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leader 50 years


From "Doc" to "Mabe the Babe." 51 years in leadership . . . consistency . . . and change!

Okay, here's my "sausage fingers" and fist. Imagine two extra knuckles and you'll have the size of my Dad's hands.

Okay, here's my "sausage fingers" and fist. Imagine two extra knuckles and you'll have the size of my Dad's hands.

Trigger warning!  The last time I wrote about my Dad's leadership it "messed up" one of the kids for the morning.  Well, MJM, you've been duly warned!

I've shared in this blog before how my Dad demonstrated the greatest act of leadership I have ever witnessed. He was a "leader personality" (his Meyers Briggs Type was ESTJ) and I've had many people--mostly from the hard sciences side of academia--tell me how consistent and fair he was as an administrator. His consistency left a strong family legacy. Working in one place for 51 years leaves a lot of "data" to evaluate one's leadership.

As I remember  it, it was Bruce, and employee at the college, who told me that my Dad had gotten recruited to run the graduate program at Auburn University--and turning it down. "Dad, is that true?" I asked. "Well, yes," he told me. He had taught some summer courses there evidently and attracted, perhaps, by his pedigree at Peabody (Vanderbilt) and the Ph.D., had asked him to stay on. "But I wanted to work in Christian education," he concluded. "Thanks, Dad!" I said sarcastically, "If you'd have taken that job, I could have had a nice car!" I rejoined. I don't think it bothered him one bit--"buying a nice car for his son" was not high on his list of values and I think he was quite happy with me working to buy my own, which I did, spending the tidy sum of $250..

I think it was Bruce, in the same conversation, who told me that this was also why everyone called my Dad "Doc." "At that time, he was the only one on campus with a Ph.D." he told me. As a kid, I remember the respect--and sometimes maybe a little fear--people in the community had for "Doc." He was an imposing figure at 6'3" in height, "north of 200 lbs." --and those hands! Being a farm boy in the 30s, my Dad regularly cut wood by hand, used mules to haul the logs out of the woods, and make some money. He told me it took 9 cords of wood to buy his class ring. Ugh.

Incidentally, the "Doc" label was picked up by our local dentist whose pity comment I was to hear repeatedly from my Dad once I completed my Ph.D. My Dad, would introduce himself, the thumb saying betwixt us, say, "Between him and me, we're a paradox." But we shared more that our academic accolades.  People comment on my "big square and thick hands"--my family calls me "sausage fingers"--and my hands are large, but . . . my Dad's fist, when matched to mine, extended beyond my hand by two knuckles! Truly massive.

Yes, Doc, with his position, his quick ability to reason, and his physical presence--his ram-rod straight posture was acquired during his college years when we would "rotate back" his shoulders as he walked across campus--all these attributes, demanded respect. In this, Doc was a model of steadfastness and consistency. After he died, we found a list of his goals for the college that he wrote when he first started. At his memorial, the President of the college read the list and commented on how his consistent vision, carried out over 51 years, had "made" the college.

But as family, I experienced far more than those who simply worked for my Dad. All of what made him "Doc" was equally true at home. He was consistent, value-driven, quick in his ability to assess and make decisions.  But that consistency did not mean there was no change in his leadership.

In fact, as part of the "second family." my Mom and Dad had two girls then waited more than a decade to have three boys, my experience was quite different than my older sister's experience. Already, even as I passed through my teenage years into independence, I was witnessing the transition from "Doc" to "Mabe the Babe."

It was a student, who caught me off guard with it, "So, you're the son of 'Mabe the Babe?;" he asked. College students can be so wonderfully, and maddeningly, unaware of their cheeky informality with faculty relations can't they?  "Mabe the Babe?" I reacted, "When did that happen?" I wondered. My son, a student at the school at the time, confirmed it, "Yep, that's what they call him"  What? no more "Doc?" As I became used to the new moniker it became all too clear--students looked upon my Dad as more of a kindly old grandfather figure than the authoritarian, VP of Academics, respected-yet-a-little-scary "Doc" of former years.

Students from the early years of his career tell me stories about how my Doc's toughness (unplugging the electric guitar at 2 am after a complaint to the police) and authenticity (he told me privately that "I was right" even though I knew it was not the college's position) had influenced them.  The younger students talked glowingly about what he and Mom had done for them--about his kindness and gentle spirit. You see, in his latter, post-administration, years the students knew nothing of Doc. They only knew my father as the aging professor and they gave him this new nickname, derived from his unusual first name, Mabrey . . . and from experiencing the kinder-gentler but still respected senior citizen he had become.

It was in a faculty meeting that my Dad once again showed his mettle. The school was facing some financial challenges. Cash flow was an issue. The President was asking for ideas from the faculty and staff on how to make cuts that could help. My Dad rose to the challenge, "Well," he said, "I've been here the longest, I should be the first to go." and with that, at age 85, a long 51-year vision ended with a final act of leadership. In that moment, "Doc" and" Mabe the Babe" were one and the same--actually, they always were.


P.S.--I'm seriously thinking about the lessons to be learned from the transition from "Doc" to "the Babe."  I pitched writing a book about the leadership lessons that could be learned--from both good and bad experiences--to my younger brother.  I can imagine gathering stories about "Doc" from my sisters, maybe from former students, faculty and staff, adding pictures, and chronicling the transition over the years.  Will it get written? I have no idea. But I do wish more people could have experienced the strength of Doc and the authentic kind-heartedness of Mabe. He, along with my mother, a picture of a "guileless encourager" formed a great laboratory to see what worked and didn't work in serving a small organization for decades.

My brother, a 21-year veteran of the Air Force has written a leadership manual that encompasses a lot of the people centered style that my Dad tried to follow. It's called Lessons Learned Around the World, and details how Keith learned to implement leadership skills with crews operating the airborne radar and coordinating with the ground forces and/or civilian authorities. If you are interested in developing a people-centered leadership style, I highly recommend the manual.