Episode 52: The Accidental Mentor: How A Tragedy Inspired Jeff Renner To Dedicate His Life To Serving Others

TMS 52 | Accidental Mentor


There are intentional mentors – those whom others actively seek out or those who actively seek others out to help them grow. Then there are accidental mentors – those who, by fate or random circumstance, have been catapulted to a place of service and impact. Jeff Renner considers himself to be one of the latter. After experiencing near-death encounters and losing colleagues to the tragic Mount St. Helens eruption, Jeff found himself dedicating his life to the mission of helping others achieve personal transformation through life-altering challenges. In this conversation, Michael Silvers brings us not the famed Jeff Renner who had a storied career as a journalist, but a human Jeff Renner who gets vulnerable about some the biggest things that impacted his journey as a person and as a mentor. Listen to this episode and then listen to it again. It is guaranteed to give you something new every time.

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The Accidental Mentor: How A Tragedy Inspired Jeff Renner To Dedicate His Life To Serving Others

It’s great to have you on the Broadcast. That last show was interesting because Michael Hutchison, as you all heard, has moved from being Vice President for Tony Robbins at the beginning of the starting days to this travel business. You’ll never know where business is going to take you and the skills that you developed that brought you forward. I think it’s great that everything that we’re learning is who’s the mentor in our lives that gets us to where we’re at. Some people are the mentor you don’t expect. Sometimes it’s a mentor that you realize sometime in your life took you from where you were to where you’re going. We’re still learning every day. We never stop learning and never stops going. We thank everybody for The Mentor Studio.

My guest for this episode is somebody that I know well. He’s been in my visual for many years because of being on Broadcast TV for many years. His experience and what brought him towards that is why I wanted him on the show because I think he’s got a tremendous foundation mentoring and will bring tremendous value to our audience. Now, all of you know, I usually make everybody earn their own right but I’m going to read his bio because it’s powerful.

The eruption of the volcano of Mount St. Helens was the biggest natural disaster in the history of the Pacific Northwest. It reshaped the physical landscape and emotional landscape of everyone who lives through it. Few people that are immersed in that experience is Jeff Renner, who entered that experience as a science journalist and broadcaster. He left with the tough lessons born of near-death encounters and the loss of colleagues, short-term and long-term stressors, and the sense of burnout inherited emergent in such natural disasters.

He also learned how such life-altering challenges could lead to personal transformation in these experiences and those lessons. By the way, the way this is written, take a listen when you write your own bio depending on how you use it because this is well done. It led to a story career as a journalist, broadcaster, explorer, scientist and author. Over rocking glaciers into the birthing room of active volcano craters underwater to interact with some of the ocean’s largest, most powerful predators into the air, commanding aircraft from teaching others to do the same and better learn to command themselves.

It led to a presidential interview in the White House, Rose Garden, overseas assignments in the Vatican and research stations in the Swiss Alps. He was a candidate for a NASA Journalist in the space program. These accomplishments were recognized by his peers with nine Emmys. By those who serve with what Jeff considered his biggest honor and nightly invitation into their homes, it’s the trust of those viewers and their families. He’s the television news anchor team on which he served for many years bring him some of the highest ratings and television news, not only in Seattle but nationwide. Jeff has done a lot more but without any further ado, let’s give it up for Mr. Jeff Renner. Thank you, Jeff, for being on.

Thanks, Michael. You invited us to lean back. Now, I’ll sit up and we’ll get down to business.

You’ve done so much. The next piece goes into your philanthropic and what you do for the community. I want to talk about that a little bit for a second because the two things we talk about on this show are sometimes we go into the mentoring but we also go into how we’ve been of service and how that piece of being of service makes such a difference because you didn’t need to. That was a choice that you made. Can you talk a little bit about that of service piece in your life and some of the things that you have done and the people around you that have gained mentoring from that?

For me, that was fundamental even in my family. I think no matter how we look at the challenges, the disappointments, the suffering, and the sorrow that we’ve had in our lives, we’re all blessed in so many different ways. I always felt it was important to give thanks to that. That goes to my first mentor, which is one of the topics of that. As I started out as broadcast journalism, I was assigned to follow a wonderful reporter by the name of Jim Cummins, who ended up being an NBC Correspondent.

