Finding My Mentor, Mr. Carpenter

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

I wonder if this is a widespread condition, or prevalent only in the unique sample I have encountered, but it seems that youths today do not respect their elders. I don't mean that in the "don't talk back to your mother!" way. I mean it in the "we think we have it all figured out" way. The most ironic part is how few of us really do -- and how terrified we are of the uncertain journey that will (hopefully) one day endow us with this knowledge of self and surroundings.

Whether because of the Internet and our resulting facile access to (other people's) knowledge; or because we have not struggled the way previous American youths have, and therefore do not recognize the power of learning from others' mistakes; or perhaps because we were born at a time when children came to be central to the home, prized in their very existence, we do not strive to emulate anyone, and we underestimate the importance of actually aspiring to be something more, something great. This desire for growth, and what growth will fully entail -- pain, sorrow, and great joy for those lives that are lived fully -- is missing, and we are content with ourselves as we are. In any case, there seems to be a profound disregard for the value of a "mentor".

And yet sometimes, despite the fact that we might not want (or didn't know we needed) a guide to help us traverse this one, great life, a mentor lands smack in front of us, and we have no choice but to stand up and take notice.

This was the happy circumstance that brought me to Edmund N. Carpenter, II. A decorated war hero, a celebrated trial attorney, a commensurate gentleman. Sound like your average Joe? He was not.

I sat down in Mr. Carpenter's study in Wilmington, DE as a high school senior, nervously fiddling with the ancient texts he had lying around his bounteous library, patting the bronze head of a statuette of the Princeton tiger that jealously guards the entrance to Nassau Hall (a tribute to Mr. Carpenter's service to his alma mater, and a copy of which I would come to own upon my own graduation).

Mr. Carpenter sat across from me and surveyed me with bright blue eyes: they were not harsh, or cutting, the way so many blue eyes are. They were serene, contemplative, discerning, and kind. He chatted with me for well over three hours about my ambitions, my aspirations, my ideals. He was so intensely curious! At eighty years old, he had not tired of asking the seemingly superficial questions that sometimes lead you to much greater discovery.

Somewhere near the middle of our conversation, he asked me who I wanted to be like, and I was stumped. I had never thought about wanting to be anyone other than who I was; not in earnest, anyway. There were, of course, people I admired. But in terms of finding the perfect human model in whose cast I would like to be wrought -- what was the point? This taught him something very important about me: that I was young, and naïve, and still had a great deal to learn about myself and the world. But it taught me something much more important: that Mr. Carpenter was someone worth being, and that I wanted very badly to be just like him.

Besides his incomparable intelligence and disproportionate modesty, there was his grace, his gentility, his "Old World Class", as his dear friend and colleague Hon. Thomas L. Ambro summarized. Yes, he was the recipient of the Bronze Star for service in World War II. Yes, he was the President of the Delaware State Bar Association and the American Judicature Society. Yes, he was awarded countless awards to befit a man of his great dedication and service to all that he undertook. But his greatest contributions were often silent and anonymous, unbeknownst to those who would have wanted to honor him publicly... and this was just the way he liked it.

Over the relatively short five years I knew Mr. Carpenter, I felt I came to learn a great deal about him in as quiet a way as one can. He was not a "lesson-giver". Whatever he taught those he interacted with -- and it was a great deal -- we learned by observing the example of this "silent prince". In my own experience, our every interaction was marked by some striking quality that compelled me to recognize precisely what a force for good I was encountering. He was a prime example of what great men of past generations were like, and affirmed what a tremendous loss it would be if such a rare breed were to become extinct. Especially if these figures were willing to give of themselves, to serve as mentors to a younger generation, to take interest in the trajectory of our futures, it would be a great waste to forgo such an opportunity to learn from the masters.

To answer the question of "why me" as the mouthpiece to bring Mr. Carpenter's legacy to the pages of the Huffington Post, I'd like to respond with "why not?" There were so many statesmen -- the aforementioned Hon. Ambro, and Vice-President Joe Biden, among them -- who could have spoken to long and fascinating friendships with this man. His family could have attested to the unwavering quality of his person, day in and day out.

But I believe my experience of him was something quite unique. These friends met and were influenced by him in adulthood, and his family had the great privilege of knowing him up-close and intimately, but were perhaps unfamiliar with his effect on people who only knew him in brief. I encountered Mr. Carpenter during perhaps the most transformative years of my life, and I believe his effect on me has been that much more fundamental. At his core, Mr. Carpenter was the dynamic pairing of earnest, childlike curiosity with unwavering generosity and strength. His zest for life was something quite extraordinary, and this joy, even after his many long years on this earth, is what I want most to emulate.

