Remembering Steve Mandell
In the Spring of 1997, I was twenty-three years old, teaching English, Theater, and Spanish (for some reason) at the Storm King School in New York’s picturesque Hudson Valley. It was my second year out of college and I was already on my second school, having mutually parted ways with a school outside of Philly the year before.
The Headmaster who hired me had decided to leave SKS and a new leadership team had been selected from the now defunct New York Military Academy, just down the street. I’d had what I felt was a pretty good first year at the school, coaching soccer, living in the dorm, helping to run the theater department, among other tasks that get assigned at a boarding school when you happen to be the guy in the room when someone needs to take something on, like teach Spanish (badly). That said, it was made clear that a review of the entire staff would be taking place and the majority, including yours truly, were told that they should not count on being retained.
I sent resumes out and had a few interviews, but as Spring arrived, I was still in limbo. My then future-wife advised me to control what I could control and so, I kept working hard with my classes, trying to make myself as indispensable to the school as I could. I went to every game, concert, art show and activity the school offered the kids. I took on extra duties on the weekends, and really pushed myself, so much so that I developed what turned out to be a very serious lumbar disc problem that would require major surgery four years later.
I know we are heavy on the backstory here in a reflection that’s not really about me, but trust me, the context matters here.
So, it was there that I found myself waking up one morning in the Spring of 1997 with my back so inflamed that I could not stand up straight. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but I could usually force myself upright and limp up the hill from McConnel Hall to my classroom to teach. That morning, no matter what I did, I couldn’t get past a 45-degree angle. But my seniors had a test on the Beat Generation coming up and we hadn’t yet covered Kerouac and Ginsberg, so I managed to limp to my car, a snazzy 1996 Mercury Tracer, drove a tenth of a mile up the hill and parked outside the English building and limped to my room, promptly flopping flat onto the floor, throwing my legs up on a chair, and preparing to introduce Allen Ginsberg to a group of seniors who were posting the number of school days left on my ancient chalkboard on a daily basis.
The class knew I had a bad back, so while they rolled their eyes and said, “you should really just give us the day off, Kugs,” we got started and made good progress. I was making what I’m sure was an un-brilliant point about Ginsberg’s “Howl,” when I noticed that one of my seniors was nodding his head towards the classroom door. I looked up and saw a group of unfamiliar men in suits and ties staring at me.
This, I soon learned, was the new Headmaster and his team. They were making their first visit as a team to SKS and had decided to tour the class buildings as classes were in session. I waved, and they moved away and I went back to teaching. It wasn’t uncommon for board members to visit from time to time or leaders from other schools, or people the school wanted to ask for money, so I didn’t think much of it in the moment.
The story, as I heard it later went something like this: as they walked away from my classroom, a member of that leadership team, who I will leave nameless in this reflection, commented, “Well, there’s one we can lose.”
There were chuckles, and I imagine a scribbling of notes on a pad before another voice chimed in with, “well, maybe let’s find out why he was teaching on the floor first?”
That other voice, so often the voice of reason, the voice of inspiration and comfort, the clear voice of leadership, friendship and kindness, was that of the man that became my dear friend and mentor, Steve Mandell. It was a voice that I have heard in my head many times over the years and I know I will continue to as I move forward in life. I never heard that voice in anger, never in belittlement or thoughtlessness. It was always a patient voice that dripped with concern for others, showed interest in others, support for others and was always used for the sole purpose of lifting others up.
And it is a voice that has sadly gone silent now.
The world has become a little less magical now that my friend, my mentor, and in many ways, my role model, has died.
When I was finally given the news that I was being kept on staff for another year, it was a great relief. I’d grown to like the school and the town and, absent any other options at the time, and there weren’t any, I’d grown to appreciate the job and a place to live. Steve came on as the Dean of Students, a position essentially charged with running the day-to-day operations of the school as it related to student life and activities. As a young man, teacher, and coach, I’d had a good working relationship with his predecessor, and so I was hopeful we’d get along.
I don’t exactly remember the first time I officially met Steve, but I imagine it was in the dining hall at SKS, where we both had an affinity for that first table, just as you entered the room, closest to the kitchen. It was there that we’d spend countless meals with Janiak, Shovan, Cerone, and any others, and with Steve’s amazing wife Beth and kids Adam and Lily, who were little in those years.
The earliest interaction of real substance that I remember with Steve was in his corner office in the administration building, an office that I would later occupy myself as Dean of Students for a time. It was the Fall of 1997 and he’d seen me walking by and called me in to chat for the first time. His son, Adam, was with him, playfully jumping off the small couch in the corner, right next to where I was sitting. Over and over, Adam was jumping off the couch and crying “TA-DA!” each time he landed. I don’t remember the substance of our talk that day, but I do remember Steve’s proud smile and easy demeanor as he smiled as he nodded towards his son and said, “Kugs…that’s what it’s all about, right there.”