At the end of that mentorship, when I would follow him around and he guide me through the elements of the craft and the profession, I said to him, “Jim, you have done so much for me.” Not only Jim but his wife, Connie, who would invite me into their home and treated me as an extra son though there wasn’t a great age difference there. I said, “Jim, what can I do to ever say thank you to you to show my appreciation?” He said, “What you can do best is to do for others what I did for you. To pay it forward.”

Each day is a new adventure. It's an opportunity to learn something new and use that knowledge to help other people. Click To Tweet

I’ve taken that very seriously, Michael. That’s been a theme I hope of my life. As I’ve mentored others through internships, etc., that’s one of the things I’ve emphasized to them. Don’t worry about saying thanks to me. My biggest thanks are seeing you spread your wings and do well in your professional career, and in your personal life as well, but in helping others as you meet them along the way.

It is so true because part of what you’ve done in being a mentor is finding where they’re at, not making it about us. There’s that tendency of, “I’m a big mentor because I’ve done such and such,” then that’s right. That’s the ego. That doesn’t help.

No, not at all. You stop to think about somebody that is going to mentor with you. I’m not sure if this is even dramatic, but the mentee, as opposed to the mentor, is probably a little bit uncomfortable, self-conscious and lacking in self-confidence. At this point, if somebody is looking to learn from you, you shouldn’t need to build yourself up. Build them up and give them confidence and a foundation for success.

I always go back to it because in my previous life, as I say, my wife and I were nurses. In the medical field, Physicians went through this all the time. It was, see one, do one. We started as young along the way. That nervousness in that situation is just the way it was. I’m like, “Is this truly what teaching and mentoring is about? Throw us into the fray when we have people’s lives at stake.”

There was always something there that we always like, “It cannot be this way everywhere.” Part of that, as we move forward, is how do we make a difference in the world? You’ve had an amazing background and you’ve done a lot in your life. Is there one thing that you’ve done that you remember now realizing how many people’s lives you did change and that changed your own?

I would say there are a couple of things there. There was the work as a meteorologist on television in some very nasty weather storms that occasionally took lives or severely damaged if not destroyed property. It’s that ability to essentially be a reference point, a point of confidence for them that we may not get every detail but they knew that at least we were doing our best to give them the best possible forecast and updated.

I think that sticks out and it means a lot to me. I received a letter and I’ve been retired now from television journalism and meteorology for a few years. That was basically saying thanks. It was from another person that was a Scientist that I also worked with and that meant a lot. The other two things that stick in my mind and that I keep going back to, they arere mentors that are unintentional, we seek out or through generosity or assignment, they seek us out.

There are those accidental mentorships and those are what I come down to. I was assigned shortly after I came to the Seattle area. For anybody that’s from the Great Lakes region, that’s where I hail from originally but I’ve lived out here for many years. I was assigned to learn how to climb mountains because they thought Mount Baker, the Northernmost volcano in the Cascade chain of Washington, was getting ready to erupt. I went to a climbing school with a photographer who was from Arizona and also had not done any glacier work. We learned how to climb. We ended up going up and down into the crater with a team of scientists.

One of the scientists I met was a young USGS Scientists named David Johnston. He was so enthusiastic. There are steam vents roaring around you like jet engines and there’s this nasty smell of sulfur. Every so often, you get the sense that the ground might be shaking, which it wasn’t, but that was only your nerves. It was so at home there. He may as well have been fixing pancakes in his kitchen. His enthusiasm was strong. I enjoyed working with David and about two years later, Mount St. Helens rumbled to life.

TMS 52 | Accidental Mentor
Accidental Mentor: If you’re at a point where somebody is looking to learn from you, you shouldn’t need to build yourself up. Build them up and give them confidence and a foundation for success.


It so happens that when we went back down there, we went down there for the first earthquakes, came back, and went back down. We ended up going down in a helicopter on that particular trip and called up the fellow that I knew at the University of Washington Seismology Lab. He said, “I’m a Seismologist. Why don’t you go with a real Geologist?” It so happened that David Johnston was a guy I went with.

