Finding eternity

Sometime after Jonathan Davis died, a man approached his mother at a service of remembrance for those who had passed. The man held a baby in his arms. “If it weren’t for Jon I would be dead,” the man told the grieving mother, “and this baby would never have been born.”

Such was the impact of the life of the late Jonathan Davis. Then — and now.

SKMBT_C22414090414170_0001A dearly beloved son

Jonathan Douglas Davis was born to Jane and Martin Davis of Charlottesville, Va., a nurse and a librarian who met while taking a class at the University of Virginia. Martin was working in the library and Jane was finishing her B.S. in nursing. Like so many of their generation, education was important, something to be sought and valued. Raised during the 1930s, the Davises owned that special perspective credited to that Greatest Generation. “We worked hard, and we saved,” Jane says. “We didn’t do things that a lot of people do. We started our marriage on a bicycle, not on two cars.”

SKMBT_C22414090414190_0001 - Version 4When Jonathan came along in 1958, the Davises became parents who devoted their lives to raising their only child, a son who never disappointed them. “He was a dearly, dearly beloved child. A good boy, a sweet boy, just an all around nice guy,” Jane remembers. “And he had a wicked sense of humor.” An original and quick sense of humor, Martin adds: “In discussing the Swiss Army Knife, I asked ten-year-old Jon what the Coast Guard calls its official knife? ‘A Coast Guard Cutter’ was his instant and surprising reply.” Martin smiles, thinking about how Jonathan was especially attuned to language and nuance — subtleties that often surprised people.

Jonathan’s natural aptitudes included people. Jane recalls her son’s extraordinary sensitivity. He was acutely aware of nonverbal cues, Martin adds. Such a perceptive nature would eventually lead to a career in clinical psychology. Jane tells of a time during the 1960s, when Jonathan was only seven or eight years old. He had gone swimming at a local pool club that barred blacks. Afterward, he told his mother unequivocally that he would not go there again. “I was proud of him,” she says. Jane wasn’t surprised though — Jonathan had a strong sense of justice. As a small child, he had scolded her for taking the paper cup that came with a fountain drink she had bought. Jane assured her young son that the paper cup was part of the price for the soda.

“I worried that I’d made him too sensitive,” Jane says. But as she looks back, it is clear that his sensitivity, compassion, and sense of justice would be keys to his later success as a counselor. His intuition about people was his strength and talent — and it was the great gift he gave to those around him.

An avid learner

From early on, Jonathan was an exceptional but non-traditional learner, Martin says. Whatever subject he took a shine to, he pursued with enormous determination to learn everything he could about it. He was drawn to the offbeat, the eclectic — subjects as varied as knives, cats, ethnic cooking, music, and great American tattoo artists, long before tattoos went mainstream. Such eclecticism was indicative of his intelligence — and his depth.

“When he first attempted to play the guitar,” Martin wrote in a posthumous tribute to his son, “I bought him a good book on the subject. He never looked at it. Rather he watched other guitarists play, practiced the same techniques himself until he had mastered them, and then improvised around them until he had made the techniques his own.”

Given such a desire to learn and blessed with an intuitive understanding of people, it is not surprising that Jonathan Davis chose to study psychology, a subject introduced to him by a high school teacher and probably reinforced by the fact that his father, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, had majored in psychology as well.

SKMBT_C22414090414190_0001 - Version 5In the fall of 1977, Jonathan enrolled at James Madison University.   Although initially he wasn’t excited about it, Jane remembers, laughing. “He thought it was [in] a little country town with a lot of grits.” Humanity, Jon had decided by then, was divided into three categories, “jocks, grits, and freaks.” He always gravitated to those who were different. But he made friends easily, while he honed his intellect, delving deep into the study of psychology. “He learned to love JMU — and he loved the master’s program,” Jane says. “The faculty is student-oriented and you get more contact time with good professors,” Martin says. “I think Jonathan felt that way….He got a lot of respect from the faculty there.”

Lennis Echterling, professor of psychology and director of the counseling program, remembers that Jonathan had a strong interest in issues related to counseling and therapy and got involved with projects with Jack Presbury, another JMU psychology professor. “I would often come by and interrupt them as they were engaged in some great philosophical discussion,” Echterling says. “It was clear to me that when I came in I was interrupting some high level intellectual discussions. They were very much enjoying how their ideas would sparkle.”

