The year was 1996, and I was a freshman in college. It was just weeks since I’d arrived on campus, and I was very excited about getting involved in research in what I thought was my passion: bio-chemistry. I met with some professors and offered to clean test tubes, enter data, make photocopies – anything to be involved in the lab. I was told to come back when I’d taken organic chemistry at the end of my sophomore year. I was crushed; I didn’t want to wait two years to start doing research. As I sat, downcast in the dining hall pondering my future, a cheery older gentleman asked me what was wrong. When I told him what had happened, he said “Well, I have a lab in the psychology department, and if you’d like you can start working with me today”. 17 years, a PhD in psychology, and a tenured faculty position later, I look back on that day as one that changed my life forever. That gentleman was John Brelsford, and today I, along with so many other students whose lives he enriched and changed for the better, mourn his passing.
I have so many fond memories of John. One story comes to mind in particular. When taking an independent study at Rice, students and mentors filled out contracts to ensure that they were on the same page about workload and expectations. John and I had been working together for several semesters, and had always used the same contract. So he didn’t even read the contract with me anymore before signing them. So as a prank, one year I modified the contract to include the phrase “the professor will bake the student brownies twice during the course of the term”. Sure enough, John signed it, at which point I asked for my brownies. Ever the good sport, he actually delivered. And being John, he also allowed me to include that phrase (and gave me brownies) in subsequent semesters as an inside joke that we shared.
Between classes, I’d often stop by his office – his door was always open if he wasn’t teaching. We’d chat about psychology and the latest project I was running, of course. But we’d also talk about life in general. He was a mentor in the truest sense of the word: he cared not just about my growth as a scholar, but also my growth as a person. And he mentored not just through his words, but through his example. John’s health was never good, but he’d never complain. Even in my senior year when he had heart surgery and I visited him in the hospital, he focused the discussion around my research, how grad school applications were going, and generally kept on mentoring even from the hospital bed.
So John, thank you. Thank you for helping me find my passion and a career that I love. Thank you for all the guidance, for all the support, for all the laughs, and for all the time you spent with me. Thank you for giving me the confidence to pursue research questions that aren’t popular (yet). Thank you for treating me like a colleague even from the getgo. Thank you for teaching me how to be a mentor to the many students that I have worked with in my career (and the many more who will come). Thank you for being a role model. Thank you for being my friend. I will miss you. Rest in peace.