team and going out late at night to any number of dives along the Jersey shore, that this guy would have me reading philosophy--Emmanuel Kant and Machiavelli--and reading great pieces of work, I wouldn't have believed you. He employed the technique used by all of our great teachers. He used the germ of an idea: the excitement of learning, personal betterment. He saw someone I guess with willingness - at that point he couldn't have seen too much talent or intellect, I assure you - but he taught with such enthusiasm, excitement. And, of course, he took the time to care enough to take me on as a project. He laid down that foundation in my life, and I think were it not for him, I wouldn't have become a serious thinker in life.

Oprah Winfrey

One of the defining moments of my life came in the fourth grade, the year I was Mrs. Duncan's student. What Mrs. Duncan did for me was to help me to not be afraid of being smart. She encouraged me to read, and she often stayed after school to work with me, helping me choose books and letting me help her grade papers...A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself. A mentor is someone who allows you to know that no matter how dark the night, in the morning joy will come. A mentor is someone who allows you to see the higher part of yourself when sometimes it becomes hidden to your own view.I don't think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship. And we are all mentors to people, even when we don't know it.