Heidi and I were on the road to engagement and marriage and family, but we weren’t there yet. My father died when I was seventeen, and I found Steve’s easy manner and “big brother” vibe immediately appealing. I didn’t have many examples to follow as a teacher or as a man in those days, but I remember leaving his office quite some time later thinking, “Yeah, that’s a guy I could follow.”
And I did.
Growing up near Princeton University, which was in its glory years as a lacrosse superpower in those days, I was a fan of the game, which I never played. Despite that fact, Steve invited me to be his assistant coach for the SKS Boys’ Varsity team, in which the school had invested heavily. That first year, the school brought in three amazing young men from British Columbia to play lacrosse and revitalize the program. Those young men played soccer for me in the fall, were part of the theater program, which I’d taken over that year, and otherwise genuinely distinguished themselves in many ways on campus. It was the school’s signature big move, led by the school’s most popular and dynamic leader, and he chose me to lead them alongside him, for some reason.
When he asked me, I was honored, but confused. I remember saying, “Um, you know I’ve never played lacrosse, right?”
He replied, “Who cares? You’re a smart guy. You’ll figure it out. Plus, it means we get to hang out and get paid for it. Plus, I’m going to give you a book.”
He knew I was a book guy, and so in order to get me up to speed, he gave me his personal copy of Bob Scott’s iconic Lacrosse, which I read cover to cover several times. It remains among my treasured volumes. We would later go to several lacrosse conventions together, not to mention winter break camps with the team in Cocoa Beach, Florida as we embraced our mutual love of the game, our teams, and just hanging out together. Over those three all-too-brief years that we shared at SKS, Steve and I traveled to Boston, Philly, and beyond for private school employment conferences, lacrosse events, and more. He taught me to drive “stick shift” on a trip to Boston when he got tired.
“Dude, I have no idea how to drive stick…” I said, “and we’re on the highway?”
“You’re a smart guy, and I’m a good teacher,” he replied, yawning, as we pulled onto the side of the road somewhere in Connecticut and he talked me through the basics of navigating the Headmaster’s Range Rover, which he had donated to the school for official school use. The Rover had served him well in Africa when he was stationed there, and that night, it was tasked with my amateur piloting on the mean streets of I-84.
We made it to Boston alive and the vehicle still worked enough for the ride home. He was, as he’d said, a good teacher.
It has been very difficult for me to think of Steve in the past tense.
He called me about a week before he died and we spoke for hours. He’d been fighting cancer for years and while he’d gotten some good news on one front, he shared with me that another cancer had developed and that his doctors were unsure about the path forward.
It didn’t feel like a goodbye call at the time. I’ve experienced that call before with my father before he died when I was in high school. Steve and I laughed and talked about memories and about our kids and had every bit of the kinds of conversations that we’d always had. We caught up, we talked about the old days, and we talked about what was next. He asked me to keep checking in with his son. I was all too happy to agree to that, and he said how much he was hoping to see me at his son’s wedding next year.
I thought there was going to be more time. We always think that, but I really thought that this time.
I was wrong.
As I reflect on it, that makes the call that he and his wife graced me with so, so much more important to me. I am honored to have been among the people that they wanted to talk to. I walk forward into this less magical world, one in which my friend and mentor no longer walks, far more prepared as a result of our long friendship and his courage, kindness, and grace at the end of his life.
Steve Mandell knew that his time among us was coming to an end, but he continued to do what he always seemed to do: think about how things were going for everyone else. In that last talk, he asked about my son’s high jumping at the state meet. He asked about my eldest daughters’ art and her girl scout gold award was going. He asked about how my youngest daughter was doing in track and with art, and was impressed with how she’d handled some drama at school earlier in the year. That in particular meant a lot.
We talked about the Canadians, and about Shovan, and Cerone, and Baly and Janiak, and about young Parker, who is doing amazing community work in NYC. We talked about what Lily and Adam are doing, and we laughed about moments that we shared with them back in the day. We talked about Bartch, and Quirk, and “Big Tites” and so many other things that only those of us that were there would know, and we laughed.
And we talked about Pat Roy. Steve and I talked of him every time we spoke and I don’t mean only after Pat was tragically killed aboard the USS Cole. Steve and I talked about Pat when he was our student, our player, our coaches captain, and beyond. He was an amazing young person, one of many we had the chance to work with in our days at SKS together and beyond, and Pat and his family were in our thoughts and conversation during that last talk.
I didn’t know it would be the last talk, but having lost my eldest sister when I was just born, my father at seventeen, and others along the way, I’ve always had a sense that one should never leave things unsaid. It’s just a thing about myself that I have learned to accept, so I said it all.
I told him everything he’s meant to me, which is a lot.
