The Fathers We Have Loved and Lost: Remembering 2 Mentors Who Shaped a Career and a Life

We lost 2 excellent mentors earlier this month…

IN MEMORIAM

I lost my father to cancer when I was 17. This seemed excruciatingly bad timing on his part. I was ready to head off to college, and my dad’s death would mean that my mother and younger sister would be left to pick up the pieces of their lives largely on their own. Then there were the unresolved tensions and arguments between my dad and me. He was convinced, for example, that I was wearing the wrong type of T-shirt—I liked the ones with sleeves; he did not. My dad was an avid ball player and a superb athlete. It was many years before I could understand that the T-shirt was just a straw-man—a stand-in for my father’s disappointment with my lack of interest—or skill—in sports.

During my undergraduate years at Cornell, I gravitated toward the professors who stepped in to fill the void of my father’s death. I was privileged to have master teachers who were also warm and giving, like the renowned literary scholar, M.H. Abrams, PhD.1 “Mike”, as he was called, invited all the students in his seminar to his home for a pasta dinner, and took pains to ensure that I had enough rigatoni on my plate.

In medical school, and then residency—both at SUNY Upstate Medical University—I was blessed to have 2 mentor-father figures: Robert W. Daly, MD, and Eugene Kaplan, MD.2,3 “Bob” and “Gene” were instrumental in my decision to enter psychiatry, and both men helped sustain my commitment to the field for over 40 years. Bob was something of a Socratic figure to me. His lucid teachings on medical ethics and philosophy always seemed like sunlight streaming into a darkened room. Bob’s great teaching during my residency was delivered with his usual puckish sense of humor: “With psychiatry,” he quipped, “you can do biology in the morning and theology in the afternoon!” Bob was right—and that dual perspective has shaped my approach to the profession ever since. In his later years, Bob developed into a fine poet.

Gene was the model of the humanistic, psychoanalytically oriented psychiatrist. He became director of the residency program at Upstate in 1969 and served as chair of the psychiatry department from 1985 to 1999. Gene was not a prolific author but was a tremendous teacher and scholar of psychiatry. When I was still a third-year medical student, his eloquent lectures—wise, nuanced, and delivered in Gene’s polished, baritone voice—convinced me that psychiatry was the place to be. Gene was also a talented pianist who could expound effortlessly on the difference between a Steinway and a Bechstein.

Bob and Gene were nearly life-long friends, and had interned together at Albert Einstein School of Medicine, in the late 1950s. Both served on the Upstate faculty, in various capacities, for over 50 years. Earlier this month, Bob and Gene passed away within 2 weeks of each other. I had kept in touch with them over the years, but the COVID-19 pandemic played havoc with face-to-face get-togethers. There was still so much left to say, so much still to take in from my 2 father-mentors.

The Italian writer Umberto Eco once observed that, “…what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren't trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”4 Much of what I learned from Bob and Gene came by way of their warmth and kindness, as much as from their formal teaching. This was true of my own father, too, notwithstanding our arguments over T-shirts. Now, in the wake of these paternal deaths, remote and recent, I find myself triply orphaned. And yet, some part of these men still resides in me, having shaped who I have been, and shaping what I will yet become.

Dr Pies is professor emeritus of psychiatry and lecturer on bioethics and humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University; clinical professor of psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine; and editor in chief emeritus of Psychiatric Times™ (2007-2010). Dr Pies is the author of several books. A collection of his works can be found on Amazon.

References

1. Grimes W. M.H. Abrams, 102, dies; shaped Romantic criticism and literary ‘Bible.’ The New York Times. April 22, 2015. Accessed July 22, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/23/books/mh-abrams-professor-who-shaped-the-study-of-romanticism-dies-at-102.html

2. Robert Daly obituary. Syracuse Post Standard. July 5, 2022. Accessed July 22, 2022. https://obits.syracuse.com/us/obituaries/syracuse/name/robert-daly-obituary?id=35596247

3. Geddes D. More than 1,100 gather for Employee Recognition Day. Upstate Medical University. June 9, 2022. Accessed July 22, 2022. https://www.upstate.edu/news/articles/2022/2022-06-09-erdbadawy.php

4. Fathers quotes. Goodreads. Accessed July 22, 2022. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/fathers