It struck me that when we were down there, we were standing on a Mountain Ridge and he said, “We essentially are standing next to a keg of dynamite. The fuse is lit. The only thing we don’t know is how big the explosion is going to be and how long that fuse is.” David was a top-notch scientist. He specialized in Geochemistry, deciphering the changes in a volcano by chemical signatures in the steam and the various gases that are admitted. We saw each other frequently over that time. He loved deciphering and advancing the science but he also believed it was important to bring the public along. Let them in on the excitement the scientists felt but also let them understand the mystery and the risks that were involved.

It strikes me that my experience and David’s experienced back then speak to what we’re experiencing now. In this way, they discern the dangers and recognize the need to close off some areas. People were very much against that among some groups because they said, “We’re going to lose our tourism business. It’s going to affect our ability to move freely or do what we want.” He, the US Geological Survey and the State of Washington faced a lot of flak. As it so happened, there was a Saturday morning that they had put enough pressure on. The Governor allowed them to go in a caravan led by the State Patrol and County Sheriffs to check that the property was okay.

I was sent back down to go in with them. I remember looking at our campsite, which was within what was called the red zone that would have eventually, within a matter of hours, be decimated and thinking, “It’s such a beautiful weekend. I’d like to go up there.” What I didn’t know is David had accepted an invitation or a request to fill in for somebody else and he was on a campsite overlooking the volcano. If I knew David was there, I would have gone up to visit him. Everybody went back out. The next morning at 8:32, there was an identical caravan scheduled to go back in. I think it was at 11:00 in the morning.

At 8:32, the volcano went off. If they had not shut that off, instead of a death toll, I think, was 57, you would have probably had 4 to 7 times that many fatalities. It was very sad that one of the fatalities was David. It was an accident of timing that at that time, it looked unlikely that it was going to erupt that weekend, but I’m here even talking with you now. We had other close calls after that. When you talk about things that stick in your mind, if you look on my desk behind me, that’s a piece of pumice that I gathered out of the crater of Mount St. Helens some weeks after.

That’s an important piece with the moment that you had in your life. Sorry, of course, for the loss of a friend. Somebody you knew. How did that you could see change your mission and even currently what you’re working on now?

I have not gone back to school to earn a degree this time in Atmospheric Science. My first one was in Science Journalism. That fascination developed the understanding of how to communicate, what’s going on in science, and how it impacts your life. The key element was after David had died. I was 26 years old. That was in 1980. The loss of a colleague like that and realizing how close you came, the mental and emotional difficulty of working your way through, “Why them and not me,” was a challenge, but I had some videotaped interviews of David. I thought I knew his family was back in the Chicago area. My family at the time was living in Southeast Wisconsin.

I wrote his dad a letter. That’s back before we had an email. I said, “Mr. Johnston, I have some videotape programs that we did with your son. The time might not be right, but would you like me to send those to you?” He wrote back almost immediately and said, “Jeff, I’d appreciate those. David had said you were from this area. Are you going to be back here anytime?” As a matter of fact, I was going to be back in two weeks. I walked into the small Suburban Chicago coffee shop, not knowing what do you say to somebody who’s lost their son and has to look at you and wonder, “Why my son and not this person?” He was very welcoming.

I’d say for anybody that ever finds themselves in that opportunity. You were in medicine. I’m sure you found that many times in a slightly different setting. They want, most of all, to be listened to and help you fill in the gaps. I remember we were getting up, ready to go and he said to me, “Jeff, part of me wishes I’d never encouraged Dave’s interest in Geology.” Here’s another lesson. David was not a very good student in Mathematics. He had to talk to his dad and he said, “I don’t know if I can do this.” His dad said, “The professors will help you. If you love the basic topic, you’ll make it through it.”

Luck is when opportunity and preparation collide. Click To Tweet

He got a PhD in, as I said, Geochemistry, but his dad said to me, “I couldn’t have done that because David used to say to me, ‘Dad, each day for me is a new adventure. It’s an opportunity to learn something new and use that knowledge and that skill to help other people.’” That still sends a bit of a chill up my spine. It’s something I’ve said in many of the talks that I give and I’ve tried to live by at this time. Again, many people are going to be reading instead of watching this, but on my desk, I’ve got this little vial of ash. I gathered that out of Mount St. Helens. To keep it as a reminder of Dave, that mission that he set for himself, for others, and I’ve taken for myself.