In closing, I would like to share an excerpt from an essay Mr. Carpenter wrote as a 17-year-old in 1938 entitled "Before I Die." The essay, read by his daughter, Lea Carpenter, at Mr. Carpenter's memorial service, is profound in its combination of optimism and finality. He himself remarked in the opening paragraph:

"It may seem very strange to the reader that one of my tender age should already be thinking about that inevitable end to which even the paths of glory lead. However, this essay is not really concerned with death, but rather with life, my future life. I have set down here the things which I, at this age, believe essential to happiness and complete enjoyment of life."

As a high school senior -- nearly 60 years before I first sat in his study at the same point in my own life -- Mr. Carpenter had taken the time to set down and evaluate those premises he found crucial to a full and happy life. Among these critical elements, he counted: a truly great accomplishment, of which he could be rightfully proud; to have brought great happiness to others; to have traveled and seen a great portion of the globe, and to have gained an understanding of the way of life in those countries; and to have experienced a great love. But perhaps the most startling, of his primary wishes, and the one to which I hope we will all pay some attention, is unlike anything I can imagine someone wishing upon himself (an observation Mr. Carpenter anticipated). In his own words:

"Before I die I want to feel a great sorrow. This, perhaps, of all my wishes will seem the strangest to the reader. Yet, is it unusual that I should wish to have had a complete life? I want to have lived fully, and certainly sorrow is a part of life. It is my belief that, as in the case of love, no man has lived until he has felt sorrow. It molds us and teaches us that there is a far deeper significance to life than might be supposed if one passed through this world forever happy and carefree. Moreover, once the pangs of sorrow have slackened, for I do not believe it to be a permanent emotion, its dregs often leave us a better knowledge of this world of ours and a better understanding of humanity. Yes, strange as it may seem, I really want to feel a great sorrow."

Indeed, Mr. Carpenter accomplished all that he set out to do. And is it any surprise? An avid adherent of the military's six "P"s -- Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance -- he set goals for himself from the very beginning, prioritized those things in his life that were most important to achieve, and fulfilled his life's ambitions with great aplomb. What must be noted is how few of these goals dealt with monetary gain or public recognition. What he wanted most centered around emotional and social connection, self-knowledge, and personal experience. These are things we can all seek in our own lives.

At the close of Mr. Carpenter's adulthood, and the beginning of mine, our paths intersected and I was fortunate -- more fortunate than I could possibly have known at the time-- to encounter this incredible man. Hearing this essay (the full text of which will be read and discussed by his wife, Carroll Carpenter, and daughter Lea on today's airing of The Dr Oz Show on the Oprah Radio Channel of Sirius XM Satellite Radio) as a new college grad, once again affirmed for me what a good and wise gentleman he was, but it also arrested me in the idea that, as a 17-year-old, he had already accrued so much depth and foresight. It struck me that I needed to be considering these things as I embarked on my own journey towards death. Especially if I wanted to accomplish even half of what he had during his time on this earth, it was not enough to be content with having known him: I needed to learn from his example. He is my mentor, now as ever.

As I prepared to write this article, Lea Carpenter was kind enough to share her own unique perspective:

"[My father] found a way to find meaning in his life, and that meaning meant striving for things he felt were important. He set goals, and he accomplished them. And he did all this while practicing a ruthless, unique humility. And while being an extraordinary father. For him it was never about power, or money, it was about making a difference -- from saving a life, to protecting the most helpless members of our society."

The fact that I am still struggling with my life direction -- even after finding such an incredible mentor -- is, I think, a good thing. It is all part of life's adventure, as Mr. Carpenter would have said (he was ever benevolent, almost indulgent, as youth made small grasps at much greater truths one must assume he was already familiar with). He would have been thrilled to know that, after hearing his high school essay, we each asked ourselves: what do we strive for in life? He would have answered us: What is important.

Frustrating as this answer might have been for those seeking hand-holding, it is the only response that truly applies to one and all. Mentoring is not about getting the answer-key to life. It is about having the guidance of a sage teacher to light the path. As we look towards the new year and a new decade, so much awaits us, especially if we take the time to set ambitious, aspirational goals. Mr. Carpenter, by virtue of his own, incredibly full life, was uniquely suited to lead by example, to teach with love, and to inspire us all to embrace the possibilities life holds in store.