Sunday, October 11, 2015

Honoring a Mentor, and More - Mark Chytracek

I learned this weekend that Mark Chytracek, who was a big part of my life while at Augustana University College, passed away from a sudden heart attack Friday night. The depth of my grief may seem surprising, considering we had only laid eyes on each other a handful of times in the last decade or so, but in terms of men who have had an impact on my life, Mark was probably second only to my father. His unanticipated passing has left me gutted.

Mark and Brandi Chytracek

Post-secondary education is a formative period in our lives, and my life was certainly no exception.  I took a year off before starting at Camrose Lutheran College (as it was known then), and was working 32 hours a week at the airport as a pre-board screening officer while taking a full classload. It was manageable, if not enjoyable, but I was planning to transfer over to the University of Alberta in 1-2 years anyhow. In truth the only reason I was working so much was to keep up my car payments, and the only real reason I needed a car was to get to work. This realization left me determined to get more out of my college experience, so I applied to the Residence Life Program, and after being hired by the outgoing Director of Student Services at the end of the school year, I met Mark at the Resident Assistant (RA) Training Retreat that summer.

Truth be told, I felt a little out of place amongst many of the passionate, fired-up young people I met there, but Mark made double-sure that everyone felt welcome, everyone had a chance to contribute, everyone was valued. His wife Brandi, a teacher, was in attendance for much of the weekend, and I learned very quickly that what they were trying to create on campus was less of a staff and more of a family.

You see, Mark and Brandi (and eventually three children) actually lived in a wing of one of the student residences, so the Residence Life program was about a lot more than just employment to them, and as a result, being an RA became more than just a job to most of us.

Mark`s training program was fairly intense, but an enjoyable experience despite all that, using a lot of storytelling and roleplays to help us, as student leaders, to create an environment of of respect.  Being a dry campus, there was an emphasis on being firm with students caught with alcohol and the like, and I know Mark`s role would have seen him bear witness to a fair amount of students leaving school under less than ideal circumstances.  I also know though, that he was also the god of second chances for many people, and that he went to bat for those whom he felt could make the most of such an opportunity.

In three years of working with Mark, I never heard him raise his voice in anger, even though I saw him get terribly frustrated at times.  I never saw him lash out and then apologize, despite being confronted with behaviour that sometimes bordered on the insane. Mark may have expressed disappointment with a behaviour or an incident or a policy, but I don't think I ever saw it crystallize into an ad hominem or personal grudge; Mark was the one who taught me how `hate the sin, love the sinner`was supposed to work.

His matter-of-fact approach to matters like this, and his appreciation of the importance of grace in our lives, meant that Mark is also one of three people I credit with bringing me back to faith, after a period of spiritual dormancy and cynicism. He and Brandi were active in their church, often serving as youth leaders, but never proselytizing, never judging, never bible thumping. Secure in their faith, comfortable in expressing it, but respectful of the beliefs of others, their belief was an important part of their lives that they simply didn't feel the need to make a big fuss about.

Mark lived responsibility, and made other people want to do so as well. I remember him talking about being in the Costco parking lot shortly after a terrible child abduction incident had been in the papers, and seeing a man struggle with a young child. He headed over there quickly and purposefully, and saw some other men doing the same thing.  The man in question, who did turn out to be the child's father, was initially indignant, but Mark apologized for the confusion and explained his motivation while many of the others nodded, and the dad ended up thanking them for getting involved.

Mark positively impacted the lives of countless students and employees, myself included, often seeing things within us we couldn't see for ourselves.  I asked him for a letter of recommendation after graduating, which he gladly provided, and in which he wrote, "During his year as President of the Student's Union, I was impressed with Steve's manner in dealing with difficult and/or uncomfortable situations. His ability to respond to people in a genuine way is a real gift." A gift I hadn't given any conscious thought or focus to, but which I have since tried to make the cornerstone of my interactions with others.

I watched Mark and Brandi, a young couple with young children, raise two families at Augustana over the years: their own, and the generations of students whose lives they touched. Working with Mark meant meetings in his dormitory apartment, sometimes holding a baby while he and Brandi sorted something else out, or sampling chili for a long weekend's football game. The gentle give and take between them, the teamwork where leadership could shift contextually, and the fact that they could disagree passionately on matters but still work constructively towards a solution without animosity; these all helped me form a picture of what a successful married life should look like.

When Audrey and I were living in Toronto, Mark was in town for a conference, and came over one evening to visit; I can't remember how it came about, but I am so glad it did.  We caught up over a beer and had a few laughs, and Mark asked how married life was treating us, as we had only gotten married  4 years prior.  Things were good, and I told Mark so, but I also made a point of thanking him for that, and telling him that he and Brandi had a bigger role in modelling what marriage and family life could be than anyone in my life except my mother and father.

I think he was a little embarrassed, but he also knew I was sincere, and took the compliment graciously, as he always did.  Had I not, I probably never would have had the opportunity, life being what it is, and I would now have an additional reason to be sad.

In college, as now, humour was the lens that let me make sense of the world and connect with other people, Mark and I were both huge fans of comedy and the way it let you explore uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the world we live in, and he loved to laugh.  I loved to make people laugh, so perhaps it was inevitable that we would get along as well as we did.  Mark laughed easily and generously, the contagious kind of laugh that doesn't care how it makes the wielder look or sound, and encouraged anyone in earshot to join in, even if they didn't know why.

