My Mentors

Most of us in pursuit of a dream have mentors.  How else could we get where we’re going? Here are some of mine.

Family (including mentors WD & WP Hoffman) on a San Francisco ferry circa 1950. From left to right. Grandma Zoe Hoffman, brother Rod Hoffman (infant), grandfather WD Hoffman, Eric Hoffman, my father William P. Hoffman and older brother Bill Hoffman, Jr. Missing is my mother Louise Hoffman who took the photograph.

W.D. Hoffman (1884-1953): My grandfather, was the author of more than 20 western novels and countless action articles for popular magazines in the l920's and 30's. As a child I knew he wrote books and through my father’s stories I knew my grandfather had a keen interest in the preservation of wilderness  areas (particularly Yosemite National Park). Early on I was aware my grandfather was reverential towards Native American cultures and was somehow connected to the settling of the American West. His house was filled with rare weavings, pottery, arrowheads and other types of artifacts. Unfortunately our lives only overlapped by seven years.  At the time of my grandfather’s death in l953, I hadn’t a clue about how great a role he played in shaping who I turned out to be. I only knew from my earliest memories I had a fascination with wild things and the knowledge there were cultures different than my own. 

I recall my grandfather as a gentle man who knew how to captivate kids.  When we visited him in Glendale, California he would don a pith hat, hand us each an empty bucket and lead us to blackberry bushes in his backyard. As we worked to fill our buckets he talked about western figures like Pat Garret, Geronimo, General George Crook, Billy the Kid and others. He had photos of many of these characters.  Of the photos he showed us, the one of the Apache leader Geronimo and General George Crook, wearing a pith hat, left a lasting impression. I was around six years old when I saw this photograph, but I remember it as vividly as if it was yesterday. The tension in the photo is palpable. Geronimo, the feared Chiricahua Apache leader, was still at war with the US in the l880s. The faces in the photo are somber. The diminutive-looking Geronimo holds an over-sized rifle and squats near Crook with his Apache warriors. Most of the Apaches are armed. None of the white men are wearing uniforms, instead they mostly look like trail-weary cowboys. General Crook looks like an explorer dressed for an African safari. There is only one person in recognizable US Army dress, an Apache warrior in a classic dark US cavalry shirt with double rows of gaudy brass buttons on his top half and a loin cloth on his bottom half. This man’s stern face, piercing stare, and muscular features looks particularly menacing.  

Appreciation for nature runs deep in the Hoffman family. Here the patriarch William P. Hoffman poses with a Laysan albatross, (commonly called The Gooney Bird) on Midway atoll in l944. At the time Hoffman was half way through his second tour as a US Navy pilot in World War II that included rescues at sea of down airman, locating Japanese navy vessels and night bombing runs in his two-engine PBY amphious aircraft. Besides duties as a pilot Hoffman studied the local wildlife. He was fascinated by the albatrosses and snorkeled on his days off and drew detailed pictures of the tropical fish he came across that were later made into ceramic works of art.

When I was four I remember traveling on a ferryboat on San Francisco Bay with my grandparents and parents. My father, William Parker Hoffman  (1920-2010 ) talked about Jack London and his adventure books as we crossed the bay. I remember both men laughing so hard their  eyes filled with  happy tears. They talked rapidly about one of Jack London’s books featuring Wolf Larson who as far as I could tell had sailed on the very Bay we were crossing. They also talked about what kinds of trout lived in the remote lakes and streams in Yosemite that they had visited together. The rare Golden trout on the backside of Mount Whitney was the most appreciated by both men.

From the start there was always great reverence for the wild places. We weren’t a religious family in the usual way but when it came to the High Sierra the special places were described as cathedrals and John Muir was the revered high priest.

My grandfather died in 1953 as my father was taking the bar exam. Fifty-seven years later when I asked my father (at the age of 90) who his favorite writers were when he was young he didn’t hesitate, “Jack London and John Muir.”

Adventure was important to both men.  For my father his sense of adventure was co-opted by the Second World War.   He was a pilot of PBY seaplanes in forward positions in the South Pacific. Though he rarely talked about it, his squadron of seven planes rescued hundreds of sailors and marines, often during combat operations. Late in life, the photograph he framed and gave to each of his four adult children was of him at age 23 on Midway atoll, a forward Navy base in the Pacific. He is wearing a kaki aviator’s uniform and smiling at the camera. Instead of posing with a weapon or standing next to his airplane he’s holding a live Laysan albatross with one hand gripping each of the bird’s immense wings. The photo is what he wanted us to remember from his involvement in World War II.  He loved flight: first as a Navy aviator, then with his own private plane which he flew all over North America including the Arctic. He even took up hang gliding and kept at it into his 60s.  He finally hung up his glider after his instructor was killed in an accident. My father’s derring-do amounted to a kind of mentoring i.e., enhancing reality through experiencing adrenalin rushes. He had much of my grandfather in him but he had a different message influenced by the two wars he experienced and a more irascible personality.

