Dr. George Renwick: Intercultural Teacher, Leader, Coach, and Mentor Extraordinaire by Christopher Deal

Aug 21, 2022

            When I think about George Renwick’s life and his legacy, what stands out to me the most is that he was extraordinary. He was certainly an extraordinary interculturalist. And at the same time, he was also an extraordinary person. Whenever I think about something or someone being exceptional, I think of George and can hear him enthusiastically say “That’s truly exceptional” in an encouraging way about others or about ideas. And of course, he would have a smile and a glint in his eye as he said it. In this tribute, I will describe some of the extraordinary aspects of George’s life and work and some of his numerous contributions.

            I think of George as a philosopher-sage for our field. He was a leader, at times an historian of the field, and a role model for people at every stage in their careers. He was also very much a practitioner, putting ideas related to intercultural understanding into practice in an extraordinary way. At the first conference of SIETAR-USA in the year 2000, George hosted a workshop entitled “Lessons I Am Learning from My Clients.” That title alone says a lot about his attitude and approach to his work. Even after achieving all that he had, he still had the attitude that he had more to learn from the people he was serving.

            Through many years of dedicated study, George achieved something few Western people have—an intimate, in-depth understanding of Chinese culture and the ancient empire and now modern country we know as China. This understanding was informed in part by a study abroad and homestay in Hong Kong when he was a young man. It was also informed by regular trips to China spanning many decades. George completed hundreds of training and coaching assignments there and in many other countries. He also facilitated a deep dive into Chinese culture and history for participants in a regular workshop at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC). George’s commitment to understanding China inspired him to study it every day and to learn to understand and speak Mandarin and read and write the very complicated Chinese language. The first words George ever said to me were in Mandarin Chinese, and this made me feel so comfortable at SIIC in Oregon after living for years in Taiwan.

Over time, as he became my mentor, I addressed him as “George Laoshi” (George 老師) or “Teacher George,” with laoshi being the Chinese word for teacher, in both speaking and writing. I am sure he understood fully that the title of teacher is the highest honor in my mind and the most respected profession in Chinese thought. In part because I am from a small town in north Louisiana, I always added “Laoshi” or “Teacher” to his name. For all of the other things he was, I see George primarily as a teacher—a wise, knowledgeable, incredibly gifted, insightful and caring teacher. Speaking of written communication, George Renwick was one of the few people I knew who valued writing physical letters with pen and paper. What a joy it was to receive a handwritten letter from George. He had beautiful penmanship, and I’m sure his personal touch and thoughtfulness were appreciated by the many people who received his letters.

            In remembering George and considering what we can learn from his life and his work, another thing that stands out is his work in mentoring people in the intercultural field. He mentored people just starting out in the field, people he had known for years, and also people who had already achieved great success in the field. I wonder if anyone in any field has ever done such a long-standing, far-reaching job at mentoring people in their field? In considering this, another word that George epitomized was selflessness. In a world in which so many people seemed to be focused on themselves, he showed us a model of what it meant to focus on others.

George was incredibly generous with his time. One of my favorite stories about George comes from one of the many summers that he attended SIIC and facilitated workshops there in Portland, Oregon (and for many years prior to that at Forest Grove, Oregon and before that at Stanford University). George was known for volunteering his time to mentor and coach anyone who asked for an appointment with him. In one such instance, one of the Interns at SIIC who had not met him arranged to meet with him for career advice. Prior to the appointment, George went to the SIIC office and obtained a biographical sketch of the person so he could prepare ahead of time. To me, that is the epitome of selflessness—to not only volunteer his time for someone he did not know but to go out of his way to make sure he could learn all he could to better help this person. And I don’t believe that story was an anomaly. George mentored countless people, and I believe he gave all he could to each one of them.

            Another example of George’s selflessness was when I was working on my doctoral dissertation at the University of New Mexico. I asked to interview him as part of my research. He invited me to visit him in Carefree, Arizona for the interview. Even though I had asked him for only an interview, that interview turned into a day-long coaching session in which George helped me re-focus my dissertation topic into something that I was truly passionate about and something that would turn out to be of use to many others. I think this story is quite typical of the way George was. When you asked him for something, he would not only give you what you asked for, but also do more or make it considerably better, usually in an extraordinary way.

            At SIIC or SIETAR USA, it was such a special event when you got to meet with George. Many of his mentoring appointments occurred while walking around the campus of SIIC or wherever SIETAR USA was being held. On these walks, he would frequently point out features of the natural environment that no one else noticed, such as the peculiar arrangement of a grove of trees or a tree whose topmost part was illuminated from an unknown source. When you met with George, you felt like you were the only person in the world.

            Now when I teach Communication 101, I ask students to identify the person in their lives who is the best listener. To me, George was definitely one of the best listeners I ever had the pleasure of knowing. When you spoke with George, all of his attention was focused on you and what you were saying. After listening for quite some time, he would then paraphrase some of what you said and then add his own amazing insight, discernment, and creativity. Effectively, he had not only heard what you said and validated you and your ideas, but would then take it to a higher level. He could see a person’s potential and help them see it, too. So when you finished, you had wonderful ideas about what you could do with your career, answers to apparently unsolvable problems, and hopefulness about the future. Above all, speaking with George was a life-affirming experience. Afterwards, friends would say, “You just got to meet with George? I can tell from your glow.” After meeting with George, I felt like I could do anything. So many times, his suggestions turned out to be immensely valuable for both my career and personal life. And it always amazed my friends and me that he had the stamina to do workshops all day and then volunteer his time for so many hours afterwards. What would our world be like if more people could be selfless supporters, encouragers, incredible listeners, and uplifters in a way that George was?

            George’s insights and wisdom were truly extraordinary. In the early 2000s, I invited him to speak to the Intercultural Training class I designed and taught at the University of New Mexico at the suggestion of Dr. Everett Rogers. For me and the students, George’s short time with us was the highlight of the whole semester. This was because he didn’t just have amazing knowledge and insights. He also had the ability to communicate these in a very effective way. After that guest lecture, I asked him to speak at one of our regular department colloquia. Naturally, he agreed. In the promotional flyer I made for that event, I billed him as “Dr. George Renwick, Intercultural Coach and Mentor Extraordinaire.” Although I don’t remember specifically what he shared with us that day, I remember well the overwhelming positive, appreciative response of my colleagues and the faculty members in attendance. We made a flip-chart page-sized thank you card for him in which we thanked him for sharing his insights and knowledge with us. Among the many expressions of thanks on the sheet, one of my doctoral candidate colleagues wrote, “You rocked our world!” That was one hour-long presentation. Multiply that by all of the workshops, training sessions, coaching sessions around the world, classes at Thunderbird and elsewhere, and dozens if not hundreds of long-term mentoring relationships, and many other contributions.

            In sum, George Renwick’s life and his impact on the world were truly extraordinary. From fostering cultural understanding in his many coaching clients, many of them top executives around the world, to teaching people how to market, design, deliver, and evaluate intercultural training, to promoting and supporting our organizations, such as SIETAR USA and the other SIETARs, to promoting intercultural understanding in multiple formats, to many selfless decades of contributions to the field and to individuals’ professional and personal development though his mentoring, George Renwick left us a more than life-sized legacy. His life was a model of service, excellence, and, above all, selflessness. I believe the powerful, positive ripple effects of his life and work will continue in numerous lives for generations to come. Many of us who knew him feel so fortunate to have had the great pleasure of knowing him and learning from him and with him.