After earning his undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology at JMU, Jonathan was accepted into the prestigious “ Derner Institute” of Adelphi University to study for his Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Even with a Ph.D. under his belt, though, he continued taking courses. His father asked him why: “Aren’t you ready to just relax now and practice psychology?”

“No,” Martin recalls him saying, “I want to get all the knowledge and skills.”

A special insight

Jane and Martin Davis are the kind of parents who believe that children are not things to be molded but people to be unfolded. And as they watched their son unfold, they saw him become a man gifted with a special insight — and an insatiable curiosity — for people. This innate understanding of people marked his life and career.

Jon with his band 2-29-2008 2-06-20 PMThe teenage Jonathan explored music — as most teens do — and played in bands. But despite his peers’ initial assessment that he didn’t play well enough to own a Stratocaster, Jonathan proved them wrong. He worked until he mastered it, Martin remembers. Of course, Jane also played a part. She was the only mom who let the boys play in the house, she says, grinning — her generosity evinced by gouges in the living room floor where electric guitars thwanged and a refrigerator-sized amplifier boomed. And Martin had a motorcycle that he let 12- year-old Jon ride around the backyard — “and, of course, every kid in the neighborhood wanted to ride, too,” Jane adds. These were concessions that Jonathan understood and appreciated. While his friends were impressed with fancy house and cars, Jonathan understood — and voiced to his parents — that their embrace of his personal ambitions was far more important.

As a Ph.D. student, Jonathan cultivated a deep interest in people afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, choosing that as the focus of his doctoral research. He interviewed survivors of the Bataan Death March to learn all he could about the kinds of experiences that trigger PTSD and about the resilience that allows people to survive them and even thrive. Once again, Jonathan was ahead of his time. PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, as it is now termed, had not yet caught the public’s full attention.

Everything Jonathan did inched him further along that continuum of understanding people and their motivations. Between degrees, he worked as an attendant at Western State Hospital and as an alcohol counselor. He even did a stint driving a taxicab — a moving classroom of human experience.

A common struggle

SKMBT_C22414090414191_0001Beginning in his 20s, Jane remembers, Jonathan became to experience bouts of depression, a mental condition that placed him in a large group of the population. Sometimes termed “the common cold of mental illness,” clinical depression is a serious, ordinary, and yet not-fully-understood condition that impacts hundreds of thousands of people every year.

According to Echterling, clinical depression increases the risk of suicide eight fold. Few are immune, however, demographic groups have different degrees of risk. “The highest risk by age is elderly, and especially men over 65, and in particular white men over 65,” he says. For women, “suicide rates stay pretty low and overall their rates are typically three to five times less than for men.”

Discovering the hidden secrets of the more than 30,000 suicides annually in the U.S. is a laborious process, yet research and scholarly dissection of a common mental illness like depression, as well as the sometimes-precipitated tragic outcome, is an important avenue for psychologists to explore. Medical autopsies look for the physical causes of death — the “how,” Echterling says, “but the psychological autopsy is to explore the ‘why.’ It means going back to interview loved ones and getting a sense of what were the precipitating events that were going on at the time. Was there a note left behind? Or were there other indications that would suggest a higher risk for suicide? Have they had previous attempts? So when they’ve done those kind of psychological autopsies in detail, what they’ve found is that 90 percent of the completed suicides have involved some issue with a psychological disorder.”

He also points out that while teenagers have a higher risk of attempted suicides, their “success” rate is much lower than the general population. The implications of this kind of increased understanding of suicide and trauma, including PTSD, are enormous and have led to changes in clinical psychology’s approach. Echterling, who prepares clinical counselors for the field, explains one example: the need for a positive approach…

…Now there are programs to take the positive attitude with teens. When I was a teen, we would watch these scary movies about drinking and driving. And we know they were ineffective. They were scary, but they didn’t change behavior. What has been effective is campaigns like ‘friends don’t let friends drive drunk.’ That’s a positive contribution instead of trying to scare somebody which is a poor motivator … You look at what you can do to promote life. And so that leads into ‘friends don’t let friends suffer alone’ if they talk about things like death or suicide or depression….. It’s a way of using adolescence as a resource, and treating it like a resource, not something to scare, but instead, you have something to contribute to this community. You’re an important part, vitally, to be a link between someone in desperate need to receive the help that could make a difference, helping prevent suicide and promote happier life, so that’s how many of the prevention programs now are advocating for positive steps that people can be doing … in preventing suicide.

