This past weekend we celebrated my father’s 85th birthday. There was a small gathering of some of his students (spanning the mid-1970s through his retirement in 2000) and former colleagues. Dad taught English, journalism, and communications, at MSSC/MSSU from about 1972 to his retirement in 2000. He taught in Oklahoma before that and elsewhere.
Dad related the following story during his remarks:
Recently I was called for jury duty. During the questioning of the potential jurors, I was always the last to be called on. One question in particular was of interest. “Do you have a passion? What are you passionate about?” Almost invariably, the responses were about sports. Football. Baseball. The Cardinals. The Royals. And others, of course. When he got to me:
“Are you passionate about anything?”
“I try to teach passion.”
“I suppose they call you , ‘Mr. Passion!?'”
The judge said, “I wouldn’t go there. That’s Mr Massa. He has a reputation for passion.”
Here’s the thing though. Growing up, I don’t recall a single lecture directed at me about passion. Admittedly, I didn’t move back to live with him until I was 16, so it might have been too late to have much real impact after short visits and summers between seven and 16. Unlike my sister, I didn’t take classes from him or become a communications major. However, I do a recall number of lectures, monologues, and exhortations, all delivered with a great deal of passion. I probably assumed at the time that this was simply a device to gain my wayward attention.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was being given the roadmap for my life.
I’ve written before that my earliest memories are of college campuses. Primarily the institution known then as Oklahoma College for Liberal Arts and now known as University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. Those memories take me to age seven. From 16 to 26 (save for three years in the Army) my campus memories are of Missouri Southern State College (now University). Along with those memories of campuses, are memories of students. Dad’s students were almost always at least a weekly presence at home. Wide-ranging discussions of economics, history, political science, and yes, journalism, were the norm with Dad, Teresa (‘T’,my step-mother), and whatever students dropped by. I don’t think this was ever stated, but it always seemed to me the rules for participation were simple: keep up or shut up (and listen).
The common element was always passion. Passion for knowledge, understanding, or making a difference.
If you know me, if you have seen me present, or worse, you’ve been present when I start talking about the power of data and information to make a difference, you know I have passion for what I do. I absolutely love what I do. Every single day. Even the days that aren’t so great. I intend to keep doing this work as long as I am able. I never set out to find my passion or even asked, “Can I do this work with passion?” I simply did it with passion. And the passion was there to be found.
I’ve worked a lot of low-wage jobs and blue collar jobs before I stumbled into this career. I never thought about doing those jobs with passion, or at least not much. A couple of the blue collar jobs I gave serious consideration to as a career path, but in the end, they were not satisfactory. I took those jobs to support myself, or my family. I never hesitated about the type of work, just dove in and did it because I needed to do so . And that’s a different type of passion.
I remember some thunderous, emotive monologues delivered from the front seat of the car while I rode in the back. While I knew they were for my benefit, they weren’t strictly because this is simply who he is. He cares about things, about people, and it shows. It shows in the care with which he does things. It shows not in sympathy or or even obvious empathy, but in finding solutions. In addressing needs. There are stories that really should be told, but they are not mine to tell. Just know that he is a class act and the student tributes I have heard and seen are deserved.
As first-generation college students themselves, Dad and T sponsor scholarships at four universities to support first-generation students. They are passionate about higher education and that is only a part of their shared passion of 46 years of marriage. They do what they believe in, always in the fullest measure possible, and always with passion.
So, when you’re thinking to yourself, “Boy, Tod does get wound up and passionate at times about this stuff,” this is why. With Dad and T as role models, there was little likelihood that I would not turn out to do things with passion. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My sister Daphne and Chad Stebbins (former student now faculty member at MSSU) led the way in creating a secret Facebook tribute group for Dad. Former students wrote their tributes and uploaded photographs. Many of these were compiled into a bound book entitled “Passion” that was presented at the event. The excerpt below is one of my favorites. It is from Nancy Prater of Ball State University, a student who was my contemporary when I returned to MSSC after the Army and who married one of my fellow students and friends (Mike Prater, also of Ball State) in the art department:
Mr. Massa was student-centered before colleges used that as a catch phrase. He understood his audience at Missouri Southern. In so many ways I was a typical Southwest Missouri student. I was from a family with limited means and barely an inkling of the big world out there. He helped kids like me set our standards higher and our sights further than we likely would have on our own.
This is Dad. Professor Emeritus of Communications. The person who founded the Department of Communications, the Center for International Studies, and the international mission of a mid-size regional college in Southwest Missouri. Someone who saw, and sees, beyond the borders of states and nations, and the self-imposed limits of individuals. When Susan Campbell wrote in the Hartford Courant in 2000 upon his retirement that the students he took were “boozers, losers, and the occasional fundamentalist,” that resonated with me. I knew those people. But the point was that he saw value in everyone, particularly if they were willing to engage life and study with passion. While I never had formal lessons with Dad, every single day with him has been a lived lesson of the exemplary for which to strive. My only wish is that I had paid better attention at times.