“Mentor Someone.”

Words of encouragement in memory of my brother

“Mentor someone.”

This was the ultimate message delivered by the Rev. Mel Kawakami as he so thoughtfully and insightfully delivered the eulogy while presiding over the Memorial Service for his dear friend, my late brother, Frank Santa-Donato, in April of this year.

Frank retired a few years ago as President of LIMRA Services (LIMRA is a worldwide research, learning and development organization, working with financial services and insurance companies). Possibly my brother’s greatest gift, one that transcended his much heralded, significantly multi-facetted business acumen, was his ability to connect with people, ALL people. Given his corporate rank and responsibilities, Frank spent a great deal of his time engaged with colleagues and business partners, yet it was not at all unusual to find him chatting with admin or mail room staff in the halls, or hanging out with cafeteria workers (he knew every one of LIMRA’s roughly 150 employees on a first name basis – really). This was Frank’s way – he loved people, he loved being with people, and he also tended to help people – a lot.

You see, Frank was as a born mentor.

“Frankie” always felt a great sense of responsibility as BIG BROTHER to my sister and me. After graduating from Cornell with an engineering degree and an MBA (I still cannot fathom how he did that in just five years) he trained his focus on business and management. He was far better schooled, and appreciably more experienced than I in the ways of business when I opened Santa Donato Studios in 1983. I gratefully embraced Frankie’s advice on nearly every subject vital to my success: Prospecting and Sales, Client Services, Budget, P&L Analysis, Employee Relations and Management, Pension, Insurance, and so on. Though I apparently had sound instincts as a young entrepreneur, I knew I needed Frankie’s tutelage in the wide range of business organizational and management practices he was developing expertise in. In time I evolved into a considerably more well-rounded business person than I ever would have been without his teaching and counsel. My big brother had become my mentor, and never stopped.

Frank’s big brother inclinations were not solely reserved for his family. During his wake I heard countless comments from women and men whom Frank mentored: “You know, your brother really took me under his wing when I got to LIMRA.” “Frank was such a great teacher – I learned so much from him.” “When my job was being eliminated, Frank saw to it that I was trained for a new position.” “When I hit rock bottom, Frankie was there to listen and help me.” “Frankie mentored me from the beginning. He taught me how to be accountable for my work and own my success – he really was my big brother.”

Beyond LIMRA, Frank volunteered at Career Beginnings, a mentoring program in Hartford, Connecticut, where he lived. One of several high school students Frank mentored spoke at his Memorial. Michael, now in his 40’s, was still in touch with Frank. He is an executive in the union that represents workers at a national supermarket chain. Michael stated unequivocally that Frank had changed his life. “He was my big brother” (clearly, a pattern).

In recent years Frank volunteered as a youth golf instructor with First Tee of Connecticut and helped run youth tournaments for the program. He also tutored 4th graders in Math at the Noah Webster Micro Society School in Hartford. There was one boy who Frank developed a close connection with, and so he continue tutoring him after 4th grade. More importantly, Frank just spent time talking with the boy – about his life, about his behavior (especially when it was less than ideal), about self-respect. Frank showed this boy loyalty and respect. Over time, the boy started to return both.

The real point of all this is to encourage us to heed Rev. Mel’s advice, follow the example of people like Frank Santa-Donato, and look for opportunities to help a young person. Regardless of where we work or live there is always someone in need of encouragement and advice. I have too often spoken with college interns and young professionals who feel they are left dangling with no road map to success and fulfillment after receiving functional job training – they want to learn more broadly from people with experience. Keep an eye out for these people. Alternatively, there is always tremendous need among less advantaged youth who can benefit greatly from having a role model, and from getting an adult’s consistent attention and guidance.

Given my own limited involvement as a mentor, I can tell you there is much learning and growth to be experienced. Mentoring requires a heightened ability to listen objectively. It also necessitates re-thinking what we may take for granted as our “knowledge base” in order to distill and clearly communicate skills, experiences and a philosophy for a mentee. Whether we commit formally as a volunteer or simply take a personal interest in someone we know, mentoring is a noble and often rewarding pursuit. When it works, even a little, it feels great (giving is the gift).

Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” Those of us who knew and loved my brother, watched him and observed. We’ve observed that his life and legacy inspire us to seek out ways to serve young people whose lives can be positively influenced through mentorship. Let it inspire you, too.

Go ahead, “Mentor someone.”

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