My Mentor Taught Me How To Fish

Contributed by: Linda Calhoun

For this year’s National Mentoring Month, I am thrilled to recognize and pay tribute to Sandra R. Royster, the former Director of Programs in the City of Chicago’s Office of Fine Arts. As a role model, her impact on me was life changing. 

I grew up in a small town in Connecticut, and was the first in my family to go to college. I was full of hope and promise, but there was no one in my life that could provide me with a road map to follow.

I moved to Chicago shortly after I graduated from college. My “first real job” experience had been a brief stint in the corporate world near my hometown in Connecticut, but it really had not interested me.

Chicago, on the other hand, was the start of an exciting chapter in my life, both personally and professionally. While I did not know exactly how life was going to change, I could feel that opportunity was all around me. Chicago had just elected its first black mayor, the late Harold Washington. It was an important civil rights milestone and I wanted to be a part of it by working in his administration.

Once in Chicago, I focused my efforts on finding a job in one of the three City Departments in which I had the most interest: the Mayor’s Film Office, Special Events, and the Office of Fine Arts. After numerous phone calls, my first real lead came with the Mayor’s Liaison to those Departments. I gave her my resume and asked if I could meet with each of their heads. She offered that I could use her name when reaching out to them. 

Although I managed to interview with all three Department heads, meeting Sandra (Sandy) Royster at the Office of Fine Arts made my decision easy and I was thrilled to have her as my new boss.

Sandy directed all of the non-visual, public arts programs for the City of Chicago. She had a staff of six (seven, once I was on board) and she was the first person in the workforce that helped me to believe I could do anything. She nurtured my creativity, intellectual development and curiosity, confidence and leadership. She also gave me room to find my way and make discoveries on my own. However, her most precious and generous gift was her storytelling; teaching me about human nature and how to behave and treat others in the workplace. I learned about the world from her knee. She was beloved by everyone and gave me a front row seat on how to be a responsible, kind, thoughtful, compassionate and loving servant leader 

Even though she was a gifted dancer, writer, poet and administrator, it was never about her. It was always about the mission, the audience, and the artist. All this, in addition to being a fantastic mother to her two daughters. 

Linda CalhounThanks to Sandy’s mentorship, I am now in a position to pay it forward with the work I do at Career Girls. I can draw a direct line from the confidence she fostered in me to the courage I needed to follow my dreams and passion into my own career. A career which allows me to fully express my commitment to helping girls coming up behind me so that they, too, can create a life of their dreams based on what they know, how their mind works and their level of educational attainment. Sandy was the “see it”, so that I could “be it”. Working for Sandy Royster made an indelible impact on my life and I am forever grateful.

When I was writing this blog post, I was hoping to include a photo of Sandy. But I wasn’t able to find one and I could not ask her directly. Sandy died December 11, 1999 in Brazil. She had a heart attack while attending an arts conference

In 2011, when I returned to Chicago for a Career Girls video shoot, I sought out Sandy’s boss, Madeline Murphy Rabb, the former Executive Director of the Chicago Office of Fine Arts. It helped me to circle back and reflect on the time when I first found my footing in the world. It also, of course, brought back all the wonderful memories of Sandy and the invaluable wisdom and guidance she so generously shared.

In closing, you know the saying, “If you give someone a fish, they eat for one day. If you teach someone how to fish, they eat forever”. Sandy taught me how to fish.

Linda Calhoun is the Founder and Executive Producer of Career Girls. Linda’s community involvement activities includes serving on the Board of Directors, Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day Foundation; Board of Directors, Alliance for Girls; as chair, International Relations Member Led Forum, Commonwealth Club of California; member of the Board of Trustees, World Affairs Council, San Francisco; and president, Board of Directors, Friends of the Commission on the Status of Women.