Stories including Mark Banschick '78

This Too Shall Pass (In Memory of Curt Beck)

Today I’ve decided to write about something a little different; it’s about the act of mentoring. This blog is devoted to a mentor and teacher of mine, Curt Beck, who made a difference in my life some thirty odd years ago. And I still remember.

Vassar College is a liberal arts school in upstate New York. It was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Matthew Vassar, a brewer who wanted to give women the opportunity to have a first class education. At the time, only men were accepted into the premier colleges like Dartmouth or Yale, and Matthew Vassar did something about it. Luckily, when it was time for me to go to college, Vassar had opened its doors to men as well.

One of the most memorable people I met at Vassar was my organic chemistry professor, Curt Beck.

Curt Beck left Germany as a young man. Although he had that Germanic devotion to completeness, Curt Beck was a Renaissance man. He was well versed in the classics as well as in history, literature and, of course, science. Mr. Beck (Mr. or Ms. is preferred at Vassar over Doctor or Professor) was one of the founders of archeological chemistry. He worked with archeologists around the world, identifying what substances were contained in ancient clay jars, so they could figure out trade routes from the distant past. He was best known for his original amber research. Amber is a substance derived from ancient sap. It can be found in many places around the world, and has been prized by royalty and evolutionary biologists alike.

To be honest, all this was unimportant to me at twenty years of age. As a pre-med student all I cared about was doing well in organic chemistry. From my point of view, Mr. Beck stood between me and medical school.

It was thirty years ago, although it feels like yesterday, and I was preparing for my finals. Unfortunately, I was also embroiled in a rocky love affair. My girlfriend and I kept dating and breaking up many times. This meant late nights dealing with the excitement and hurt of immature love. Since every grade counted, and I wanted to get into medical school, I had to stop the roller coaster. I simply couldn’t concentrate on my finals and the relationship at the same time. After talking about it, we both agreed to put the relationship “on hold” until the end of finals.

When the exams were over, I searched the campus for my girlfriend only to find that she had already left for the summer. Disappointed and distraught, I then arrived at Mr. Beck’s office to pick up my organic chemistry final exam. I walked in, looked briefly at the test, and then put it away among some papers.

We were alone.

Mr. Beck was the quintessential college professor, with his casual formality, his intelligent blue eyes, wavy grey hair, and a curious hint of impishness. He spoke in fluent English, modified by a mild German accent.

He noticed that something was wrong.

Mr. Beck asked, “Is something troubling you?”

And I told him the truth.

After he heard my story, Mr. Beck suggested right then and there that we go for a walk. We found our way to Sunset Lake, a small pastoral lake on the Vassar College campus. It was a beautiful day in mid May, and the daffodils were in full bloom. As we sat down on a hill overlooking the lake, Mr. Beck told me about his life, that he had wounds too, and how the vast majority of men (and women) have stories like mine.

Then he said something that I still remember:

“You know, sometimes life seems like a ride in a small rowboat. The waves are so big that you think you are going to tip over. So you hold onto the sides as hard as you can. You are thrown by the wind and the waves; and then one day, the sea just calms down. And everything’s okay.”

“It’s going to be okay for you, too.”

These words still resonate with me, and I want to offer them to all of you out there, who feel that you are on a small rowboat being rocked by huge waves. Most of the time, things do calm down eventually.

Mr. Beck was an unusual man, with a vast intelligence and a huge heart.

We later became friends. I visited his home, and like the good chemist that he was, he taught me how to make apple brandy from freshly picked apples. Last week Vassar had a memorial gathering for professor Curt Beck, the distinguished researcher. Colleagues from all over the country attended, including one of the curators of the Smithsonian who paid homage to Mr. Beck’s contributions to amber research and the study of evolution.

But I remembered a man of great humanity, who took time away from his important work to offer solace and companionship to a young student. I remember a man who saw what was important, and I will never forget it.

This story originally appeared on the Psychology Today website, and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

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