On a beautiful September afternoon in the third week of my freshman year, I met an eighty-something-year-old man who could beat me in a foot race, outperform me on any test, and had no hesitation telling me when I gained a little weight.
My friends know that none of those feats are particularly impressive, even for an 80-year-old. The point I’m trying to make is, I was lucky enough to be privy to one of John Carroll’s best-kept secrets. Over my four years at JCU, I had the pleasure of knowing Dr. Walter Nosal.
I did not go looking for him. It was a couple weeks into my freshman year and I was in our old and now defunct science center, Bohannon. I was on assignment for my second ever story for The Carroll News and my editor wanted me to find out what’s going on in this now unused building. Visions of Watergate danced in my 18-year-old head as I explored this place. I was opening doors in hopes that I would find some corruption or anything that involved money laundering.
Unfortunately for my story, nothing of that sort was going on. In fact, nothing really at all was going on in there. And, just before I left, I took a walk down the only corner of the building I had not explored. I knocked on a door, and a voice inside told me to come in.
That was the first time I met Dr. Nosal.
When I opened his door, I grew a little concerned. I thought this guy had confused me for his grandson or something because I don’t think anyone in my entire life had ever been so outwardly happy to see me. This short, silver-haired guy with big blue eyes was standing in his office with a huge grin on his face and a hand shake firm enough to make me wince.
Dr. Nosal told me to take a seat at the fold-out table in the middle of his office, and the questions began. But the questions didn’t come from me, the reporter who knocked on his door to ask him about what he was doing in Bohannon. Instead, the questions came from him: name, major, what I do on campus, what I want to do when I graduate.
At the time, I thought Dr. Nosal was incredibly unhelpful. He let me get out maybe one question, and the only quote I got out of him was about how grateful he was to have an office in Bohannon – an office that reminded me of a prison cell without the bars.
That day, I thought I left Bohannon with nothing. No quotes. No facts. Only an impeding deadline that was less than a day away. I thought I had just met a nice old man, but I really wasn’t interested in having the “what are you gonna do with your life” talk. After all, I was just a freshman. I had plenty of time to figure it all out.
But before I left, I gave Dr. Nosal my number. And, unlike many of the females in the the Class of 2009, he actually called me.
Though he is known by few students, it turns out Dr. Nosal is kind of a big deal at JCU. His face is on the “100 years of Carroll” poster. He spent 60 years at the University, 39 of which as a professor and eventual chair of the Departments of Education and Counseling and Testing Services, the rest he spent as an “assistant without portfolio.” Once I offered to buy him a portfolio, but he told me that wasn’t what that means.
As I learned more about him and he about me, we formed a “Tuesdays with Maurie”-like relationship, except with a bit of an edge. After one summer I went into his office and he told me I had gotten a little big, said I looked like a line backer. After that visit I went running.
And while Dr. Nosal believes in the benefits of physical activity, he spent his life devoted to the activity of the mind. A fulfilling life requires what he calls the Olympics of the mind, the body and the heart.
He called me a tiny acorn, he chastised me for putting my hand in front of my mouth when I spoke, for mumbling and slouching. But he never ceased to remind me that tall oaks grow from small acorns.
I grew a lot in my four years here. Not physically, of course – I’m actually still quite short. But I think I am a lot different today than I was four years ago, and I think that’s a good thing.
Dr. Nosal observed this growth, and much of it was through the weekly editions of The Carroll News I tried to remember to slide under his door. Unfortunately I often got busy and forgot to make the delivery, despite my best intentions. When I explained this to Dr. Nosal, he reminded me that the road to hell is paved with good intentions
My time with The Carroll News shaped my college experience. I was editor of the paper my senior year, and for three years I was a columnist who subscribed to Dr. Nosal’s aphorism “Every pearl comes from an irritated oyster.”
My column, titled “You’re Wrong, I’m Rafferty,” taught me a lot. The first lesson I learned was that not everyone thought I was funny. One student wrote a letter to the editor that said, “Perhaps no one takes the time to notice, but his weekly column is wrong.”
I certainly had some critics. But that never stopped me, and because of it I think I produced a couple pearls.
In some respects we should all be irritated oysters. One day I saw a member of JCU’s cleaning staff picking off the ground a crumbled up copy of The Plain Dealer. The front-page story that day was about how AIG paid $165 million in bonuses to top executives after receiving public funds through a $173 billion bailout. A month earlier 10 members of JCU’s cleaning staff had been laid off.
Certainly we should not go through our lives as angry people, but we should graduate knowing that we are in a tremendous position to lead great lives and to help others improve their quality of life.
Every time I visited Dr. Nosal, he asked me the same questions: Whose career I would like to be predecessor to. What are my dreams? Even though I knew they were coming, I still got frustrated every time he asked me because I never had a real answer.
Most of us don’t have answers ready for those types of questions. If WE could do anything, be anything, what would WE be?
These are questions most of us don’t feel compelled to answer. A lot of us are concerned with getting a job, not our dream job.
It is fair to be worried. Things are going to get more difficult from here on out.
But, in the words of Dr. Nosal, all sunshine makes a desert.
While these times might breed anxiety, they also can free us from the pressure of jumping into an entry-level job that is off track from our dreams.
Tough times can also make us think about things a little differently. It can make us explore options we previously did not think were worth exploring. I never seriously entertained the thought of service until the past few months. The more I looked into it, the more it seemed like something I would enjoy doing. I most likely would have never given the thought of service a fair shake if I had more lucrative options.
I met Dr. Nosal in the last place on campus I expected to find a person like him. It’s funny how life works like that.
Today, we’re all going to get a college degree from a great university. We’re going to be OK. Our parents, teachers and fellow graduates are all rooting for us. Dr. Nosal assured me that even after he was 6 feet underground he would still be rooting for me. There are people in your lives who are just as enthusiastically cheering for you.
The goals we set are achievable no matter how high or low the market is. We just need to understand those goals so that we can achieve what we all should be aiming for – living a life that matters.