A profound shock

No matter how much one is loved or how supportive family and friends may be, sometimes people slip away.

In 1997, apparently, Jonathan’s personal battle with depression ramped up. After receiving his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Derner in February, Jonathan was accepted into a prestigious post-doctoral program in psychoanalysis at New York City’s Williams Alanson White Institute, reputed to be one of the most prominent and respected psychoanalytic training and treatment centers in the world.

And Jonathan was engaged to be married.

Although Jane and Martin knew their son had struggled with depression off and on, no one, not even his fianceé, understood the depth of that struggle. Jane doesn’t know if Jonathan had ever been officially diagnosed with clinical depression, but she knows that he had been prescribed anti-depressive medication. She knows, too, that he was surrounded by friends and family who would have known the signs. “They had all just said to relax and be cool. But nobody ever sat him down for a serious talk.” With this, Jane also raises a cautionary flag: No one, even those most knowledgeable in the field of psychology, is immune. “My wish,” she says, “is that psychologists and other health professionals will take a good look at themselves and at each other and know that suicide is a possibility in themselves.”

“In June, they came down here [to Virginia]. They were very happy,” Jane remembers. “We were very happy because Jonathan had worried us off and on over the years. And we thought, ok, Jon is ok. He has this beautiful girl, and they’re going to get married.”

By all measures, it was a happy year.

And then on July 25, Jonathan slipped out of their lives. Martin wrote, “His death came as a profound shock to everyone who knew him.”

232353 Martin and Jane Davis Photos-1016At the time of his death, Jonathan was working with mentally ill substance abusers. They were the kind of people who might make any mother nervous, Jane admits. “But after he died, I got a whole lot of scratchy notes, on torn up legal pads…..His clients had written things… ‘Dear Jon, I’m going to try so hard to stay clean because I know you want me to.’ ‘You have done so much to make me try to turn around my life.’ One client had brought him a string art, which she had made. That really touched my heart.”

These people weren’t stereotypes, Jane knows, “these were real human beings that my son loved — and they loved him.” Characteristic of Jonathan’s deep compassion, they would later learn that he had stopped taking his medication, Jane says, “because he didn’t want to dull his sensitivity to his patients.”

Legacy from tragedy

If he were living today, Jonathan Davis would be immensely proud of his parents. The couple has survived what Echterling calls “one of the worst traumas I can think of — to lose a child.” They have tapped into a kind of resilience that has allowed them to move ahead and to turn their personal tragedy into a kind of victory over it. Psychologists call it “counterfactual reasoning.” It is the ability to look beyond tragedy and find something positive. And it is exactly the kind of response their counselor son would have hoped for his parents.

“Pain is very people oriented,” Martin says. “I cried a lot,” Jane says, “ And I talked about him a lot.” She also sought solace in a local support group, the same kind that Jonathan might have led. “When Jon was a little boy,” she remembers, “I thought that he was the most precious child on earth, and I loved him more than anybody else ever loved their child. And then when he died, I thought, ‘my pain is worse than anyone else on earth has ever felt.’ And when I started going to Compassionate Friends, it was so apparent that everybody there loved their children the same way I did.”

The Davises found the kind of comfort their own son might have offered. Counselors, Echterling says, become extraordinarily skilled in helping people identify and hang onto those counterfactuals.

From their resilience and a desire to see Jonathan’s life continue in some way, Jane and Martin established the Jonathan Douglas Davis Memorial Scholarship. Every year it is awarded to a degree seeking graduate student enrolled in JMU’s Department of Graduate Psychology and Counseling who has a particular interest in suicide prevention. More recently, the scholarship has expanded to include students interested in Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Perhaps reflecting the Davises’ Depression-era can-do attitude, the scholarship is designed to spark tangible, practical results. For those reviewing the scholarship applications, Echterling says, “The focus becomes ‘What would they do with that?’ …. They not only have good intentions, but they have a plan.”

Such was the story of recipient Lisa Ellison (‘12M), herself touched by her own brother’s suicide. “She wanted [her project] to be something meaningful for survivors, families and friends, who’d lost somebody,” Echterling says. She organized an Out of the Darkness Walk, a campus-wide event that supports networking for survivors, understanding of suicide, and funds research into suicide prevention. After Ellison graduated, the annual campus walk continued. Last year’s walk drew some 300 walkers and raised more than $16,000 to fund research and education programs through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Echterling says.