I told him that I love him and his family.
I told him a lot of other things that I’m not going to share with you just now, but they were good, and we laughed, and when we hung up, I smiled and laughed for a few minutes.
And then, I lost it, because I knew that that was maybe the last time I would talk to my friend, my mentor, my role model.
I didn’t have anyone in my life to teach me how to be a father, a husband, a leader. I just didn’t at that time, and Steve was that for me. Watching him look at Adam as he jumped off the couch, and the way he cradled him in his arms a year later when Adam took a misstep off the stage while performing in the theater; it was the kind of moment that resonated with me as someone that really wanted to be a good dad, and a good teacher, and a good school leader, and a good husband, none of which I was at that time.
Those years at SKS were challenging, but whenever I wasn’t sure what to do, I went to Steve. And to Beth. They were my role models and I was honored to have Steve as one of my groomsmen in my wedding in 1999.
So, moving forward in that slightly less magical world is a challenge.
But I have a few ideas about how I might approach it:
I think I’m going to honor my friend by trying to approach my life as a parent and my life as an educator, newly returned to the fold in that regard, with Steve Mandell in mind in the following ways:
When I inducted Steve into the SKS Hall of Fame, I called him the “Shaman of Seeing People.” It was a real gift of his, the ability to connect and see where a person was coming from, going, and otherwise all about. I meant it when I said it and it was never more apparent to me than in his last days. He was still thinking of others. He was thinking about his amazing wife, his amazing kids, the legacy he was leaving behind.
But, for some reason, he was also thinking of me.
He was thinking about how I was going to be, navigating a world without him. We didn’t talk all the time, but it always mattered when we did. When we got together, it always mattered. When he’d call in the middle of the day to double check my address, I knew that something cool was coming my way from an auction at the school he was leading, like the Mike Schmidt bobble head that just arrived one day, and the MANDELBAUM shirt that arrived out of nowhere.
As his life was ending, I was among the people he wanted to talk to. I’m honored by that. I think he knew that if I didn’t get that last talk with him, I’d have been grumpy about it, and so yeah, there’s another moment where my friend just got me.
I will miss him.
I miss him already.
But I’ll honor him for all the days until we meet again, if such a thing is a thing, by loving my family every day. I’ll honor him by loving his family every day. I’ll honor him by trying to laugh and have some kind of fun every day.
And, I’ll honor him by doing the actual work of being a father; being a husband; being a teacher; being a leader.
By just being a good human being.
I’ll do the work.
I think that’s how I’ll honor my friend, my mentor, my brother. The Shaman of Seeing People. I’ll honor him by doing the work.
Steve Mandell was the only one that bothered to wonder why I was teaching my class while laying on the floor that day.
He saw something in me when everyone else wanted to pass.
He changed my life and the lives of many others.
I know that I am a far, far better person for having known, learned from, been befriended by, and having been mentored by Steve Mandell.
If I’m anywhere near a tolerable person today, well, Steve’s not the only one you should thank, but he’s really high up there. He’d deflect the praise, as he always did, but he’d know deep down inside that he’d helped.
It’s what he always, always, always endeavored to do.
I’ll try to do that too.
As I finish this, I find his voice inside my head again. It’s not unwelcome and it sounds very much like his voice always has sounded in my head, regardless if we were miles apart or just on the other side of campus.
I feel like he’d say something like, “Don’t worry about me, Kugs. Go be excellent!”
And in that, I hear an echo of everything he ever said to me, which all leads me back to that first real talk that we had in his corner office at SKS, watching Adam jump off the little couch, over and over again. I can still see his smile, and Adam’s too.
I can still remember the way he looked at his son in that moment, and how he looked at the pictures on his desk, of Beth, of Lily and Adam.
As I thought about that office just now, I remembered that if you leaned towards the left and angled the chair in that corner office just right, you could look through that front window and see the playing fields, and the lower crest of the Third Peak of Storm King Mountain.
You could look left and see the gazebo and the admissions building.
You could look straight out and see the Dining Hall and on a clear day, maybe get a sense of the Hudson River in the distance.
But if you pushed the chair back from the desk just right, and leaned a little to the left, you could not only see an amazing kid jumping off a little couch, you could also see a white house with a second story porch, where at that moment, a wife and child were heading out to meet you for dinner in the dining hall.
“Kugs…that’s what it’s all about.”
It was even more true the last time I spoke with him.
Our friends, our mentors, our teachers, our family: they never stop teaching us.
I’ve learned this many times over the years.
They never stop teaching us.
I miss my friend.
I can’t wait to see what he’s going to teach me next.
Until then, I promise to do my best to remember what it’s all about.
I promise to lay as many gigantic eggs as I can, and then stand back and admire them all. Truly.
And I’ll do all the other stuff we talked about too.
God Speed, my friend.
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