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Illustration by Chris Romero

A cello is not a small instrument. Nor does it fit easily onto a bus.

Yet each weekend, when I was a teenager, strangers helped me lift my oversized instrument onto the Ohio Bus Lines bus to Richmond, Ind., that transported me safely as far as Oxford, Ohio — 35 miles from my home in Cincinnati — for my first real musical lessons from a university professor.

I may not have known all of these strangers’ names or why they were looking out for a somewhat serious boy who considered his cello his best friend, unabashedly. But I remember fondly the roles my fellow passengers played in supporting the mentorship that changed my life.

Selfless acts of generosity are scattered throughout my life like eighth notes on a sheet of music. They are sharply familiar and produce memorable notes, though they often surprise me. What makes a person choose to help another, with no promise of personal gain?

Since my arrival at Richmond, I have told the story of my mentor, professor Elizabeth Potteiger, countless times. Liz offered to tutor me at Miami University, free of charge, if my parents would transport me to Oxford. Hence the aforementioned bus or, sometimes, the back seat of my father’s used Ford station wagon (and later, in Leon Friedberg’s Volkswagen Bug!).

It’s a tale I have shared for 50 years because my life as a professional musician and educator can be neatly partitioned into those contented days before Liz and those heady and aspiring years after our serendipitous introduction. She established the foundation upon which my music career was built and taught me that the boundaries of my educational and career ambitions stretched far beyond the borders of my suburban neighborhood.

Selflessness is less about what we do as a society than about who we are.

Of course, Liz wasn’t the first person to offer the selfless mentoring I describe. I often say that my parents were my first mentors, teaching me discipline and self-reliance. My father was stern but kind, my mother spirited and independent — her self-sufficiency more reflective of a woman of this era and not the 1950s. But Liz’s generosity was voluntary, untethered to either family bonds or potential financial gain.

Leaders of Zion Baptist Church, such as the Rev. L. Venchael Booth and choir director Ernestine Daniels, similarly nurtured my love of education and music. Zion Baptist was on the forefront of the civil rights movement in Cincinnati, and Rev. Booth invited luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Howard Thurman to preach. I recall not only their passionate and inspirational sermons, but their kindness toward the strangers we were to them — united in our hope for a more just and equal society. Later, when academic mentors encouraged me to seek leadership positions, they implored me to reach back as I advanced forward and to mentor others, something I do to this day.

In the kind of education we embrace at Richmond, we aim to inculcate in students this same desire for active and beneficent citizenship. Or, as our mission states, to “prepare students to lead lives of purpose.”

Selflessness is less about what we do as a society than about who we are. Are we humble so that we regard others with recognition and respect as equals? Are we conscious of a world outside our own, a generous space where we offer assistance unconditionally and without judgment? Are we kind?

The biblical Proverbs tell us that “unfriendly people care only about themselves; they lash out at common sense.” I remember those strangers on the bus casting friendly smiles toward me each Saturday. And perhaps it was common sense that they help their youthful travel companion to ensure that the bus would leave on time.

But I know it was much more. Selflessness is a choice we can all make, to lift hearts and spirits, our veils of ignorance, our voices in celebration and song, and other people and communities in need.

And even the occasional cello, if that is the need that arises.