“I think if one is looking for a role model, it can be very difficult to find someone to model yourself after. I think that has probably been my biggest challenge throughout my entire educational experience, both as a student and now as a professor.”
That’s what Dr. Oney Fitzpatrick told The Examiner — an independent news outlet in Beaumont, Texas — back in 2013. And as the Associate Provost for Student Retention at Lamar University, Dr. Fitzpatrick was a role model for countless students, particularly males of color who find too few African-American male options who teach at their universities.
The impact of such a role model can be immeasurable. A single intervention can change not only the academic trajectory of unfocused or undisciplined student, a role model can deliver life-long benefits.
I can attest to that. And Oney was my mentor. This week he passed away unexpectedly following a heart attack. His legion of mentees since have been sharing their stories on social media. Here is mine:
More than 30 years ago, as a sophomore at the University of Dayton, Oney — who’d been a football star at the College of Wooster near his hometown of Cleveland — was the resident assistant on my dorm floor. I wasn’t a bad student, but I also wasn’t the student I could be. Like too many 19-year-olds, my true focus was starting my weekend on Thursday afternoon and ending it sometime after Monday morning classes.
Living just two doors down, Oney must have been watching. Early in the spring semester he engaged me in a conversation. I don’t recall the words, but the message remains crystal clear. He praised me for my potential, challenged me for my performance and offered me support to change my ways.
For me it was the perfect opportunity. I was ready. Instead of going out on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, I spent more time on my purpose. Frequently Oney and I would pull his weightlifting equipment into the spacious hallway and work out late into the night. We’d talk about adult things, including motivation, leadership, discipline, mission and responsibility.
We’d watch as inebriated students returned to the dorm, both looking and acting foolish. I finally saw that from Oney’s 25-year-old eyes and realized that he was guiding me to maturity. My grades improved, I lost weight and within a year I landed a coveted internship with the Cincinnati Reds.
Oney earned his master’s degree and moved on. We lost touch until a strange day when I was walking across campus at the University of Houston and we ran into each other. He was finishing up his Ph.D. in psychology and I was preparing to move back to Ohio for a new job.
Six years ago, I found Oney on Facebook and wrote a note thanking him for what he did for me. From there we caught up and stayed connected through posts and comments. Then came a series of condolence posts late Monday night. My mind raced back to 1984, when the man singled me out and planted grander ideas for myself.
Oney, I could not have discovered a better mentor. I will miss you, but I will do my best to carry you forward.