Education
Home Up Blind Spot

Book One:

A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS


PART FOUR: RETROSPECT

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX:
EDUCATION

Written by Rick Archer

  2015, Richard Archer

 


SUBCHAPTER 103 -
ST. JOHN'S SCHOOL REVISITED

 

One afternoon while I was writing my book, I dropped by the school to have another look.  St. John's has grown dramatically since my days.

When I graduated from St. John's in 1968, the Upper School consisted of 220 students. Today that total is 600 students, nearly three times larger.

There are many new buildings on the campus.  For example, Mewbourne Hall did not exist when I attended the school.  From what I gather, this giant three-story structure is the first leg in the development of a second Quadrangle at the original front of the campus.

In 2012, St. John's purchased a valuable 13-acre tract across the street from the main campus.  Overnight this acquisition increased the size of the school's campus by 33%.  At present, the new property is being used for parking and baseball, but there are extensive plans in the works.

St. John's has become quite the powerhouse.  A magazine ranked SJS at #13 in a list of the country's top private schools.  No doubt the expansion will improve that ranking.   One day I expect St. John's will rival its prep school counterparts as one of America's most prestigious private schools.

Mewbourne Hall - completed in 2005
 

 


SUBCHAPTER 124
- THE VALUE OF AN EDUCATION

 


From the Desk of George Mitchell

December 7, 2010

I was born in Galveston, Texas, to Greek immigrant parents.  I was a teenager during the Great Depression.

Although I grew up in a very meager, yet loving, environment, I always considered myself fortunate to live in the United States where opportunities were unlimited, yet something we all seemed to take for granted.

I quickly learned that a good education, hard work, dedication, willing mentors, and a few lucky breaks meant the difference between success and failure.

Throughout my life I've seen firsthand how even a little financial assistance could mean a chance for struggling students, dedicated scientists, and families to reach their goals.

I've also witnessed how underwriting large-scale academic, performing arts, medical, and research programs can be quite appealing, as those ventures have far-reaching, long-term benefits for society as a whole, often extending for successive generations.

As I've been blessed with good fortune for decades and have lived the American dream, I'm pleased to take the Giving Pledge.

Through the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, I will continue to donate a substantial portion of my assets during my lifetime and through my will.

Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett have set an extraordinary example by their generosity and leadership, so I'm honored to join them in this remarkable philanthropic endeavor.

George P. Mitchell

   
 


SUBCHAPTER 125 - MY UNEVEN STAB AT FATHERHOOD

 

Considering that I was neglected during childhood in manner parallel to George and Maria Mitchell, I was struck by their determination to be better parents to their children than their father was to them.  Given my own problems, I came to the exact same conclusion.

My daughter Samantha was born in 1991.  I would say, overall, I was a good father.  However, I was not an excellent father, something I deeply regret.  I believe firmly that the finest preparation a parent can receive in the art of parenting comes from ones own parents.  In my case, I had two of the most miserable failures for parents imaginable.  Lacking any sort of decent role model, I came up short in several ways.

For one thing, despite my best intentions, I was not successful in giving Sam the stable home life that I had hoped for.  Sam's first ten years were pretty happy, but then her mother and I divorced in 2001.  Things were never the same.  The divorce saddened me greatly.  I was ashamed to put Sam through the very thing I had promised myself I would shield her from. 

Now Sam had a broken home just like me.   That said, unlike my own father, I wasn't about to abandon my daughter for anything in the world.  I asked for joint custody.  Since I had been a caring, reliable father to date, there wasn't much her mother could do other than agree. 

Sam became a suitcase kid.  She stayed with me three days and then she went to her mother's house three days a week.  Her mother and I alternated Saturdays.  

Was this back and forth arrangement good for Sam?  Absolutely not. However, it was still a significant improvement over what I had endured as a child.

I did everything in my power to stay involved in her upbringing.  I knew Sam hated being a suitcase kid, but at least she saw her father three to four days a week and knew for certain that her father loved her. 

 

St. John's had taught me the value of a first-rate education, so I was determined to give the same gift to my daughter.

Drawing on lessons from my childhood, the moment Sam turned four in 1995, I wasted no time putting her into Duchesne Academy, a well-respected private girl's school here in Houston's beautiful Memorial area.  

This turned out to be an excellent choice.  Known for its strong academics, Duchesne turned out to be everything I hoped the school would be.  I was impressed by the school's warm, nurturing approach to education. 

Sam had begun her time at Duchesne six years prior to the divorce.  Thank goodness Duchesne was there when the divorce hit.  The divorce took a serious toll on Sam.  Listening to her parents constantly squabble about whose fault the divorce was, Sam understandably withdrew into a world of her own.  This world was dominated by her friends. 

