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Requiem for a mentor

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Saying goodbye to a teacher and friend

Some people come into our lives and never leave, no matter how far away from them we might eventually venture. The lessons they impart to us, the wisdom they pass down to us, the trials and triumphs they experience with us – they are with us always.

Sandra Hardy was one of those people.

Dr. Hardy, a longtime theater professor at the University of Maine, passed away recently. Her departure from this plane left generations of students feeling the pain of loss. Hundreds of students had their lives changed in ways both big and small by Sandra.

One of those students was me.

I first met Sandra over a decade ago as a new transfer student; I was older than my peers, none of whom I knew. As luck would have it, my first two classes at Orono were back-to-back offerings with Sandra. Initially, I had no idea just how lucky I was…but I soon learned.

Sandra Hardy would become part of my fondest and most enduring memories of my time at UMaine. It wasn’t just onstage – although she did direct me toward what I still believe to be the best performance I’ve ever given. And it wasn’t just in the classroom – although I learned much of what I know about the intellectual and emotional power of the theater from her.

No, the memories that resonate the most – particularly now – are the in-between times. That first semester, I walked from one class to the other beside Sandra every single Tuesday and Thursday. Those conversations – conversations about everything and nothing – helped me more than I think she ever knew. My biggest fear about returning to school was fitting in, as silly as it may sound; Sandra helped me make it a non-issue.

And the times spent just sitting in her office, shooting the breeze. If I happened to be walking by and the door was open, I’d stop; the intention was always to just poke my head in and say hello, but inevitably I’d look up at the clock and realize that an entire hour or more had simply vanished.

That was the thing about Sandra – she was never at a loss for something to say, but at the same time, she was one of the greatest listeners I ever encountered. She was vocal and emphatic when she wanted to teach you something, but she could also draw things out of you with barely a word. She had an uncanny knack for understanding what a student needed, whether it was tough love or a light touch. She was there to make you better – better as a student, better as an actor and better as a person.

She certainly made me better.

The most amazing thing is that I am far from the only person who had this kind of experience with her. There are scores of us – hundreds – spread near and far whose lives have been enriched by Sandra Hardy. We carry the lessons she taught us in our hearts, no matter how long ago she might have bestowed them upon us.

One of the last times I saw Sandra was a few months ago. I was leaving the Orono campus and heading back to Bangor – to come to work, actually – and as I walked past the School of Performing Arts office, I saw that her door was open. Our paths hadn’t crossed in ages; as I walked by, I saw her in there.

“Hey Doc!” I said.

She laughed. “It’s always been Doc, hasn’t it?” And it had, even if I hadn’t realized it – Sandra was “Doc” almost from the beginning.

I smiled and gave a wave. I almost poked my head in to say hello and shoot the breeze. Almost. I had to be at work, after all. I was in a hurry. And I’d see her again soon enough. There’s always more time, right? Only it turns out that isn’t always so.

I wish I had stopped.

Sandra Hardy was an intelligent person, a gifted director and an unforgettable teacher. There’s no paying back what she gave to me and so many others. She will be missed. 

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