This morning a group of us retired clergy types got talking about teachers and mentors who made a difference in our lives. I don’t mean parents or relatives, but teachers we had in school, or academic mentors who guided us. I’ve been fortunate to have a few, but only two tumble into memory when the subject comes up. One was Tony Nemetz, a philosophy professor who had a lot to do with me entering ordained ministry, albeit late in life. The other was Sgt. Waldo Peterson of the Hopkins police department. Waldo was probably the most educated person I’ve known. Not having a Ph.D. of my own, I collect friends and acquaintances who do, so have an idea of how high higher education can go, and Waldo sat at the top next to Tony.
He was one of those small town cops who would rather talk through a problem than make an arrest. Not exactly Andy Taylor, but of that genre. As far as I know, Waldo never graduated from high school, at least that was the story. I got to know him in my early twenties when I worked for the City of Hopkins. He seemed old to me at the time, but probably wasn’t too far over fifty. In any case, he’d read nearly every adult book in the local library, had a deep understanding of what he’d read, loved to talk about any subject, and served on the library board longer than anyone else. Riding on patrol with Waldo, he tutored me through 19th century Russian history. Sitting in an empty jail cell, he walked me through early 20th century American history. He interrogated me about every class I was taking at the university. We argued principles of sociology, psychology, and political theory. A confirmed FDR Democrat, he was highly suspicious of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies but was all in for his War on Poverty..
What he couldn’t figure out was why I was a Christian. In Hopkins you were either Christian or Jewish. Every one self identified as one or the other, but Waldo expected more than a label. He expected them to have an intellectually defensible belief. Christians, in his experience, didn’t show much Christlike in the ways they conducted their lives. It wasn’t just in their personal lives, and in a small town, a cop like Waldo knew a lot about how they did that. It was in the way that some well known community leaders treated their employees and customers that betrayed the Christianity they professed. Wealth, he suspected, was their true religion. At least that’s how he read it. Maybe what bothered him most was when he asked Christians to explain their faith, they couldn’t come up with more than a few bromides and platitudes. That was unacceptable to a philosopher like Waldo. Jews did better, but not enough better to satisfy him. I was forced to try to offer satisfaction.
Anyway, the time came for me to move on and up in the world. Memory of time with Waldo Peterson faded. Years would pass. My higher education would get higher, my career path looked good. I got to hang out with people of real power and wealth in places far removed from Sgt. Waldo Peterson. Funny though, whenever the subject turns to teachers and mentors, it’s Waldo without a high school diploma that comes up along side Tony with his Ph.D. Who knows if Waldo made a difference in any other’s life; he made a difference in mine.