An Ode to My Mentor

I get this question all the time: “How does someone end up with a career in folding?” I usually tell a quick story about how it all started with a thesis project at RIT in Rochester, New York, and grew from there.

However, what most people don’t know is that my professional career started under the instruction of the legendary Werner Rebsamen — master bookbinder and world-renowned technical expert in binding and print finishing. He was a professor at RIT when I was a graduate student there, and he ultimately became my thesis advisor.

I remember classes with Werner were always a surprise. You never really knew what he had in store for you. Sometimes we would be smacking book covers on table tops to test the strength of the adhesive, or putting books into a tumbling, library testing machine to mimic the effect of usage over time. Sometimes he’d bring out his Victorian pop-up books, or his mountain of blank folded samples. We’d compare adhesives and binding styles, sew signatures together and run folding machines. His slide presentations were entertaining and filled with visuals, and his books contained decades of his industry research.

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How many classes have you taken where the textbook you used for the class was actually written by your professor—because he happened to be the world’s authority on the subject? With his own clever spin on the nature of the course, he would provide us with the loose book block. He’d say in his thick Swiss accent with a playful wink, “If you want to learn bookbinding, you’re going to have to bind the book yourself!” His classes were tangible and fun and rich with content. And beneath the fun activities was always a lesson in the science, materials and quality required to make the perfect product.

Of all the classes I took, his were some of the most memorable of my time spent at RIT. I think Werner understood that engagement and learning comes from tangible experiences — and this is one of the principles that guides me in my career today.

Werner Rebsamen is an author, an inventor, a lecturer, a craftsman, a consultant and a professor Emeritus at RIT. On the personal side, he’s also a husband, a father, a grandfather, an outdoorsman and an all-around great guy.

Werner has watched my work and my career grow and evolve, and over the years he has sent me notes of constructive criticism, and of congratulation. To this day, we exchange emails and Christmas cards. Last month he retired, and I wanted to write something just for him.

I wanted him (and everyone else) to know what a great mentor and colleague and friend he has been to me. I wanted him to know that a great teacher can provide the foundation that begins a journey of exploration and success for his students. I actually think he knows this, but Werner was, and still is, that great teacher for me.

Thank you, Werner, for all that you have done for me, and for the immense and valuable body of work that you’ve contributed to our industry. I’ll do my best to forge new ground and to follow your lead.

Trish Witkowski