I remember her words, almost as if they were spoken yesterday.
Mrs. Mabel Price, our high school counselor in that little town of Westminster, in Western Maryland, said, "You belong in college, and I'm going to do everything I can to get you there."
For me, college was something out of the question, something on a far-distant planet, something only privileged people did. I said, "I can't go to college. I don't have the money. There's no way I could afford it. I'm going to enlist in the Navy."
Even though I was graduating at the top of my class in that small town, and I enjoyed the experience of learning and thinking, I was conditioned by a long tradition of experience in my family. We were people of decidedly limited means, and three of my four older brothers had gone off to join the military - two in the Air Force and one in the Army.
For my siblings, and many others like them in rural America, joining the military was the only way to get off the farm and out of the small-town life of mediocrity. You got a steady job with decent pay; you might go to far-away countries; you experienced things your friends never would; and whenever you came back to Nowhereville, people treated you like a celebrity. You were a man of the world; you knew a lot of stuff that the local yokels didn't know; and the girls showed more interest than they had when you were in school.
Mrs. Price wouldn't have it. "A military career is a perfectly respectable way of life," she said (I'm paraphrasing from memory after more than 50 years), "but you have a gift that can make a difference in the world. I want you to continue your education."
At first, I reluctantly went along with her, even though I couldn't picture this grand adventure ever panning out. It was just after the start of the year in which I was scheduled to graduate - 1959, to be exact - and while my friends and classmates were feverishly filling out their applications for the eight or ten colleges they hoped to qualify for, I hadn't applied to any.
Mrs. Price said, "I think I can get you into Johns Hopkins University." JHU was a small, selective, and highly respected school in nearby Baltimore. "Professor Robert Pond, who lives here in town, has offered to take you and another student to the campus for a visit. You can have a look at the campus, talk to the admissions people, and see what happens. I want you to go."
I still remember that day. My classmate - who was already mad keen to get into Hopkins - and I rode to the campus with Dr. Pond. He treated us to lunch at the faculty club. I somehow remember the delicious chicken and rice soup, but not much about the rest of the meal. For a kid from Hicksville, this was a big experience.
I came home with a packet of admissions forms. Mrs. Price sat with me as I filled them out and mailed them in. To my astonishment, they accepted me. As I look back, I shudder at the cavalier attitude I took - I applied to a single university, and that one decided to bet on me.
I was flattered and intrigued, but still not optimistic. "I still don't have the money," I protested. "What good does it do to get accepted by JHU if I can't pay the tuition and all the other costs? My family can't contribute a dime - they just don't have it."
"I'm working on that," she said.
And, work on it she did. She applied to the local Lion's Club chapter for a $500 scholarship on my behalf. When it was announced, during our graduation assembly, that I had been awarded the scholarship, I was stunned.
But still - even though $500 was a lot of money at that time, it was nowhere near enough to fund a college education.
Then, the Hopkins admissions department informed me that they were awarding me a scholarship that almost covered my first year's tuition (the hand of Mrs. Price, perhaps?). Now, it was starting to look like it might be feasible - I'd have to work part-time jobs (I had two of them at that time), but I'd missed a few meals in my day and I wasn't necessarily daunted by the starving student experience.
Then came the clincher: as part of the enrollment process, I had applied for a grant under President Eisenhower's National Defense Student Loan Program, which provided funds for students majoring in defense related - i.e. STEM - fields. The Cold War was intensifying at that time, and Ike wanted scientists and engineers. The program offered a very low interest rate, and a ten-year payback period at simple interest. They gave me the loan.
Suddenly, I was off to college.
It wasn't long before the wisdom of Mrs. Price's guidance really soaked into my developing intellect. I was walking from the parking lot on the campus to my first class one day, talking with my friend and classmate, and we passed by a group of men who were digging a deep ditch. Suddenly, I knew why I was in college. She was right - I had been given a gift that could take me to wonderful places. I decided then and there that I preferred to make my living with my brain rather than my back, and however decent and honorable their work was - just as decent and honorable as mine - I had been given an option they didn't have: an education.
One of the most memorable days of my life was when I wrote that last check to pay off the federal student loan. I still have the canceled check.
I suppose a memory of 50 years can't be trusted completely, but in later years I began to wonder how well - if at all - I'd expressed my gratitude to Mrs. Price. Not only did she believe in me; encourage me; and help me - she actually browbeat me into making one of the most important and rewarding decisions of my life. I'd like to believe I said "thanks" often enough and sincerely enough, but I've always felt I might have done better.
Some years ago, as I mused on the experience for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me: "Maybe I could locate Mrs. Price. Maybe she's still living in Westminster, or maybe somebody will know where she went. I could go back there and visit her, maybe take her and her husband to lunch or dinner, bring her a gift, and really let her know how much I appreciate what she had done for me."
So, I began to search online for clues about where she might be. I soon discovered her obituary, published in the Baltimore Sun and dated October 8, 2001.
I suppose the lesson for me in this story - or one of the lessons - is this: If you love someone; if you appreciate them; if you're grateful to them - tell them now. One day it will be too late.
Well . . . anyway . . . Mrs. Price, wherever you are - Thank You.
Your grateful student,
Karl Albrecht, Ph.D.
Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, coach, futurist, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He is listed as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in business on the topic of leadership.
He is a recognized expert on cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are used in business and education.
The Mensa society presented him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence.
Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.