Mentor

You probably don’t know the name Deron McGee. He is the first person I ever considered as a mentor and he is easily one of the most influential people in my professional life. When I transferred to the University of Kansas as an undergrad in 1994, Deron was one of the first faculty members I met. It was his first semester at KU, too, and I sought him out because I wanted a job in the computer lab. The rest, as they say, is history.

Deron saw me through my studies at KU as I navigated the B.M. in Composition and the B.M. in Theory. When three of the classes I needed to graduate were taught at 10:30 on MWF (KU did that a lot back then) he taught one of those as an independent study for me and another student. Deron also tolerated my misguided analysis of Bartok’s Viola Concerto which served as my bachelor’s thesis. I don’t think my arguments about the piece hold any water anymore but it did what theorists are supposed to do: have an opinion and use analysis to support that opinion. Deron never told me my idea was wrong, he made sure he gave me the tools to support my point of view.

I stayed at KU for a M.M. in Theory because of Deron and it was probably the best thing I could have done. I took over the undergrad music tech course and learned more than I ever thought I would learn. I would pester Deron about things, the kind of academic stalking that could only happen between a precocious student and an all-too-patient faculty member. I feel like I was always knocking on his door, asking him questions, dropping by his office, and totally missing the signs that he was incredibly busy doing things that didn’t involve me and my wacky shenanigans. He never made me feel like I was wasting his time, even though I probably was.

When I left KU in ’98, I didn’t think I would come back. Yet I did in 2000 as music tech staff. Deron was my immediate supervisor in that position and helped me navigate my first “real job.” I was unhappy in the job for 2 years, unhappy with life in general actually, and left to do my D.M.A. He knew that was coming, probably long before I did.

Over the years, we became friends and would get together socially, too. We went camping, went to movies, got together for Thanksgiving, lots of fun stuff. Our wives became partners-in-crime, too, especially when scrapbooking was involved. At least they said they were scrapbooking. They sure went through a lot of wine and sometimes they pasted pictures to things.

Anyhow, I bring all this up because Deron had his 4th (!) brain surgery yesterday to deal with a pesky tumor. It sounds like everything went well and he is in recovery now. This blog post probably sounds like a eulogy and while my thoughts tend to linger on Deron more when I hear about his health I cannot deny that I wouldn’t be where I am now without his guidance, council, and influence.

Also, I’m starting to see students act around me the way that I acted around Deron. I’ve had students knock on my door at random times to talk about various and sundry music/life issues. It freaks me out a little because, as you all know, I wear my own insecurities on my sleeve. With neon signs and everything. I do my best with these students and try to give them the tools to do what they want to do (even if it means letting them make mistakes, sometimes they need to do that) while not showing the seething currents of stress that are part of the tenure-earning faculty life.

Deron taught me how to be a mentor. I didn’t know he was teaching me this at the time, of course. I hope that I can do for my students as Deron did for me.

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3 Comments

  1. Rachelle
    Posted May 1, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    “I would pester Deron about things, the kind of academic stalking that could only happen between a precocious student and an all-too-patient faculty member. I feel like I was always knocking on his door, asking him questions, dropping by his office, and totally missing the signs that he was incredibly busy doing things that didn’t involve me and my wacky shenanigans. He never made me feel like I was wasting his time, even though I probably was.”

    This sounds a little familiar. You ARE the mentor with the open door, all-too-patient. You always were to me. You never made me feel like I was wasting your time, though I’m sure I probably was too. You got me to open my eyes and ears to new music and to just think a little more. You even gave me some hilariously good advice — in retrospect — when I missed your course one morning and was quite ill from a little too much fun the night before! My undergrad would not have been the same without you, and I hope you know that you are a wonderful mentor that your students for years to come will look to in the way you look at Deron. You’re great. And I hope he has a speedy recovery.

  2. Red Wells
    Posted May 1, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    This is such a good tribute to Deron, but also a tribute to you, Jay, in the fact that you realize how it affects your students. It’s very neat when we find people in our lives to help us pay it forward.

  3. Joseph Eidson
    Posted May 3, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    The first four weeks of my freshman year at KU were extremely tough, having never been away from home and, as a “Missourah” boy, all of my high school friends were going to MU together. I was going to pack up and head home (especially after one of the administrators told me to do just that) when someone suggested I talk to Tom Stidham in the band department. After meeting with Tom he told me to go up to the fourth floor and find Deron McGee to see what he had to say on the issue. Deron listened to my story and then talked to me in his low (and incredibly intense / intimidating to a freshman) voice for about thirty minutes. He told me there were two options – leave and go somewhere else next year, or stick it out and see if it gets better. If it doesn’t, leaving is an option. However, if I left immediately I would never know if the situation would get better or not.

    I chose to stay and had four wonderful years on Mt. Oread, followed by graduate school, and currently work as a professor and composer. Tom’s words got me to laugh a little and see that the situation wasn’t all bad, but Deron’s advice is what cemented my decision to stay and ultimately started the trajectory that my life would take for the next 12 years. Long story short, he is an incredible man and has touched many lives of his students and colleagues. Here’s to a speedy recovery!

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