My father William Parker Hoffman finished his Navy aviator career at the rank of captain. He retired from his full time job as Chief Assistant District Attorney of Santa Clara County in l983

After the end of WW II he signed on as a Navy reservist and moved up the ranks to Captain and the commanding officer of a reconnaissance squadron of PV-2s in the Korean conflict. He considered himself lucky. He survived two wars and went to Stanford Law School on the G.I. bill. He was second in class, to William Rehnquist who went on to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In civilian life he was an irreverent bigger than life figure, an outspoken jurist who was second in command at the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office until his retirement in l983. He was fiercely independent and demonstrated how to be an advocate.  He was both a hard-nosed prosecutor and a political liberal who went into the South to be a poll watcher during the civil rights movement. He counseled his three sons to avoid the Viet Nam War because, “I learned in Korea we won’t ever win a land war in Asia. It’s too bad the current leadership didn’t learn the lesson.” He was a gifted storyteller who enjoyed sharing his stories.  But when it came to the craft of writing as a vocation he often talked in gloomy terms about the uncertainties in writing and the pressure of deadlines. It’s my guess his reluctance to embrace writing as a vocation was a result of his views about the uncertainties in my grandfather’s writing career. For whatever reason my father concluded there were more fears than rewards in writing. He’d say he was just being a pragmatist. Nevertheless, his intense curiosity, passion for nature, his irrepressible desire to take risks in his many adventures and willingness to be an advocate for a worthy cause were passed on as a family standard.  

Hal Silverman: I met Hal Silverman in l979 when he was the editor for The San Francisco Examiners’s Sunday magazine, California Living.  My first piece for him “Sunny, the Pioneer Llama” was my first contribution to a major publication. In the story I chronicled crossing the Sierras and climbing Mount Whitney with a pack llama who carried the gear. I always felt the content of the story sold the piece, not so much my ability to tell it in a riveting manner. Nevertheless, Hal Silverman took notice of me and readily conversed with me about writing to the “specs” of a magazine i.e., length, style and content etc. He also taught me the importance of fine tuning the “lead.”

Dean McHenry: I first became aware of Dean McHenry in l980. He was the founding chancellor of University of California at Santa Cruz.  At the time I was writing a natural history column called “Natural Acts” for Monterey Life. He wrote me a letter saying he’d been following my column and he liked my writing. In particular he liked the article, “World Class Arboretum” that compared the botanical wonders at the UCSC arboretum to the better known, well-financed Monterey Bay Aquarium. McHenry & a few faculty members had started the arboretum with no budget, but still managed to get the arboretum off the ground. McHenry and I developed a writing relationship. I can only conclude Dean McHenry was an unusually thoughtful and kind person. He arranged an interview for me with sci-fi novelist Robert Heinlein, a friend of his who had avoided interviews for years. My profile of Heinlein appeared in Image, the short-lived replacement for California Living as the San Francisco Examiner’s Sunday magazine. Dean McHenry didn’t stop there. When I mentioned to him a lecturer’s position had opened up at San Jose State University in magazine writing he took it upon himself to write a recommendation letter. I got the job, without a graduate degree! Dean McHenry had nothing to gain by improving my game. I wasn’t in a stable of writers for a magazine he edited nor was I part of his university world. He just wanted to help and the fact that he did  felt pretty good.

John Rink: John Rink appeared in my life at the right moment. In l964 I had graduated from Los Altos High School and had elected to go to nearby Foothill Junior College before finishing at a four-year university. I had emerged from high school with marginal writing skills and knew it. John Rink was a hard-ass. He announced the first day that if you passed his course you would be able to competently write a 500 word composition for the rest of your life. He said there would be no bell curve. You either met his standard or you didn’t. He also announced if you came late to class, even one minute late, more than twice you would be dropped from the course. He offered a tough class but his confidence and sincerity told me he would deliver.

John Rink was passionate and taught with emotion as he announced the importance of mastering a topic sentence, supporting ideas, using the active voice, the role of tense and how to make the most of quotations  i.e. short and encapsulating. He challenged students to the point of embarrassing them if they seemed not to have done the assignment to his liking.  He had you read a paragraph that you had created in class and then critiqued it and encouraged others in the class to weigh in as well. You had to prepare for his class to survive it. Sitting in the back and avoiding eye contact didn’t work.  

I was both afraid of John Rink and respected him.  He was a master of employing the carrot and stick approach to maximize your commitment. The atmosphere was tense but there was always the feeling that this was the real thing.  He would give assignments in excruciating detail. Most of the literature we read was either written by John Steinbeck or was about John Steinbeck. No wonder, Rink knew Steinbeck. By the second week about one-third of the class had dropped the course. Of those that stayed two were dropped for showing up late. About half the original class passed the course. And, John Rink was true to his word, everyone who passed could write competently. For me John Rink’s way opened the door to self-expression and it felt terrific. Ensuing English courses and bluebooks, (tests based on written answers) became something to look forward to. For the first time I was confident I could express myself on paper.

Fifteen years after I had taught for ten years and began magazine writing I  bumped into John Rink in a garden shop near my home in Santa Cruz,  California. I introduced myself and thanked him for teaching me.  He was pleased, but didn’t remember me. We stood in the same checkout line chatting about gardening, and that’s the last time I saw him.

Other notable mentors: Dan Warrick, the editor of Pacific Discovery in the l980's, taught me how to make science writing more palpable to non-scientists by  telling a good story while being loyal to the facts. Larry Minden (of Minden Pictures) schooled me in the picture story and writing to a group of images to tell and sell a story. Joni Praded, the editor of Animals, made me aware of writing to particular audiences, such as professional urban women who like animals, and Jonathan Fisher, the editor of International Wildlife, taught me how to compress a story without losing its punch.