Spending an inordinate amount of time talking with her school mates, Sam seemed to rebel against her misfortune by neglecting her studies. 

I was fit to be tied.  Although Sam was clearly a smart girl, in my opinion, her grades never reflected her ability.  Having spent nine years striving to be the best, I had difficulty coping with Sam's reluctance to put in the work necessary to excel.  Without a doubt, my greatest failure as a parent was my inability to instill a work ethic. 

However, despite my frustration, I was comforted by the fact that Sam was receiving a quality education certainly equivalent to my own.  Indeed, once Sam reached the University of Texas in Austin, she began to realize for herself just what a treasure her time at Duchesne had been. 

Now that she was in college, Sam finally decided to apply herself.  Her friends were still important, but she also began to put in the work.  Sam's academics in college were far superior to her high school grades.

In addition to the quality education, Duchesne filled a void in Sam's life in much the same way that St. John's had once helped me.  Due to her unstable home life, Sam wrapped her entire life around her time at school.

Duchesne became just as important to Sam as St. John's had once been to me.  Time and again, her teachers reached out to Sam to keep her pointed in the right direction. 

I cannot begin to express my gratitude to her teachers for their concern. 

There were times I wondered about my goofy daughter

I need not have worried.  Sam was a great kid
 

Unfortunately, the tuition at Duchesne was expensive. 

At $20,000 per year, that amount was at least two pay grades above what I made at my dance studio.  That made it a real struggle to afford the bill even before my 2001 divorce.

Fortunately, as part of our divorce agreement, Sam's mother agreed to split the Duchesne bill with me.  I in turn guaranteed her mother a continuation of her role at the dance studio.  

After the divorce, things went harmoniously for three years.  That changed when I married Marla in 2004.  One month later, Sam's mother made an unfortunate decision to quit her job at the dance studio.  Then she turned around and sued for total custody. 

Considering I had spent 13 years trying to be the best father I could be to my daughter, that was a burning insult.  I was also furious that her mother was willing to subject our daughter to this bitter legal process. 

During this miserable period, her mother had the nerve to take Sam for an interview at the John Cooper School in The Woodlands behind my back. Her mother had some sort of grandiose idea that she was going to move Sam up to The Woodlands without my permission.  I felt betrayed.  Once I learned of her mother's stunt, I put my foot down. 

My overriding concern was to guarantee Sam's chance to continue at Duchesne.  The thought of leaving the school had Sam badly rattled.  To make peace, I agreed to pay the entire bill to Duchesne the rest of the way. 

Although Sam was indeed relieved to have her future at Duchesne guaranteed, the next five years were sheer torture for her.  Following the legal action, both parents channeled their bitterness through Sam.   Sam would go to her mother's house and spend three days listening to things said about me.  Then Sam would come to my house and listen to me spend three days ranting and railing about her mother. 

I regret that my daughter witnessed so much antagonism.  My mother had done the same thing to me.  Now I was guilty of doing the exact same thing that I had been subjected to as a child.  One would think I would have learned my lesson.

If I have one suggestion for the parents of divorced children, don't say a word about the other parent.  Not a word.  Certainly not an easy rule to follow, but putting a child in the middle of animosity between two parents is devastating.

There was vast irony in Sam's situation.  I was an only child;  Sam was an only child.  I had a broken home;  Sam had a broken home.  I had contentious parents who didn't work together following the divorce and likewise so did Sam. 

The final irony was the school situation.  St. John's had been the only thing that kept me glued together.  Now Duchesne was the only thing keeping Sam glued together. 

Sam was enduring the exact situation I had been determined to prevent.  I was astounded at my complete inability to spare my daughter the same anguish I had experienced while growing up. 

So much for the happy childhood I had hoped to give her.  Despite all my good intentions, my daughter was following the same miserable path as I had.  I was disgusted with myself.

Fortunately Duchesne came through for me.  The school had many concerned, caring teachers who took Sam under their wing.  They provided much of the security and nurturing that Sam wasn't getting at home. 

Although Sam's home life was no paradise, I am grateful to say Sam emerged from childhood in better shape than I did.  She definitely grew up bruised from the ongoing emotional trauma, but far more intact than I ever was when I graduated. 

Sam went on to have a very successful tenure at the University of Texas.  In her Freshman year, Sam had an interesting experience that reminds me of some of my own lucky breaks.

It was Family Week up at UT.  This was a chance for high school seniors and their parents to come and look the place over.  Parents and their children were spread all over the vast campus. 

As she walked to class, Sam noticed an Asian couple was staring at a map with a very frustrated look on their faces.  It looked to her like they were totally lost. 

