I was clearly out of my league when I accepted the job at Lawton Public Schools. After all, all three of my former school districts could fit into Mac High with room to spare. Shortly after arriving here, I met Bill Burgess – Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army, Co-Publisher of The Constitution, OU Board of Regents – but none of those things registered with me at the time. I just remember the dapper man who shook hands palm-up and made me feel comfortable in events with Generals and Congressmen, where I was clearly out of my league.
I only knew Bill as an acquaintance, but he called me once, aware that I was wrestling with a situation. In that very short phone call, he mentored me through a tough situation. He did not chide me or question me; he simply affirmed his trust in me and mentioned some things that had worked for him in the past. Most importantly, took time on a Saturday to give me a call. “Tom, I only tell my friends this . . . “ Bill provided sage advice, some options, and a story from his life, adding, “please call me Bill.” This was a man who called Governors and Senators, expecting them to answer the phone, so I recognized the graciousness of his words. I also understand that his closest friends called him Billy Wayne, so I was more than honored to call him “Bill.”
Officials from the highest positions across this state and nation have honored Bill Burgess since his passing, undoubtedly due to his accomplishments and service. I suspect, however, that most of us have heavy hearts because he was the type of man who would call when you needed a mentor, even if you did not know it. His legacy proves that mentoring someone does not require a sacrificial commitment of time or energy. It only requires an open hand and the courage to share what has worked for you, especially when you are out of your league. That is what a mentor does, and I am proud to see so many people in our community walking in the big footsteps of Bill Burgess.
Last week, I saw it first-hand through the Lawton Apprenticeships, Internships, and Mentorships (AIM) Program, under the direction of Mark Mattingly. Lawton Public Schools, the Chamber of Commerce, Great Plains Technology Center, and Cameron staff members designed the amazing program from scratch. The only thing tougher than being selected as a student was being selected as a mentor, and Lawton’s best stepped up to share their experiences with these young people. AIM mentors hailed from every profession: engineering, marketing, banking, medicine, business, military and education. Students met with and worked alongside their mentors. Last week they toured Lawton-Fort Sill and hosted a banquet at Cameron, officially graduating from the program Thursday afternoon.
I have never seen more spark in students’ eyes as paths opened up before them, simply because someone more experienced extended a hand of friendship. Some of them reaffirmed their commitment to lifelong dreams, and others discovered something unexpected. All, however, grew, and all finished the week knowing that a group of adults saw promise in them. I guarantee it changed their lives. Of course, I am talking about the mentors as much as the students.
Someone once told me that the key to a happy life is giving others what you want, and we can all look back to men and women who have guided, supported, and encouraged us in the past. Some of them were lifelong relationships, and some of them were short phone calls from a respected acquaintance. We never really know how much fruit a seed will bear, but we can all be sure that we will one day have the chance to plant seeds in others’ lives, and I promise that these Lawton AIM students will someday return the favor, as mentors of mentors, as our friend Bill Burgess did for so many of us.