May 09 2009

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Priceless Gifts (In Memoriam)

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Amid all the chatter about education policies and priorities, I was abruptly reminded recently that you simply can’t buy a college education.

Yes, parents can save, colleges can raise tuition and receive endowments. Government can dispense grants and loans.

But in the colossal apparatus of education in America, there is a great intangible between teaching and understanding. It is a uniquely human element that defies standardization or quantification. It is the link where knowledge is transformed into learning.

You can’t buy a college education, but you can learn one, if you have an educator with that gift.

I was lucky to have that educator in Harvey Delaney.

 I met Harvey in the fall of 1982, as I began my freshman year at the State University of New York at Oneonta.

 At the time, it was safe to say that I was never in danger of being an academic over-achiever. At the same time, I had the chops to make grades when it counted. On the outside, as an 18 year old taking my first, formative and independent steps in life, I probably appeared bland to the point of tentative. I was part of that “invisible middle;” the get along-go along crowd that makes up the student body in most colleges.

 And then I met Harvey Delaney.

 Harvey was Director of Oneonta’s College Union Activities Council (CUAC) the organization on campus that sponsors lectures concerts and special events. But the title was but a place holder for Harvey. What he did was so much more.

 For starters, Harvey was one mean judge of potential. Not obvious potential, but the more subtle, directionless potential that sits aimlessly in people, waiting to be tapped. Though I didn’t know it at the time, Harvey saw something in me 26 years ago, and brought me into his orbit as a result. For that I have been profoundly grateful ever since.

 Getting to know Harvey, I learned he could be momentarily irascible, occasionally opinionated and accidentally profane, but always direct. You rarely failed to know where Harvey stood on an issue. But over time, I came to see those characteristics as simply color that otherwise obscured qualities such as his deep dedication, profound compassion and boundless generosity.

 In practice, Harvey expected his students to show the responsibility that comes in tandem with the freedom of college life, and I imagine he probably never stopped laughing at the uneven results of our initial forays.

 He instilled a genuine accountability as we went about planning and contracting for lectures or concerts, or managing the complexities of competing opinions in a diverse student body. Harvey was no nurse-maid, but a professional guide who forced decisions to his charges. We were accountable as adults – in some cases for the first time in our lives – even as Harvey cared for us, in the larger context, as if we were his own children.

 In my case, Harvey seemed to understand my passion for politics. He nurtured that interest. On one memorable occasion, he invited me to a pre-lecture dinner where the guests were two former US congressmen who would later debate the issues for the student body. I had remained quiet through the dinner, maybe a bit intimidated by our guests. At one point Harvey looked down the table and simply asked, “Chris, what do you think?”

 Long time friends will remember that I started speaking my opinions then and there, and in some ways, haven’t stopped since.

 But as much a role as he played in academics and activities, it was his investment of personal time in his charges where he had the greatest effect.

 If you saw Harvey downtown on a Friday night, he was invariably the first to buy you a drink, where he would proceed to hold court with an endless number of hilarious stories regarding celebrities he had met through the years, or of campus productions gone awry. None of it was ever fit to print, which made it all the more irresistible. Few realized at the time that these stories were a human slide show of trial and error that might serve us later in life.

 Through four years of college he treated me and fellow cash-strapped and hungry students to countless meals at restaurants that we could have scarcely afforded. Along the way, he learned about each of us; our families, relationships, goals and dreams. And in his own very gentle way, he tried to help and to guide us to live up to the potential that he saw in each of us.

 Gifts like this are not apparent as they occur. Years later, at the wedding of a mutual friend from my Class, I tried to thank Harvey for all that he had done. He very typically refused credit; an authentic humility, common of his generation, prevented it.

 Through my four years at college and for nearly 20 years after that he stayed at Oneonta – amid the constant flurry of new theories and fresh fads – Harvey never forgot that the job of education is to educate. And looking back, this wasn’t a job for Harvey, but a calling. In this journey he summoned his vast gifts easily, not for his own personal enrichment but for the benefit of others.

Harvey Delaney retired to South Carolina where the very private man I had known as a perpetual bachelor tied the knot to a wonderful woman; Mary Jo. Their marriage completed a decades’ long romance, and together at last, they built a wonderful life filled with travel, friends and family, and a dog, (approvingly) named, Duffy.

In 2006, I was able to arrange a tour of the West Wing of the White House for a group that included Harvey and Mary Jo. I joked with Harvey, as we passed the Oval Office, that while my ambition never got me to that all important chair, at least I was able to get us close. Behind me, I had created a diverse career in politics and international business that I could have scarcely imagined walking into college, made possible in part by the man who had faith in me when I didn’t have that faith in myself.

And from there it seemed as if there would be so much more time. Visits, dinners, weekends away. It was therefore a shock to learn that Harvey Delaney passed on the Monday after Easter.

As family and friends gathered in South Carolina for the funeral, a steady stream of students from Oneonta, all from different Classes, joined as well, a fitting tribute that I think Harvey would have been proud of.

As he was laid to rest, I could not stop thinking that in a lifetime of good works, that Harvey’s accomplishment was an example of potential fulfilled and exceed. Indeed, there was a part of Harvey in everyone he touched. And through that presence, he goes on with us today. In the highest praise I can offer an educator, my friend Harvey Delaney made a difference.

May 9th would have been Harvey’s 68th birthday. I honor his memory today, and manage a smile thinking that, while he was called home too soon, that God is one mean judge of potential.


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