I love too that you also said about, “They want to be listened to,” especially people, either starting in business, entrepreneurs, whatever field you’re in, to have that moment that somebody listens to me that I matter at the moment. That’s a huge piece and that’s what you allowed his parents to be there for the moment. You were there for them. That’s a great point. What are you currently working on? What floats your boat? What’s the excitement in your life now?

This is on a volunteer basis. I’m doing a little TV program basically looking at issues of current concern through the lens, not only of faith and that’s a part of it, but also through ethics. We’ve covered many different topics. As you know all too well and anybody living in the Pacific Northwest, we had an extremely hot summer. We set all records. It’s been referred to as mega heat. We’ve got a program coming up in terms of the impact of heat on people who work outside. Medically, we’ve got a climate scientist. We’re going to talk about how those exposures are going to be increasing and why it’s not a health problem, although that’s big enough, why it’s not a personal problem, but it’s also an economic problem too.

If people can’t work or they get sick, there are medical costs to be covered. There’s the loss to their communities if they’re spending their income, etc. Certainly, to anybody employing them too, if they look at the longer picture. I love doing that program and I’m doing a lot of talking online. In fact, I think I’ve got about four talks over the next month on climate change and climate anxiety. Basically, I’m trying to use my background and skills as a Meteorologist and as a weather scientist, if you will, who can read the research and is familiar with the field to try to bring them up-to-date on where we’re at and what we’re looking at.

What’s the name of your show?

It’s called Challenge 2.0. It’s both broadcast locally, but if you go to YouTube, it’s Paths to Understanding. They have different things. They have playlists and videos. Look for the one that talks about Challenge 2.0 because we’ve done a lot of fascinating programs on current topics. One that we did was, again, with parents and children that had died from suicide.

It’s very tough when you do those programs and I can speak to this in the news. We are professionals but we’re also human beings. Sometimes those stories are very hard to listen to and hard to continue a line of narrative and/or questions, but I feel good about what we’re doing. We’re now entering our fourth season with that.

One last one last question. This has been great because also people like to hear the stories, even no part of your story was a loss, it was the learning from the loss and the person that you still remember, you continuing forward every day. This audience knows. I never hide. I go to mass and I pray every day. It’s a big part of who I am and with my wife, of course. It’s what do we learn every day when we do something for somebody else. What is that learning? How do we bring it forward?

I think it’s great because you do talk in stories. It’s great with the experience you’ve had because that’s how people learn. They learn from the metaphor in the story. They can, “I have that.” It’s okay sometimes in those moments. If there’s a tear, it’s okay. There’s been very stoic that are reported. Those days are over, but we’ll see. This is always the thing that comes up also.

Here I am. I might be going into journalism or entertainment because we got people across the spectrum who’s reading. We’ve had people in entertainment on the show because it’s all relationships. When you’re first starting out, what a piece of advice you would give anybody who wanted to get into this medium, journalism or broadcast, except for, “Don’t do it?”

TMS 52 | Accidental Mentor
Accidental Mentor: Believe in your dreams. Persist with those even through bad experiences and negative feedback.


No, I wouldn’t say that. I think there are still opportunities and a much more challenging environment for people that are going into that now than it was for me. I would say two things. One was my wife and I was attending a concert by John Legend down in Bend, Oregon with some friends. He is a fabulous performer and a wonderful human being that comes across. He had a quote that I loved. He said, “Luck is when opportunity and preparation collide.” He may have or coincide. It may have been a little bit different, but that’s how I remember it. That’s very true. I was a flight instructor for a while and I used to drive it into my students, “Practice.” You get that muscle memory in your brain as well as in your physical rectal muscles that success becomes much more easily achieved. You’re ready when those opportunities arrive.

The other thing is believe in your dreams. Persist with those even through bad experiences and negative feedback and that thing. John mentioned how many times he was turned down. I can think of how many times I was told that even when I went back to school for a Meteorology Degree, it was unusual for somebody that had a Liberal Arts background to be able to make it through the Physical Sciences, which was heavy in Math and Physics.

The Chair of the department basically tried to discourage me. I was stubborn and I made it through with some blood sweat throughout. Believe in your dreams and seek out those people, not necessarily who the absolute best in your field is, though give that a try, but those who you feel a little bit of chemistry with because they’re more likely to connect and be able to help you. You’re going to better connect with them.

