Today I am thinking of Teno Roncalio. This is his birthday. Teno was born on this date in 1916. He died on March 30th, 2003. Teno was my mentor.
When a child is born in parts of Africa, each villager shares responsibility for raising the child. That person is called "Habari gani menta" a Kiswahili phrase meaning “the person who asks, ‘What's happening?" The entire village has a stake in knowing what is happening in the youngster’s life.
The Greeks used a word, as they always used words, to give significance to mythological characters. Mentor is the name of a character in Homer’s Odyssey. Telemachus, Odysseus’ son spends four books of the epic trying to learn about his father whom he has never met. Mentor develops a father-like relationship with the young man. Mentor’s name therefore became proverbial for a faithful and wise adviser. Father-like, faithful, and wise adviser who cares about what’s happening in your life. Mentors. If we are fortunate, we all have them in our lives. In my life, it was Teno.
I met Teno when he came to the radio station where I worked to be interviewed during his campaign for the US Senate in 1966. He was already a Wyoming legend. He was born poor in Rock Springs to first generation Italian immigrants. His father was a coal miner who collected junk for sale.
Teno became acquainted with hard work early. As a member of his Congressional staff in the 1970’s I met a man in Rock Springs who said, “I get tired of that story about how tough Teno had it. When I was a kid, I delivered papers. On cold, windy, winter days I’d walk by that barbershop and see Roncalio inside shining boots. I thought he had a pretty damn good job!”
Along with many of his peers, Teno went to war and as an officer led men onto the D-Day beaches where he won a Silver Star. Teno knew war firsthand. He told me his greatest regret in 10 years in Congress was his vote for LBJ’s Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Much like the recent search for WMD in Iraq, Tonkin was a largely made up story designed to commit America to the war in Viet Nam.
After Teno was re-elected to Congress in 1970, he invited me to join his Congressional staff. That changed everything about my life. When he invited me into his home, I saw book-lined walls, listened to classical music and opera, and heard stories about and met men and women who made a difference. Watching him interact with his wife Ceil and his children taught me a lot about what it really means to be a man. Teno was a faithful, devout Catholic who never used the Lord’s name in vain by touting his religion as a way to get votes.
I was then in my twenties and like many 20-somethings struggling to figure out my place in the universe. Teno seemed to know when I needed some encouragement and when to ask, “Habari gani menta.” Without his encouragement I would likely not have gone to law school. Without his example, I likely would not have developed a passion for advocacy and public service.
Teno always said, “Good public service is its own reward.” He walked the walk. After a remarkable decade of service in Congress, he quietly confided to a reporter one afternoon at a UW football game he would not run again. No fanfare. No big deal press conference. There’d be no dinners or banquets. His lifetime of public service was indeed its own reward. He lived another 25 years doing good for others every day.
I loved him like a father and learned from him as a son.
One day long ago, I read Irving Stone’s book Clarence Darrow for the Defense. I dog- eared one page. There words were written I wish I’d said about my mentor. Darrow once gave a eulogy for a mentor of his, Governor John Altgeld of Illinois. Darrow said, “In the great flood of human life that is spawned upon the earth, it is not often that a man is born!”
Teno Roncalio was one.