“We often ignore all of the contributions of people who may end their lives with suicide,” says Echterling. “They aren’t just suicide [victims]. They’re human beings with all sorts of wonderful positive qualities and contributions that enrich people’s lives.”

This is Jonathan Davis. The impact of his life goes on, and in a strange and immensely sad irony, it continues to grow, spreading out like a river that meets the sea. It endures through the lives of the hundreds of people he touched as a student, a friend, a counselor — and as a son. His life is multiplied through the lives of students whose careers will be enhanced through the memorial scholarship — and through the lives of people those students, in turn, will themselves touch.

Finding a kind of eternity

Jane and Martin are comfortable with the concept of death. They lived it when Jonathan died. It is not a stranger to them, and they choose to see it as an end with an opportunity. It’s why Jane can jokingly pose for the photographer, asking if that will work for her own obituary. No one lives forever. Even — someday — the baby offered as comfort to the grieving mother by Jonathan’s friend, a man he counseled through AA. Thinking about her own childhood in Roanoke, Va., Jane remembers a modest house that has now been torn down, on property that has been sold. Like people depart, the house is gone. But the land remains — much like the ground of Jonathan Davis’ life, a life well spent before it ended too soon. And much like seeds that survive an inferno — the kind of painful inferno the Davises know — Jonathan’s legacy will continue to grow in the fertile soil of higher education.

jmu%20jane%20martin-3.%2010-22-2009%203-27-17%20PMFor Jane and Martin, there are more sweet memories than sad ones. Like a trip to New York City, a place Jonathan loved, where he took his parents to dinner at a nice restaurant and treated them to an off-Broadway Tennessee Williams play. Jonathan was good to people. He was good to his parents, his friends.

“There is an old Native American or Mexican saying that someone truly dies the last time someone says his name,” Jane says. One hundred years from now, she knows Jonathan will be remembered. Students passing through JMU’s Department of Psychology will see his portrait on the wall, and many will open letters informing them they are the fortunate recipients of a generous scholarship.

“They can read [about Jonathan] and know about him, and there will be some student — hopefully a bunch of students — all wanting to win this prize because it will go up, up, up. And so they would have … thought a lot about Jonathan and about suicide and hopefully suicide consciousness will have grown a lot more. People who have tried it, persons whose loved ones have tried it will come out of the closet and talk about it.”

Martin and Jane Davis have found a kind of eternity in establishing the Jonathan Douglas Davis Memorial Scholarship. For generations to come, their beloved son’s legacy will continue to support scholars whose research will untangle suicide and uncover secrets about the psychology of suicide prevention.

And Jonathan’s name will continue to be spoken.


To learn more about  the Jonathan Douglas Davis Memorial Scholarship and JMU’s Departments of Psychology, Graduate Psychology and Counseling, go the embedded links.





Good….and collateral good

Students reviewing book 2Giving back is required.

For everyone.

Whether you’re the recipient of a favor, a gift, or a kindness, thanks for an act of generosity is more than a nicety.

It’s a measure of our humanity.

It’s an indication that we are humble enough, thankful enough, thoughtful enough — and human enough — to turn around and give due nod to those people who have given to us. Even better is when one turns around and gives back.

But you’d be surprised how many people even fail to say “thank you.” Don’t believe me? How many of your former teachers have you thanked? How many of your employees or co-workers have you taken for granted?

How many people have you actually sought out for the sole purpose of acknowledging a kindness or paying it forward? How about the institution that awarded you a diploma or scholarship? Do you owe them anything?

Most of us consider ourselves to be grateful. But few of us  — if we are totally honest — are as grateful or as conscientious about giving back as we think we are. Or as we could be.

But there are notable exceptions.

Mary Gowan, dean of the College of Business, and Theresa Clarke, professor marketing

Mary Gowan, dean of the College of Business, and Theresa Clarke, professor of marketing

Recently, two JMU College of Business alumni donated 150 copies of the book Marketing in the Age of Google by Vanessa Fox. According to Theresa Clarke, professor of marketing, Fox is “one of the industry’s leaders regarding search engine optimization.”

Theresa will give the books to students in her junior- and senior-level marketing communications course (MKTG 384) and in her Internet Marketing Practicum (MKTG 477), which she’ll teach next spring.

“The book contains a lot of practical information to help a business be found when people are conducting searches,” Theresa says. “Search engine optimization is a big and growing field in the world of Internet Marketing, so this book can help our students deepen their understanding of one of the most timely areas of business today.”

