By RYAN NEES
 
NEW YORK - The first time I visited Washington, D.C., was in elementary school, when my uncle took me on a road trip: Just him, me, and my cousin. I’d never gone anywhere without my parents. We stayed at a downtown Holiday Inn. The first sightseeing I did was across the street from our hotel: A drab 1960s concrete structure known to the government as Federal Office Building – FOB – Number Six, home to part of the Department of Education. I was so star-struck I took a picture of the sign outside it. 
 
The second time was not long after, to begin an internship with Richard Lugar. I had been on an airplane only once before, and I remember the woman I talked to who was seated next to me, the $70 my ticket cost, and the view I had of the National Mall landing at DCA. I was 17 years old, and about to live on my own in a city a lot bigger than Kokomo (albeit in the guest room of one of Sen. Lugar’s longest-serving staffers, just a few blocks from Capitol Hill, a setup Lugar had arranged). 
 
I’d ended up working for Sen. Lugar that summer because I’d spent much of the previous year writing in these pages about Indiana politics, columns I would surely wince at today but which Lugar treated with charity and, I’d have to imagine, wry amusement. Maybe he too had been a cocky, hot-headed teenager with misdirected energy. Rather than treating me as I was – a politically opposed, ambitious, combustible, impending public relations threat ready to blog about the pettiest shortcomings of his public service, seen up close – he instead invited me to work for him, without worry or reminder that my time there should be off the record. 
 
My first week of work, I led a group of visiting Hoosiers – barely more tourists than me – on a guided walk around the Capitol, mostly just pointing out the senators I excitedly recognized in the halls. When we got to the security check outside the Senate Gallery, they went in while the Capitol Police pulled me aside to have a talk about the keychain mace I was illegally carrying, following my mom’s orders. I couldn’t go to bars with any of the other interns – all college students, impossibly older – and though they treated me with absolute politeness, none of them became friends. I spent most weekends going to museums alone and reading the new Harry Potter book.
 
But I was never left lonely at work, and recognizing what I saw to be Special Intern Status, I whiled away untold hours solicitously loafing about the offices of his chief of staff, press secretary, legislative director, executive assistant, and a half-dozen others, all of whom appeared to me sincerely interested in talking about what I could expect in college, and how to think about a career, and the importance of government service. Sometimes after these conversations Marty Morris would pass articles I’d discussed with him to Lugar. He inscribed the first – some piece I’d read in a psychology journal, somehow about Islam – with “RGL, Fix This!” For weeks after, I thought about the next thing I could find that might be worthy of RGL’s attention.
 
Every couple weeks, Lugar would stay late and have dinner with the interns: hours-long, ponderous conversations about his fraternity, his fatherhood, his campaign for his high school class presidency, his campaign for the real presidency. He took multiple courageous votes that summer: In favor of expanding the state children’s health insurance program, and in support of comprehensive immigration reform. He gave a tough, hour-long speech challenging the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq. He discussed all this with us first. Our conversations were so frequent and intimate that years later I would boastfully advise college friends that, if they weren’t going to intern with a senator who treated their interns the way Lugar treated his, why, then they shouldn’t bother working in the Senate at all.
 
Though he surely knew how easily dazzled I could be that summer, Lugar never acknowledged it to me. Pretending I had worthwhile things to say, he sent me off to bother the many talented people around him, people like Paul Foldi and Neil Brown, whose jobs were to actually know things, with memos I wrote on topics like Romanian adoptions. As though we were colleagues, Lugar had several of us to lunch in the Senate Dining Room. I had crab cakes.
 
In retrospect, the signs of Lugar’s political defeat were already flashing. Lugar kept up a busy public schedule, but he also saw it as part of his job to close his office door and spend hours reading the books stacked upon his table. I saw one, published six months earlier: “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Here he was, Indiana’s senior Republican — still deeply conservative, to be sure — befriending leftist teenagers and reading Jimmy Carter.
 
It’s impossible for me imagine a more powerful intervention at a more important moment in my life than the mentorship Richard Lugar gave me. He cracked open my small world and showed me I could stick it out in a much bigger one. He demonstrated the humbling, hard, never-ending work of a life of learning and open-handed generosity.
 
Lugar and I exchanged letters for years after that summer. He told me that, when he applied for the Rhodes, a Denison University administrator had dismissed his ambition, calling it born of thinking he had “mystical powers.” 
 
“You and I have faced many of the same obstacles, occasional skeptics, and sometimes straight-forward opposition,” he once wrote me. “If my memories gave you encouragement to persevere, I am delighted.” He sent periodic notes, handwritten, to let me know he was keeping an eye on me. 
 
“More power to you!” the last one read.
 
Ryan Nees was an intern for Senator Richard Lugar in the summer of 2007 and for Howey Politics Indiana in 2008.