With a Mentor, Magic Is Truly Possible

Mentoring is one of the most important roles a person can play in society. Whether as a tutor, a Big Brother/Big Sister, or as a guiding figure who can open doors in in business, the arts, or politics, for anyone who's had a mentor in their lives, the value of such a relationship is self-evident. As Albert Einsten said, such a person's value "should be seen in what he gives and not in what he is able to receive."

Cesareo Pelaez was a psychology professor at Salem State College (now Salem State University); this month marks the first anniversary of his death. I met him in the 1980s when I was a psychology major at Salem State, and Pelaez was assigned to be my advisor during my four years of undergraduate study. Placed seemingly randomly under the wing of such a unique individual, my life was and remains forever changed.

Pelaez's approach could be best characterized by art theorist and author Anton Ehrenzweig, who wrote, "Every student deserves to be treated as a potential genius." Consequently, I was merely one of many people -- dozens if not hundreds -- to whom Pelaez served as a mentor: academically, artistically, psychologically, and even spiritually.

Pelaez was born in Cuba in 1932. As a young man, he earned a degree in psychology but then fled the revolutionary Castro regime -- first to Colombia, where he taught psychology for a year, ultimately arriving in the United States in 1962. In the mid-1960s, while working in a factory in New Hampshire, he wrote to renowned humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, a professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Maslow invited Pelaez to be his teaching assistant, a meaningful association that lasted six years.

In 1969, demonstrating his zeal for personal growth for himself and others -- and foreshadowing his ability to organize, lead, and energize those around him -- he founded Cumbres, the Spanish word for peaks, a 95-acre "personal growth center similar to Esalen but also shaped by Maslow's ideas, located at an old inn in Dublin, N.H.," according to the Salem News.

By the late 1970s Pelaez found his stride: He joined the psychology faculty at Salem State in 1972, and again showing his creativity and leadership, in 1977 he and some friends bought the vaudeville-era Cabot Street Theater in nearby Beverly, Mass., where they began Le Grand David and His Own Spectacular Company magic show, an extravaganza hearkening back to the stage entertainment he enjoyed as a little boy in Cuba. "Feature articles in TIME and Smithsonian magazines in 1980 led to seven performances at the White House, over 30 cover stories in magic periodicals, and international acclaim for the company and its founder," one of many obituaries noted about him.

By the time I met and studied with him in the mid- to late-1980s, Pelaez was engaging students during the week teaching the fundamentals and intricacies of psychological theory and practice and captivating hundreds of audience members each weekend in Beverly as Marco the Magi, his onstage alter ego.

Whether onstage or in the classroom, Pelaez "had a way of bringing out the best in people, of getting people in particular to explore their artistic and creative side," Patricia Markunas, chair of Salem State's psychology department, told a local paper shortly after his death. He was a teacher who encouraged students to think for themselves, she said, making his classes among the most popular on campus.

Students were drawn to Pelaez during his more than two decades of teaching, and he had a knack for recognizing soul-searching or artistic types who were in the process of discovering their inner potential. In the classroom he would champion the theories of psychology's giants, Freud, Jung, Adler, Skinner, and of course, Maslow, as if they were his own, exuding an infectious enthusiasm. Pelaez's voice, almost poetic in his Cuban-accented English, would rise and fall with great dramatic effect and energy; occasionally, his eyes would lock on a particular student to whom he was seeking to drive a point home.

By my third year, his role had shifted from mere advisor to mentor, and in between classes, for example, we'd sit in his faculty office and discuss music, his magic show, talk through some problem I had, or he'd just inquire whether I was eating enough as a broke college student. During these conversations Pelaez would remind me of my potential inside or outside the classroom, as well as confront me when he saw me doing less than I could.

Deeply charismatic, Pelaez was "a stern patriarch and nurturing therapist who helped people discover their talents ... and inspired them to excel," observed the Boston Globe. Stern patriarch, indeed. Woe to the student -- sometimes me -- who in class didn't live up to his high expectations! His eyes would lock on you, the dramatic voice would rise, and you found yourself wondering where your voice went and why you felt glued to your seat!

I was fortunate my senior year to be invited into a special graduate seminar Pelaez taught for about a dozen psychology students, primarily focused on the clinical work of psychiatrist Milton Erickson. Still, Pelaez managed to pepper the seminar with seemingly-unrelated introductions to, for example, the luminary comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell and mystic writers George Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky.

All Pelaez asked of us was that as students we be engaged, think, trust our unconscious minds and instincts, and challenge ourselves and each other in class. Fittingly, he provided us the introduction to Campbell, who introduced to a mass public the notion of an everyday hero's journey, the "call" to an adventure of self-knowledge and personal mastery.

When I graduated I didn't stay in touch with Pelaez. But about five years ago, long after I'd left Massachusetts, I learned he had severe health problems, including a debilitating stroke. A year before he died, I called his theater one weekend and left a message saying I'd like to speak with him. I had no idea if he'd remember me.

To my surprise, someone got back to me almost immediately to arrange a phone call, and Pelaez and I spoke for about 30 minutes. His words came over the receiver slowly, impacted by stroke, but the Cuban-accented English was just as I remembered it, and he seemed to happily describe to me how he had to learn how to talk and how to move again as part of his recovery. He had even retained his sense of humor: I told him I had a young son (the first of two, it turns out), to which he quickly responded, "Oh! Did you name him Cesareo?"

After our conversation, which transported me back to my interactions with him at Salem State, I found myself energized, excited, and filled with the notion that all possibilities were in reach. I wrote him a letter thanking him and letting him know how he'd changed my life. About two weeks later I received a package in the mail, which included a book written about him, There Will Be Wonderful Surprises, describing his life's journey, including and especially the magic show where like-minded people performed and worked together in a shared community on their own self-betterment.

Last year about this time, I got to thinking about Pelaez again, wondering how his health was, and did a quick Internet search of his name. In a nod to Carl Jung and his theory of synchronicity, I was shocked to see he had died just a few days before. (On top of which, he died on master magician Houdini's birthday.)

Toward the end of my time in college when we'd soon be taking our leave of each other, Pelaez spoke to me of Hermann Hesse's short novel Demian. He referenced a passage where the title character, similarly a mentor, is speaking to the protagonist as they are about to part ways forever: "Perhaps you'll need me again sometime," Demian says at the end of the story. "You'll have to listen within yourself, then you will notice that I am within you."

And so even in death Pelaez continues to give, a kind of high watermark for a mentor and a magician. After attending his funeral mass, one local resident wrote of him, "Cesareo Pelaez and the magic show were the best thing to happen to Beverly since the Atlantic Ocean." That makes me smile, as does knowing his legacy continues through Le Grand David and the Cabot St. Theatre, and through those who knew him.