The tuna fishing boat from San Pedro, Calif., docked at the Mexican port of Guaymas. The boat’s engineer saw an old woman on the dock struggling to work with a broken arm that was not set. The Croatian engineer didn’t know how to speak Spanish, but he grabbed a first-aid kit, went to the woman, bound her arm and put it in a sling.

Five years passed, and the tuna boat stopped at the same Mexican port. While the engineer was paying a fuel bill, he felt a small tap on his shoulder. “SeÃ’or, mira, mira…

Nicholas Lovrich turned and faced the woman he had helped years before. She pointed to her arm.

Recounting the story to his son, also Nicholas, the tuna fisherman said, “Your whole life, if you always help people, it always comes back.”

PULLMAN, WASH. — Washington State University political science professor Nicholas Lovrich still walks and sits gingerly three weeks after having major back surgery in Spokane. He and his black collie, Turbo, over 100 in human years and arthritic, move uncannily alike around the Lovrich home.

Doctor’s orders keep Lovrich off the Pullman campus and away from his classrooms, ostensibly for rest. Those orders don’t seem to restrict telephone use. The portable rests in the seat of the chair next to him, and with frequent rings, he confirms an appointment, jokes with friends and congratulates a student on the birth of her baby girl.

All in all, Lovrich is handling his enforced break well. But the late October surgery kept him from being present when he was named the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s 2000 Faculty Mentor of the Year in Orlando, Fla. The competitive national award was given during the Compact for Faculty Diversity’s seventh annual Institute on Teaching and Mentoring. The compact includes about 500 doctoral students of color from across disciplines and around the country addressing the shortage of minority faculty members in colleges and universities.

Maria Chavez-Pringle, one of Lovrich’s graduate students and a WICHE doctoral scholar, nominated him for the award and brought it back for her recuperating mentor. She stood up for Lovrich at the conference as Lovrich had stood up for her many times since their meeting several years ago. Chavez-Pringle had been ready to drop out of her graduate program in American studies at WSU and return to California. Graduate School assistant dean Steven Burkett suggested she talk to Lovrich first.

Thirty years separated their roads to here and now, but the similarities were amazing. Lovrich was a first-generation Croatian-American, the first in his family to go to college. He grew up in California, the son of a tuna fisherman and homemaker in one of the most working-class areas in the country. Chavez-Pringle also was a first-generation Chicana college student from a farmworking family living in California. Both struggled in the tug-of-war between meeting graduate school requirements and maintaining strong cultural and familial ties. Both even had a daughter the same age. Chavez-Pringle switched her major to political science with Lovrich as her adviser soon after their first meeting.

“As a first-generation college goer, let alone academic, I’m very sympathetic to students like Maria,” he said. “I had a sense of knowing what she was going through.”

In her nomination, Chavez-Pringle said Lovrich impressed on her a philosophy he took from his father: to use one’s education to give back to the community where one came from and to work hard to contribute to positive changes in society. With that in mind, Chavez-Pringle chose to investigate how professional Latinos give back to their communities of origin for her dissertation. The doctoral student has participated in several community research projects through WSU’s Division of Governmental Studies and Services. Lovrich had studied patterns of civic engagement of foreign-born and first-generation Italians and Yugoslavs in the Los Angeles area 30 years earlier for his dissertation.

“It’s good to have this lifelong question shared by somebody else,” he said. “Her dissertation is going to be one of the best I’ve been associated with.”

Lovrich’s encouragement guided Chavez-Pringle through the preliminary examination process and a large prospectus requirement, she said. Her adviser put her in touch with the top Latino political science scholars in the country, including a 10-week fellowship at the Tom·s Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont, Calif. Lovrich helped Chavez-Pringle get the AERA/Spencer Doctoral Research Fellowship and the WSU President’s Award. The professor’s generosities abound in other ways…he mailed Chavez-Pringle’s dissertation survey when she couldn’t secure funding…he took her daughter to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons with his family last summer for two weeks…he cried during the movies “Mi Familia” and “Selena.”

“Dr. Lovrich is truly one of the kindest, sincerest, insightful and most helpful people I have ever encountered. I admire and respect him immensely,” Chavez-Pringle said. “For his keen sense of commitment to the community, for giving my daughter and me a home away from home, for his commitment to not only my education, but all graduate student education, for his uncompromising standards of excellence, and for his deep sense of integrity…”

Lovrich points to the mentors in his life who inspired him to make a difference in his students’ lives. A Stanford political scientist suggested Lovrich go to UCLA and graduate school instead of the Peace Corps in 1966 and steered him toward political science and a teaching career. A roommate at Stanford in his undergraduate days, David Schuman, now Oregon assistant attorney general and associate dean of University of Oregon Law School, eased Lovrich’s doubts about whether he could go through college, affirming that he belonged at Stanford.

But no one had a bigger impact on Lovrich than Clayton Liley. The fifth-grade teacher took in a very shy Lovrich and taught him how to play baseball on the playground, which eventually helped Lovrich earn a baseball scholarship to Stanford. Liley also helped Lovrich improve language difficulties that were responsible for bringing down his standardized test scores and encouraged Lovrich’s parents to have more English reading materials at home.

“You just hope your kid runs into teachers like that,” Lovrich said. “When you’re a teacher, you’re touching people in ways you have no idea about. I try to impress that on my graduate students. It’s not a trivial involvement. I tell them that people are creating life memories from the class you’re teaching…

“I can’t imagine a better, more fulfilling life than to be with young people your whole life. It’s a very noble profession.”