My guidance counselor seemed worried about me. He had called me into his office early in my senior year, inquiring about how I was doing. I told him I was disappointed that I hadn’t achieved much after having transferred to Morton West from Fenwick. He observed, “You sound like you think your life is already over!”
He said that going to college could give me a fresh start and asked me if I knew where I wanted to go. I responded that I didn’t know. He pressed: “Well, what is it you really like to do?” I said, “I like to fish and to walk in the woods.” He posed, “How about Forestry? They’ve got a good program at SIU.” That surprised me and sounded pretty good. I replied, “OK.” And that was it. I applied to SIU and only SIU, got accepted, and among other courses, registered for Wood Science for the fall.
But once in Wood Science, I learned that while I liked trees, I didn’t want to get all analytical about them. Studying variables like “brittleness,” scientifically, wasn’t what I had in mind. Enrolled in that class were smart young men and women from rural areas and smaller places “downstate,” away from the Chicago area. They seemed right for forestry. I didn’t.
At night, away from classes, I’d go running on trails through the campus woods with my dorm’s resident assistant, Gary, who had grown up in Oak Lawn. Gary was a devout Christian, and an active member of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. He was a couple of years older than me. He knew that I was trying to figure out what to major in. We’d stop during a run, sit on a bench under the trees, talk and pray.
He had a style of personal prayer that I hadn’t encountered in my Catholic upbringing in Berwyn. He’d pray aloud for me, asking that Jesus provide me guidance in my search. Modeling Gary, I’d ask the Lord to guide and strengthen him in his work as an R.A. We’d thank God for our friendship. And we’d run some more.
It wasn’t long after those runs through the forest began that I started to lock into an academic path, with a major in Psychology. The fellowship I experienced with Gary’s friends, and then with priests and friends at the Catholic Newman Center, led me to learn about community building. I was so moved by our spiritually charged experiences with community, especially on retreats, that I then majored in community development in grad school, after SIU. Some years later, I added a doctorate in Political Science, with my policy interests still focused on how to further community development.
I became a father while I was starting my first job as a professor. That was 10 years into my career. The experience of fatherhood sharpened my broad concern for community development. I began to focus on the roles of families in it. I published and lectured about family-based community development, among other subjects, while doing my best to practice it as a dad. I’d come from having no path to a sure path, over time, with family having assumed a primary place in my understanding of it.
Finding the right path through life is a blessing. Certainly, you can get lost; a job you thought was the right one might go sour. A trail you’re navigating, like a college major or training program, might require courses for which you weren’t prepared.
Or the path might abruptly head sideways into the bramble, the weeds, and the mess of the dense forest — maybe an organizational crisis erupted. Going uphill, when others won’t embrace your ideas, proposals, or something about you, might drain your enthusiasm.
And there’s that point where the trail exits the woods. You did your best. You retire or find the next path, or both.
We face direct obstacles and encounter subtle diversions that are potentially discouraging, testing our faith in ourselves and the rightness of the road we’re on. But my experience has taught me that God, smart friends, insightful writers, caring teachers, loving family members, and our own dedication can steer us back onto the right track.
Now retired and a grandfather, I walk this morning on a familiar path through the lovely woods at Austin Gardens. But there was that time, over 50 years ago, when I needed help in just finding the forest’s edge. My counselor’s suggestion of a career in Forestry didn’t pan out; but his compassion, confidence in me, and pointed questions got me started on the journey.