At the end of RA training, there was group work that needed to be presented back to everyone, and I was nominated as our spokesperson. I cannot recall either the topic or the manner in which I delivered it, but I tried to make it funny and memorable, and thanks to Mark, I did.

I can clearly picture him,  shoulders heaving as he wheezed with laughter, his reddened face slick with tears, one hand clutching his aching ribs, the other held palm up in a traffic cop's 'Stop' gesture and shaking his head in the hope that I would give him a chance to catch his breath...but of course I couldn't, could I?

His reaction probably had as much to do with the clinical levels of sleep deprivation endemic to such retreats as to anything in particular I was saying or doing, but I loved him for his laughter all the same.

A few years later, when Audrey and I got married in the campus chapel, Mark was there, and came to the mic at the reception to relate the tale of how I had once felt compelled to sit, suddenly and without warning, in a dishwasher, at one of Rob F's legendary spring break hot tub parties. He didn't ascribe this to a state of inebriation (though he might well have), but more an indicator as to my sense of whimsy and impetuousness. Mark's delivery was earnest and loving, which got everyone laughing, including himself, probably from watching me trying to withdraw my head into my tuxedo jacket like some kind of turtle.

It's hard to write this, knowing the opportunity to hear that laughter again is forever lost.

There may be someone who played a role in your life like Mark did in mine; if you haven't already, I beg you to let them know.  Don't assume they already do - give them a call, drop them an email, poke them on LinkedIn or Facebook or whatever and make sure.

I don't even know for certain how old Mark was, but it doesn't matter because he is gone far, far too soon.  He was, and would have continued to be, an exemplary grandfather, and would have made one hell of an old man, because he was a hell of a man, full stop. I picture him in a now unrealized dotage, trying to pull off a curmudgeonly Col. Potter from M*A*S*H (one of his favourite shows), but not fooling anyone.

Being a part of Mark and Brandi's campus family was an honor and a privilege, but that tremendous influence on such an important part of my life almost makes it feel I have lost another father. Mark leaves behind a grieving wife and three brilliantly raised children, but also a legacy of service and community that I cannot imagine being equaled; we should all strive to leave as much when our time comes.


  1. Thanks for writing this Stephen. I saw Mark two weeks ago at Homecoming, the first I'd been able to attend in years. I was with my friend Charles and he gave us both the RA Challenge coins and I told him that I had read about them on your blog, so was really thrilled to receive one.

    He looked hale and hearty that day, with as much energy as he always had.

    I was gobsmacked when I read about it on Facebook. I couldn't believe it and had to contact the person who posted about it to confirm that I had got it right.

    This is a fantastic tribute to Mark and I'm sure he would have loved it.

  2. Thanks Helen! Sure wish I had gone to homecoming this year; got mixed up and thought my 25th was next year... : (

  3. Thank you for writing this Stephen....Mark has touched so many lives in such profound ways and I'm so glad you were able to put some of this into words as for once in my life, I am speechless that Mark is gone and can't find the words to express how much he meant to me.

    1. Thanks Jenny! It still feels unbelievable to me that he is gone, but I am so glad to hear from others who felt similarly about what a model for humanity Mark was.

  4. Dear, Dear Stephen, I have been lost for words and control of my emotions for the past 5 nights and 4 days! My heart is broken, I have lost my very best friend, my other half, my soulmate! Thank you so much for your very kind and generous words. We have always said our RAs were our kids. Mark's life work gave us the opportunity to have front row seats in watching teenagers become incredible grown-ups! Very few people have this opportunity, it was a privilege and an honour. Mark loved his work, but he never saw it as work just an opportunity to connect and have relationship with a world of people, with incredible gifts and talents. Thank you for your words, your memories and your tribute they will be treasured by all of the Chytraceks! God Bless you!

  5. Brandi, I am so sorry for your loss, but glad you read my post. Mark meant a lot to me, and I doubt I could tell you in person without coming apart at the seams. It is criminally unfair that you two, the best teammates I have ever known, don't get to spend your retirement years together, but thank God for the families you have built to help see you through this! I hope comfort comes to you soon.

  6. So very sad to hear of Mark's passing. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with him while at NAIT and when we were planning CACUSS as well as a couple of other side projects. He was truly a wonderful wishes and heartfelt condolences to you all. Bruce Belbin, Memorial University

  7. Thank you Steve for being able to put into words what so many of us are feeling.

  8. Well said, Stephen. What a wonderful tribute! I did not know Mark well as I was not an RA, but he always had a smile for all students regardless if he knew them by name or not. Even after moving back to Camrose after being away for 10 years, he remembered me as being a former student and always smiled and said hello when I saw him on campus and out in the community. I too wish I had gone to Homecoming - I really tried to go as it was my 25th and Keric's 10th reunion, but unfortunately the distance between Manitoba and Alberta is sometimes too great. What I will take from this sadness is a conscious effort to be more like Mark in his kind, gentle and welcoming ways in my own (new) community. My thoughts and prayers will continue to be with his family and friends. Andrea Nicol Klassen