As some of you may know, my father passed away a few weeks ago after a long fight with illness. He lived a good, hard and storied life and, at 76, it was more than past time for him to go home and visit his dad and grandfather before him. I loved him with all my heart and learned many things from him, skills I still use to this day whether I am in the forest or on the firing range. He was a leader and will always be the best dad ever.
As young men, and even men growing into adulthood and beyond, we have mentors — men who are not our fathers but teach us the values we need to learn if we are to avoid prison time and trips to the hospital. I’m certain every person has this mentor in his or her lives. Mine has a name: Paul Thein.
I first met Paul in the fall of 2003 in my hometown in California. I had decided to go back to school for another degree at the community college where he was the vice president of student services. I was 29 years old, had never written a creative word in my life, and was mostly focused on hiking and developing my winter survival techniques in the Plumas National Forest.
Paul, it seems, had a knack for discovering raw talent and developing it. The day we met, he must have sensed something about my desire to change the world; he introduced me to a basketball coach/English professor who began teaching me to find a clear voice when writing about sports and the great outdoors. Paul did this because he called me a “champion” and he told me, like my dad did when I was younger, that there is “nothing you can’t accomplish if you set your mind to it.”
After I graduated and followed my dream of being a TV news reporter away from Northern California — to places like Alaska, Maine and deep in the heart of Texas — I was surprised to get a call from Paul, out of the blue, with no clue how he even got my phone number. It was a bitterly cold and snowy night in North Platte, Neb. when I took Paul’s call. I was at a state semi-finals game for high school basketball when my phone began to buzz. The caller ID just said “FLORIDA” across the screen. It had to be 11 p.m. in Florida, so I wondered aloud, “Who could this be?”
It was Paul, and he was offering me a job — a position where I would work for him in sunny, southwestern Florida for more money than I had ever made in my life. Oh, and he told me about sandy beaches, palm trees and everlasting good weather. It was a no-brainer that I would take the position, a job as communications director for one of the largest YMCAs in the nation. I accepted on the spot, gave notice to my employer the next day (I was a freelance sports writer for AP and a variety of community newspapers in those days), and fired up the old Chevy truck two weeks later for a drive through Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia on my way to Naples, Fla.
When I arrived, and after I had finished my corporate training, I was assigned to the executive department of the Greater Naples YMCA, where I reported directly to Paul. It was in my work with him at the YMCA that he continued to teach me how to be a better writer and journalist — and lover of spin class — while we achieved membership and construction goals that were astronomical. It was in that job that Paul introduced me to one of his heroes and mentors, Dan Gable, the former head wrestling coach at University of Iowa who, while attending Iowa State University and competing in NCAA Division, went undefeated over the course of four seasons. In fact, Dan Gable is so revered in Iowa he has his own day, Oct. 25, which is celebrated annually. When I met Gable, a strong and capable man who preaches a “can do” attitude in life, I realized that all the great things Paul taught me were coming out of Gable’s mouth as well. This is where Paul had learned them.
What this really means, in the final analysis, is that morals and the good lessons in life are passed down almost like genetics. We learn from the men and women that are most important to us and, luckily in my case, I had a father who began the process, with Paul Thein adding his own flair to my life as I ventured into the world.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without Paul. Being his protégé isn’t so bad though. There are lesser heroes out there in the sporting world.