So Sam walked up to them and offered to help.  For the next five minutes, Sam patiently explained how the campus was set up. First she pointed to the map, then pointed to a building.  Then she pointed to a direction and drew an arrow on the map.  The Asian couple nodded appreciatively and thanked her.  They were very grateful that Sam had come to their aid.

As Sam walked on to her class, a woman stopped her.  The lady said that she had witnessed Sam's kind gesture.  Then she added that she worked in the Admissions Office.  Next week they were interviewing candidates for jobs as tour guides.  The lady strongly encouraged Sam to apply. 

So that is how Sam got her job in the Admissions Office.  She spent four years leading tours of prospective students and their parents around campus.  Behold the power of a simple act of kindness. 

Sam had no idea at the time, but the position she received is reserved for only the most trusted of students.  As they lead tours around campus, they become the face of the University. 

Sam was praised again and again for her poise, her ability to relate to people of all races and religions, and her natural warmth.  Sam has tremendous inherent decency. 

To my great satisfaction, Sam developed the work ethic in college that had been missing in high school.  I could not be more proud of my daughter. 

2009 - Sam's Duchesne high school graduation ceremony
 

Next stop: The University of Texas
 

2013 - Marla and I with Sam at her
University of Texas graduation ceremony
 

Sam and her friend Kristin as guides at Freshman Orientation

 


SUBCHAPTER 124
- THE JOHNS HOPKINS FINANCIAL MYSTERY

 

Paying the $20,000 Duchesne tuition was always a struggle for me, but things grew much worse in 2008.  With one year to go at Sam's school before college, I was dismayed to realize I could no longer pay the bill out of pocket.

Money was especially tight at home due to a difficult new landlord at the dance studio.  This landlord declared half of my parking lot off limits for his own use.  Since his plastic surgery business operated by day and my dance studio operated by night, his selfish action made no sense.  However, plead and argue as I might, the doctor could have cared less.

Suing the man was risky and very costly.  I was advised not to take chances I couldn't afford to lose.  Since my lease had less than two years left, it was easier to throw in the towel and wait for the lease to expire, then move... which is what the landlord wanted all along. He was just hoping I would go sooner.

2008 was a very bitter time for me. This was the beginning of the end of my involvement in SSQQ.  After what this man put me through, I would never sign another lease, especially not at the age of 60.  So I decided to sell the studio in 2010, a move that I would have preferred not to make.  But then we would not have this book, would we?

Now that my landlord had confiscated half my parking lot, I no longer had sufficient parking for my customers.  Each night half my dance students were forced to walk a mile to take a dance class.   Thanks to the long walk, attendance rapidly tapered off... and so did my income.  This was the modern equivalent of damming a creek upstream and causing the crops of the downstream farmer to wither.

My once profitable business was barely breaking even.  Now the monthly struggle of paying my daughter's tuition at Duchesne became a much tougher burden than usual.  There was no way to make ends meet.

I had three choices.  Send Sam to public school, dip into savings or ask for financial aid. 

Transferring Sam to a public school - my father's solution for me eons ago - was unthinkable.  Sam was about to become a high school Senior.  I refused to do that to her. 

Since money was so tight, I considered asking for a half scholarship... $10,000.

So I contacted the school.  I expected a simple interview, but what I got instead was a thick envelope that came in the mail.  The moment I saw the size of that envelope, I shook my head in dismay.  It contained a lengthy ten-page form I was supposed to fill out to initiate the scholarship process.  The length of that form was depressing. 

The final straw was the essay part... "Why is the parent unable to pay full tuition at this time?"  "Why does the parent feel this student deserves a scholarship?"

Over the past 13 years, Duchesne had learned I was a reliable, conscientious parent who always paid his bills on time.  Nevertheless, my good will was ignored the one time I asked for help.  Based on my reputation, I expected an interview.  I received this impersonal package in return. 

I was angry.  There was no way I was going to spend an entire day filling out these forms.  I wasn't too keen on begging for money in the first place, but this mountain of paperwork convinced me this was not an avenue I wished to pursue.  No doubt that was one of the intents of the onerous package, yes?  

I decided I would be better off simply tapping my savings account instead.  I would rather pay $10,000 than go through this process.

However, as I stared at that ten page form, something began to nag at me. 

Back in 1968, my mother never had to fill out a single page of financial aid paperwork for Johns Hopkins.  In fact, she received no contact at all.   Why was my mother able to escape a similar headache?

Something was wrong here. 

Forty years earlier, a letter from Johns Hopkins had showed up in my mailbox one week after my visit with Ralph O'Connor.  Out of nowhere, Hopkins had handed me a full college scholarship. 

