In 22 years of teaching at a university, one is called upon to write a lot of letters of recommendation for students about to graduate and search for a job. A furry of letter requests by anxious students as commencement approaches simply adds one more task to the work load. I have written a bunch of them, as you might expect, and most of them were a pleasure to write. What might surprise you is how much of a challenge they can be for some of us.
One of my faculty colleagues dealt with the demand by instructing the students to write the letter themselves, bring it to him, and he would sign it.
The rest of us tried our best to fashion an honest, original letter that focused on the student’s particular qualities. This required us to know each student sufficiently well to be able to address his or her individual qualities, both strengths and weaknesses.
This morning, 18 years after retiring from active teaching, I wrote another letter of recommendation, not for a student but in behalf of a friend who is about to be released from prison. We have known each other for more than 40 years, an enduring friendship that began when he was a college student and the subject of some articles I wrote for my employer, The Miami Herald. As a young attorney, this talented, brilliant man ran afoul of the law when he was employed by a company whose leader was cheating clients out of their savings. Without going into details of the case and why my friend also was implicated, the result was that he has been incarcerated — some of us believe wrongly — for 27 years.
This year, in a few months, he will have served his time and will be released. Finding suitable employment can be difficult for anyone, but for someone approaching age 60 with a record, it’s a particular challenge. This man has so much to offer. I believe in second chances. A devoted army of friends is rooting for him. I hope my letter will help a little.