Thank you so much for being on. This is great. Everybody knows in The Mentor Studio, it’s free flow. We don’t prep the questions. We have some of the same. We just go where we go. That’s the way a conversation should be and it is only about having a conversation. That brings the best out in people and sometimes you don’t know where we’re going to end up. This has been amazing, though, because you set forward the importance of mentoring, moving forward, doing it day-by-day and things, tragedies and great things happen. You take it for the moment, you take the learning and you continue moving forward. That’s a big piece.

For myself, The Mentor Studio and one of my business partners, Mary Glorfield, we want to thank you so much for being on this episode. For our audience, this has been a great show. Read this several times because there’s a lot of notes to take here. Also, upcoming shows. We’ve got a very famous rock and roll star who will be on. Even though I’m a big Seahawks fan, I’ve got a stealer who was in that game coming on the show. We bring everybody in. We don’t have any holdbacks. For myself and The Mentor Studio, Jeff Renner, thank you so much for being on.

My pleasure, Michael.

For everybody out there, whether it’s your morning, afternoon, or evening, make it a great day. Find a mentor, do something different and be of service to one person. I want to thank you all so much. We’ll talk to you soon. Bye.


Important Links


About Jeff Renner

TMS 52 | Accidental MentorThe eruption of the volcano Mount St. Helens was the biggest natural disaster in the history of the Pacific Northwest. It re-shaped both the physical landscape and the emotional landscape of everyone who lived through it. Few people were as immersed in that experience as Jeff Renner, who entered that experience as a science journalist and broadcaster. He left with the tough lessons born of near-death encounters and the loss of colleagues; short term AND long term stressors, the sense of burnout inherent in immersion in such natural disasters. He also learned how such life-altering challenges can lead to personal transformation.

Those experiences, those lessons, led to a storied career as a journalist, broadcaster, explorer, scientist and author- over rock and glaciers into ‘the birthing room’ of active volcanic craters, underwater to interact with some of the oceans’ largest and most powerful predators, and into the air, commanding aircraft and teaching others to do the same-and to better learn to command themselves. It would lead to a Presidential interview in the White House Rose Garden, and overseas assignments at the Vatican and research stations high in the Swiss Alps. He was a candidate for the NASA Journalist in Space program. Those accomplishments were recognized by his peers with nine Emmys, and by those he served with what Jeff considered his biggest honor- a nightly invitation into their homes, the trust of those viewers and their families. The television news anchor team on which he served for more than three decades earned some of the highest ratings in television news-not only in Seattle, but nationwide.

But experiences mean little if they don’t lead to the personal transformation that comes from reaching deep into yourself, embracing vulnerability, uncertainty, risk but also possibility. Such personal transformation is of limited value if it doesn’t help transform others. Jeff has blended his personal life lessons, conversations with famed underwater explorers such as Jacques Cousteau, Astronauts, Polar Explorers, Everest Climbers and Presidents, and study with neuroscientists, psychologists and faith leaders. Jeff’s audiences are stunned by his one-of-a-kind experiences, enriched by specific strategies to convert those challenges into achievements, and empowered by the shared discovery of concrete steps to transform risk aversion, decision fatigue, and burnout into confident performances, resilient team relationships and the willingness to pursue bigger dreams.

Jeff blends his speaking and consulting with volunteer work for charitable organizations, including serving as a volunteer diver for the Seattle Aquarium, and serving as Executive Producer and Host of a public affairs television program, Challenge 2.0. He brings the same energy to play as he does to work-Jeff holds a commercial pilots’ license for multi-engine land and seaplanes, is a former flight instructor (CFII), has advanced scuba diving certifications, and is an enthusiastic skier, hiker, climber and competitive sailor. Jeff enjoys cooking with his wife Susan, utilizing recipes and skills learned in classes while traveling in France, Italy, Spain and of course the Pacific Northwest-including medieval cuisine! Jeff unwinds by exploring the mountains and underwater world of the Pacific Northwest, hiking with his Siberian Husky Roger, reading and conversing with friends.

Where were you yesterday, where are you today, where do you want to be tomorrow? Come, let’s get there together!


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