Eric J Gruber standing to the right of Mr. Richard Massa.

Death of a mentor

When I was nearing the end of my college education, I was searching for the next steps in my journey. I was working for a newspaper in Joplin, Mo. My position was almost like a contractor. I had full-time hours but didn’t have benefits (namely, health insurance). My parents, who were both nurses, had drilled into me one important lesson: always have health insurance.

I was seeking guidance. My search led me to the house of a retired professor — Mr. Richard Massa, who was also the founder of the communications department where I was finishing college — who gave me a suggestion.

“You should look into the Lawrence Journal-World,” he told me.

Massa talked up the Journal-World with great praise. He said it was a fine paper, and it was doing interesting things. I should check them out.

I didn’t even know where Lawrence, Kan., was. I found LJWorld’s website, found an email address, and sent off an inquiry, which said something along the lines of, “Are you looking for any newbie journalists?” I got a phone call. They didn’t have anything at LJWorld, but the paper had just purchased two small newspapers outside Lawrence, Kan. — in Eudora and De Soto — and they were building a team. They asked if I could come up for an interview.

Those were different times in the publishing world. I made the three-hour trip from Joplin for an interview, and they put me up in a hotel for the night, took me out to dinner with the editor and the publisher, and told me to stop back by the office before I headed back to Joplin. I worked from around 4 to 11 p.m. at The Globe, and by the time I got back to the office I would need to get to work.

Little did I know, that by the time I had returned to Joplin, the fine people at LJWorld had called The Globe to check my references. I found this out because as I started my shift, my editor, Gary, wanted to talk to me. It turned out they were now ready to offer me some benefits.

“Does this have anything to do with my trip to Lawrence,” I asked? “Yes,” Gary said.

I knew right at that moment: I was going to move to Lawrence.

I grew up in a very small Kanas town the same size as Eudora and De Soto. The area where I grew up is filled with wonderful, loving people who seem to have known each other forever, at least with some passing association. There’s a beauty in a small town that you don’t often find in a bigger city, something that I struggle to articulate well for those who haven’t experienced that life. As a small example, let’s just say that when your mother dies, the community mourns with you. They stop by and bring comfort food. They offer their embrace for grieving. They are sad not only for you, but with you.

And because of this one man’s suggestion, I left all I knew in search a new adventure for myself.

Massa.

I was never a pupil of Massa while he taught at Missouri Southern State University. However, he played a role in an international media seminar where communications students went to Paris, France for a week. He also helped coordinate a trip where I and two other students went to Central America for two weeks before my senior year began. While there, we covered stories about Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Massa, along with and Dr. Chad Stebbins, Director of the Institute of International Studies at my alma mater, were instrumental in me seeing parts and people of the world that I may have never had the chance to see otherwise.

I got to know Mr. Massa (as he was most well known by those he was befriended, and simply “Massa” if you really cared about him), through one of my fellow students, Aaron Deslatte. Aaron was a brilliant writer, and loved to visit Massa. I loved hanging out with Aaron, and by default got to know Massa through frequent visits. Massa always welcomed us, and he and his wife, Teresa, gladly let students past and present drop in and chat away. The discussions about world events, politics and policy were always fascinating. Those discussions made me want to learn more.

Massa died Sunday, March 17, 2019.

Even after my move away from home, I didn’t stop learning from him. I would stop by on occasion, as many other students did, and catch up with him and his wife. Eventually, I got married, and then introduced my wife, Amy, to him. Massa made mention that my move from Joplin led me to my wife. He fully believed that me meeting Amy — not any career move — was my great achievement from that life change. He wasn’t wrong.

Not long ago I messaged him with a question I had been posting online. I was looking for his answer to the question, “Regardless of your age now, what advice would you give your 40-year-old self?”

“Go for it!” he replied, “The wisest decision I ever made was at the age of 40. I decided to marry Teresa and to find a job at MSSU. I had other options — some sounding much better, some making more money, but I had grown weary of change and uncertainty and I needed security and purpose.”

I must admit, right now, as I write this, I’m a little dumbstruck at something I have missed for years. When I sought out his advice about what to do those many years ago, Massa didn’t suggest I try and beg and plead with my employer to give me some health insurance. He didn’t tell me to wait it out and hope things would change.

No, Massa suggested I go out and choose a new adventure, and see what happens. Even all those years ago, he was suggesting I “go for it.”

My mind is blown. Hot damn.

Amy once asked me, “What was Mr. Massa? Was he your teacher?” I told her that I often referred to him as my mentor. While I stick with that assessment, I now realize it’s not the full truth. I was not his classroom pupil, but I was most certainly his student.

The teacher has given me the lesson, and the lesson is this: life is yours to embrace, so go for it!

Farewell, sir.

Mr. Richard Massa and Eric J Gruber.

Farewell, Massa. Farewell, good sir.

And …

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