03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

My Mentors

January is National Mentoring Month. Why the need for a National Mentoring Month? Most successful people say they had mentors along the way who guided and encouraged them. The Harvard Mentoring Project has been conducting videotaped interviews and collecting written essays in which prominent people from various fields talk about their mentors. Maya Angelou cites a grade school teacher who sparked her love of poetry, Quincy Jones points to the powerful influence of musician Ray Charles, and Sting credits a teacher whose energy inspired a lifelong passion for learning. Other participants include President Bill Clinton, Clint Eastwood, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Tom Brokaw. Watch or read the stories about mentors in their lives, or read a list of famous mentor-mentee pairs. So, who mentored you? Think about individuals in your own life who offered you encouragement, shared their experiences and knowledge, and sometimes just listened when you needed to talk. Do they know what a lasting difference they made? Find out how you can thank them. --The Harvard Mentoring Project

It's such a late '90s word, mentoring. And now it's such a double-zero's movement, this high concept thing we call mentoring. But -- and here's a phrase that makes me feel ancient -- back when I was beginning, it was neither hot word or movement, it was just called helping. The old dogs in a newsroom helping the young pups find their way so they didn't screw up overmuch.

My time began in 1959 and the newsroom was CBS television news and the two people who pointed me down the right paths and kept me off the wrong ones were Ralph Paskman whose precise job title I cannot remember other than "sir" and Bill Crawford who was younger and set the tone then for the kind of newsroom casual that we all aspired to.

Paskman was the older of the two and in a movie Ed Asner would play the part. Gruff. Short-tempered. A scary guy who must have come to television from the city desk of some newspaper where I am sure he ate copy boys for lunch. But under it all was a teacher.

"Are you listening? Do you know what you are hearing?" he would say over and over again and you'd discover that knowing what you were hearing; understanding what you were being told were keys to being a reporter, keys to surviving in a newsroom.

"Are you going to do this or do you want to grow up to be a brassiere salesman" he bellowed one day making it clear that being "tired" had no place in his, or any other newsroom and not wanting to when asked or ordered even less. Tough love was what he mentored this 19-year-old with back then and the lessons stuck.

If you were going to be a newsman -- yes, it was sexist back then -- you had to pay attention and hear all the time and you had temper the toughness he was building into you with love. I've tried to hang onto a little of Paskman across the years.

Bill Crawford was the bright young executive back then who had started by writing the news for Douglas Edwards. He probably should have been the president of CBS News at some point, but he was too young and too hip for the old guys who ran the place. In a movie, he'd be played by the young Tom Hanks.

He over-taxed but that didn't matter; words and writing were what he loved and he gave his time to help anyone who wanted to try. He knew and wanted you to know that if you couldn't write you weren't going anyplace. He was the definition of a "hard driver."

"You make time to write some scripts," he said to me one day, "and I'll make time to edit them." Edit he said, not correct and so I wrote and he edited. They were savage and the lessons learned have never been forgotten.

"You cannot say 'only' when you are talking about numbers of the dead. That only demeans them. Don't forget it." And I haven't.

"Could you read this out loud?" was his favorite margin note, and when I couldn't, I learned how to write so that I could. Without Crawford I would have never learned to love writing and without that, I wouldn't have done everything I've accomplished in the 49 years that followed. To this day, I still have those scripts and I drag them into classrooms and teach with them.

So what's the lesson here?

The people who helped, taught or mentored you, gave you your chance for success, so you'd damned well better make time for the next generation. Remember, too, that in every newsroom or any other kind of business for that matter, there's a bright young kid who wants as desperately as you once did. Your responsibility is to make the time to give the time so that he or she has the tools and the same shot someone gave you so many years before.