Since neither my mother nor I had requested financial aid, I gave full credit to Ralph O'Connor.  As well I should!  During my visit, Mr. O'Connor had casually asked about my financial status and I had given him a five minute rundown.  I remember how he nodded thoughtfully at my explanation.  The next thing I knew, this scholarship appeared.

At the time, I figured Mr. O'Connor had told Hopkins I was poor and they took his word for it. 

I didn't give it another thought... until now.  Here in 2008, the original scenario no longer made any sense to me. 

Why didn't Hopkins first send my mother a financial questionnaire similar to the Duchesne ten page form prior to issuing news of my scholarship?  

This realization really nagged at me.  

Duchesne had known me for 13 years, but they expected me to jump through hoops just like any other first-time applicant. 

In contrast, Johns Hopkins had offered a four-year scholarship to some kid they didn't know, a kid who had not even asked for help. 

That Hopkins scholarship was worth well over $100,000 in today's money, ten times the amount I wanted from Duchesne.  Duchesne wanted me to move mountains in return for $10,000, but Johns Hopkins would give an unknown kid $100,000 no questions asked.

Yes, indeed, something was wrong here. 

I was still convinced that Ralph O'Connor had arranged my scholarship, but now I was curious why he was so trusting of what I told him.

What convinced Ralph O'Connor that Rick Archer... a young man he had never previously met in his life... was worthy of a $100,000 scholarship??

Then it hit me.  Of course.  It had to be Mr. Salls.  Why didn't I think of that 40 years ago??

It all made perfect sense.  There could no doubt Mr. Salls had briefed Mr. O'Connor as to my difficult home life and financial situation prior to my visit.  Mr. O'Connor knew he was going to request that Hopkins help me financially before I even walked in the door.  All he wanted from me was to hear my side of the story for confirmation on what Mr. Salls had told him. 

Recalling that I had later met three other St. John's students up at Hopkins, I had come to the conclusion that Mr. Salls and Mr. O'Connor had an arrangement to recruit one SJS student per year to go to school in Baltimore. 

Each year Mr. Salls would recommend a student.  If the student was 'needy', Mr. O'Connor would turn around and make sure Hopkins would handle the tuition.  Mr. Salls and Mr. O'Connor had done this with Doug in 1966 and with Charles in 1967.  

So who would their candidate be for 1968? 

Ralph O'Connor
 

Surely Mr. Salls picked up the phone and told his good friend Ralph O'Connor something like this:

"Listen, Ralph, I have a very good student who is perfect for your school.  This young man has been with us for nine years so I know him well.  He has good grades, good SAT scores, and studies hard.  I am positive he can handle the academics at Hopkins.

In addition, this boy works his tail off.  I have information from Ed Curran, one of our teachers here, that this young man is really worried about college finances.  In fact, he has been working a grocery job after school for the past two years due to trouble at home.  In all my years at St. John's, I have never heard of a student going to these lengths.

Confidentially, this boy has the most screwed up parents of any student we have ever had at this school.  There is no way this boy can afford to go to your school without a scholarship. 

Do you think you can help him?"

This realization left me stunned.  It was now clear that Mr. Salls had gone to bat for me from the first moment of my Senior year.  I would never have gone to Johns Hopkins without his direct help... and I had never figured that out till 2008. 

My final memory of Mr. Salls was the shame I felt in his presence at my Graduation Ceremony.

How could I ever thank him??

 
 

Footnote: 

In 2009, I ran across a story in the newspaper about Ralph O'Connor.  The article said Mr. O'Connor was a wealthy Houston businessman.  Mr. O'Connor gave generously to both Rice University and Johns Hopkins, his alma mater.  As the generous donor of many millions to Johns Hopkins, his alma mater, one would assume Mr. O'Connor had serious authority at the school.  I am fortunate that Mr. O'Connor was kind enough to use his considerable influence to persuade Hopkins to issue a full college scholarship so readily to an unknown kid like me. 

Maria Ballantyne once said to me, "It is amazing how that simple act of kindness turned my entire life around."  She was of course referring to the gift of an education given to her by Sam Maceo, the Galveston Godfather.

Maria Ballantyne's brother George Mitchell was also a beneficiary of Sam Maceo's help and he too clearly appreciated the gesture.  In fact, I believe George Mitchell kept that memory as close to his heart as I did my chance meeting in the parking lot with Mrs. Ballantyne.

In this book, I have attempted to demonstrate that I have not only been the beneficiary of an exceptional education, but in turn I have done my best to pay my debt forward to the next generation.  How can I not be grateful for all the help I received?

It is pretty obvious that George and Maria Mitchell felt exactly the same way. 

Let me take this moment to thank Ralph O'Connor again for my college education.  His own 'simple act of kindness' made a profound difference in my life.  It is men like him who make this world a better place.

 


CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: BLIND SPOT

 

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