Silent partner

Jim Whitelaw (Photo provided)

I first met Jim Whitelaw in 1959 at my Great Aunt Dot’s summer camp.

Jim, the camp caretaker, was sharpening some knives on an old pedal grindstone. He was quiet but friendly and offered the grinding stone to my dad to sharpen our knives. Little did I know that for the next 20 years, Jim would provide me with guidance about how to be responsible, how to think like a problem solver, and how to be an adult.

Jim’s day job was the director of facilities and head of buildings and grounds at Trudeau Institute, and in the summer he served as my Aunt Dot’s caretaker. It took valuable time away from his family and his favorite recreation — fishing — but I think he did it for two reasons. One, he could use the extra cash, and two, he understood how much he was helping an elderly lady maintain her beautiful camp.

I worked for him for a couple of summers mowing lawns and doing other odd jobs around the camp, and after graduating from high school I worked for him at the Trudeau Institute before going off to college. The institute had opened its new research facility and was clearing land for housing of resident scientists, so each day I hauled and stacked 4 foot logs that were sold for pulp and hauled and burned brush. It was hard work and good for a kid right out of high school.

Why did Jim become a mentor? For starters, he was an incredible problem solver. I’d go to him with some issue big or small, and he’d always have a solution. They were practical solutions to practical problems. Being a practical guy, I loved how he’d think briefly about a problem then suggest something that, in my mind, was pure genius.

I was 14 when my distant cousin Chip, who was a couple of years younger than me, got a toy glider that you could shoot long distances with a slingshot-like gizmo. Chip shot it up into the air and it got caught in a branch about 30 feet up in a white pine.

Chip was desperate to get the plane back and I had no idea how to help, especially since we had no extension ladder that could reach that height. Dutifully, I went to Jim, with little hope that we would be able to retrieve it. I explained the situation, he pondered the problem in a pose resembling Rodin’s The Thinker. Then in no time he said, “Get a hose with a spray nozzle.” I hauled the hose over to the base of the tree and in seconds we’d shot the plane out of the tree with water and salvaged it.

I always wanted to emulate Jim and his problem-solving ability. I know I’ll never reach his ability, but I like to think that because of his tutelage, I’ve gotten a lot better.

Jim took me bullhead fishing in the evenings and pike fishing on an occasional Sunday afternoon near his camp on Miller Pond. He also took me Kokanee salmon fishing on Lake Colby. Our fishing trips were long on fishing but short on conversation. He’d demonstrate something like how to assemble a fishing rod and to be sure to oil the ferrules by rubbing them against the side of his nose, but then let me do it on my own. There wasn’t much conversation other than; where to cast, how to avoid catching the Dardevle in the weeds, how to hook the fish, how to grab the fish. And that’s it, neither of us were the chatty types.

He didn’t just take me fishing — he taught me how to catch fish, how to clean them, and even provided suggestions for cooking them.

In some ways Jim was a father figure. My dad passed away my senior year in high school and there weren’t many older men in my life. Plus, I wasn’t always the best student, or most responsible person. But slowly, and thanks to him, I learned and matured, became a harder worker and a more responsible adult.

In 1970 when I inherited my own camp, Jim could be counted on to provide much needed advice. At the end of the summer, before I headed back for my senior year in college, I had to close up the camp for the first time and knew little about what had to be done. I turned off the water, drained toilets, emptied drain traps, put up the shutters, and did everything that came to mind. But the smartest thing I did was leave a note in Jim’s workshop asking him to check out my work and let me know if I forgot anything. About two weeks later I got a note in the mail forwarded from my mom. It was Jim gently reminding me that I forgot to drain the water heater. He said, “I give you a C minus. Remember these things next time.”

A mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor who trains and counsels people. Jim certainly served that role for me.


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