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Chris Spahr: Remembering Jeremy Nowak's Mentorship

July 28, 2019

Chris SpahrJeremy Nowak, an inspirational force in the city of Philadelphia, also became an inspirational force in my life during the short time that I knew him. As a Lindy Institute Urban Innovation Fellow, I had the great honor of calling Jeremy my mentor for nine months. My meetings with Jeremy were a practice in determining how to be in the same room with my strongest critic and biggest champion at the same time. Jeremy had a knack for questioning my thought process. While he always respected my opinion, he also knew that there were multiple ways to address the critical urban challenges of our day. Coming from someone for whom creativity is not natural, Jeremy’s ability to force out of the box thinking is the quality I most appreciated.

As I adjusted to Jeremy’s style of mentorship, I also became one of his biggest fans.  I could usually be found in the audience at his speaking engagements when on a promotional tour for the New Localism with Bruce Katz. During these times, I learned a lot, but mostly I laughed my sides out. Jeremy’s speaking style, a mix of stand-up comedy and professorial teaching, was so candid and peppered with humor that I often did not realize how much knowledge I was consuming. 

Jeremy’s passing broke my heart. Not because I knew him for many years but because I hoped to know him for many years. I had in my mind that I was going to grow as an innovative thinker under the long tutelage of Jeremy Nowak. A sense of loss and sense of overwhelming gratitude washed over me as I sat at his memorial service and heard each prominent person praise the intellect of this great man.  At that moment I realized I had just spent nine short months wrestling with one of the greatest minds in Philadelphia and now had the responsibility of applying all I had learned to become a stronger leader in tackling the critical urban challenges of our day.  So now when I encounter a problem that I feel is too large to tackle, I think of Jeremy and what he would challenge me to do. And then I get that uncomfortable feeling of Jeremy putting me on the same plane as himself and asking me to be more than a mediocre thinker and problem solver. I only hope that I can continue to have the strength to channel his energy to address some of the greatest challenges facing our great city of Philadelphia and to encourage others to carry on the legacy of the great Jeremy Nowak.

Chris Spahr was selected as a Lindy Institute Urban Innovation Fellow in 2017.