“Someday, it will be your turn,” she said. “Everyone should take a turn at being Chair of the Department.” Dr. XYZ was a long-time colleague and had been Chair for a couple years when they told me their thoughts. But, I vowed to never be Chair, I could never do that type of a leadership position, I’m not a leader. My closest professional friend always encouraged me to do it, but warned me of the potential hardships.
As time wore on, Dr. XYZ was adversely affected by the position of Chair, they became bitter and angry. They happily left the department in retirement when their term as Chair ended, but Dr. XYZ was never the same person. Why would I do that to myself, to my family, to my life, to my colleagues? He still encouraged me, not saying I should, just assuring me I could.
He retired. I dreaded the thought of losing him as a colleague. I was comforted by the thoughts that at least we could still be friends, he would speak in my classes, we could go fishing again, we could continue to photograph the Pennsylvania Elk, I could still listen to his stories for hours.
The fall semester began without him in the department, but I survived the first week in his absence. He died on Labor Day, the first day of the second week of classes.
The first semester without him was hard. I muddled along, still somewhat in shock and not yet facing the reality.
The second semester without him was excruciating. Everything I did, everything I didn’t do, everything reminded me of him. My joy of teaching had changed, there was sadness. He was gone.
I’d like to say there was a defining moment, but there wasn’t. It just slowly built within me. Something was missing, not just him, but my purpose. I needed a new purpose, a redefined reason to carry on.
“I’ve handpicked you,” said the new interim Dean. “You’re perfect for the job, plus it’s your turn.” There it was again, “my turn.” Why would someone need to take a “turn” at being chair? And besides, I had no leadership experience. “Seriously,” the Dean encouraged, “we really need someone to take the reins, John. I know you care about this department, I know you can do it.”
I talked a lot with my wife, she strongly supported my decision either way. I prayed a lot. But, I also considered deeply, what would he suggest? He was the most caring person I ever met, I knew what he would want me to do.
I was elected, thankfully defeating the opposing candidate named none-of-the-above. I’ve seen that candidate win before, but not this time.
My first 9 months of serving as Chair are drawing to a close. He has been in my thoughts nearly every day. His passion for teaching, for life, and for people has guided me. I’ve not yet been adversely affected by the position. As a matter of fact, I feel like I have a purpose, every aspect of my professional life now has more meaning.
I doubt I’ll ever be a great chair, but they have unanimously nominated me for reelection. I know that I can do this, because every time I’m faced with a tough decision, every time a student needs help, every time a thoughtful solution is required, I will continue to ask myself, “What would Brian do?”