The Importance of Having a Mentor
The late Professor William Alfred, who passed away in 1999, probably defines the word mentor for me better than anyone else I can think of. Long before I came fumbling my way through Harvard, he had inspired and guided huge talents like Tommy Lee Jones, Stockard Channing, and most famously Faye Dunaway, whom he discovered when he was casting his most famous Broadway play, Hogan’s Goat.

I’ve been able to find only one clip of him, and that by accident. It’s not great quality, but it does give you a sense of what a great teacher Alfred was, and what a great sense of humor he had.

Alfred taught both playwriting and Old English. And he does look a little like the most famous Old English scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien, in this clip. While he was not my thesis advisor (I wrote about Tolkien’s use of Old English in the narrative), he was always available to offer advice. I’ll never forget when I first told him that I planned to write about Lord of the Rings, which to the Harvard English faculty of that time was still quite ‘suspect’, he said I was going to have to put a lot of linguistic research in to ground my paper, because “they’re going to be waiting for you –with baseball bats.” It was sound advice, and I got two high recommendations from both my eventual readers, one of whom was Larry Benson, the department chairman.