The alumni — who wish to remain anonymous — have put a useful tool into the students’ hands as they prepare for and begin careers. The gift to the students is “a generous and thoughtful gesture from these alumni,” Theresa says. “While financial donations are always much appreciated, alumni can donate in other ways as well. I usually have alumni come to my classes to serve as guest speakers, mentors, judges of presentations, or in some other professional role. But a large book donation such as this is extraordinary in my mind, and I want my students to understand how supportive our alumni can be. I hope they are inspired to give back to JMU in their own ways someday.”

Dean of the College of Business Mary Gowan, agrees. “We appreciate the generosity of our alumni who take the time to give back,” she says. “It sends a strong message both to our current students and the university community as a whole. These alumni are truly making the difference for our students!”

And then there’s the collateral good. Not only are these anonymous alumni enhancing student education, they are setting an example with a creative way to give back. We applaud them!

Now who will follow suit?

Shout outs to Patty May (’94M), communications manager for the College of Business, for her help with this story and to Theresa Clarke for telling us about it. If you know of any creative ways alumni are giving back, let us know!

Reading the world

It’s very early on a summer morning. Harrisonburg’s Explore More Discovery Museum is quiet, empty. The doors are locked for the moment. Soon, though, a handful of children trickle in with their parents or grandparents. Some are wide-awake, raring to go. Others are sleepy-eyed and hang back. They’ve all gathered for a photo shoot for Madison magazine, along with Dr. and Mrs. Fred Fox. They’ve come to illustrate what’s most important about the museum’s “One World” exhibition. The shoot could be chaos, but it goes smoothly. Perhaps it’s good parenting. Or maybe it’s the books. Or both. Either way, we get it done so we can tell a story that’s important for children in the valley, for families, for the community — and for discovering a wonderful way to get to know ourselves and our neighbors……

232586 Fred and Gail Fox Portraits-1026A passion for reading the world

Gail and Fred Fox are passionate about literacy, diversity — and their community. That’s why they’ve championed One World, a popular exhibit in Harrisonburg’s children’s museum. The collection features children’s books, many in their native languages, from more than 42 countries around the world. (The number just went up!)

The creation of the exhibit was a bit serendipitous. In 2010, Explore More Discovery Museum was expanding, and the Foxes were asked to help. When Executive Director Lisa Shull (’81,’95M) posed the question, “What kind of exhibits to you want?” the couple suggested one where literacy and diversity would converge.

Gail, who formerly taught reading and literacy at JMU and worked as a reading coach in Harrisonburg City Public Schools for “No Child Left Behind,” and her husband Fred, a local orthopaedic surgeon, proposed an exhibit where Harrisonburg’s rich cultural diversity could be showcased through books.

And then they championed it.

“We’d been in other [children’s] museums where they had reading corners or diversity represented by pictures of children or something, but we felt [it was] very important to have this sort of concept in the museum,” Fred says.

Harrisonburg city schools, one of Virginia’s most diverse school systems, enrolls students from 40 countries, representing 44 foreign languages. More than 100 students are bi-or multi-lingual.

232586 Fred and Gail Fox Portraits-1002 2The idea for the exhibit had been percolating with the Foxes for some time. Earlier, through the Harrisonburg Rotary Club, Fred and Gail, along with a librarian at Waterman Elementary School in Harrisonburg, had started a literacy program through the local schools. “It was just an interesting blend of Gail’s background in early childhood literacy and my experience with Rotary,” Fred says. “Out of those two interests we had formed … Project Read, focusing on elementary, helping support children to learn reading in K-3 and in the preschool reading program, which all the [local] Rotary Clubs in some form participated in,” he says.

A longtime Rotarian himself, Fred notes that literacy has long been a focus of Rotary International, so when the opportunity at the museum arose, once again, the fit was right. Many local Rotary Club members donated books they found abroad and brought back to Harrisonburg.

Because of Harrisonburg’s diverse population, the exhibit also presents enormous opportunities for international understanding, which Gail knows is essential for student success in the city’s schools. “It’s the United Nations in every school here,” she says.

The One World book collection’s location within the museum was strategic, the Foxes believe. It brings literacy and diversity into a place where children are automatically drawn. Its international character, Gail explains, “says to children, ‘you have a place here. Your culture is part of what is going on downtown at Explore More.”

Gail adds that children who might not otherwise have access to books can be exposed to them at the museum. “They have them right here in a safe environment where they can come.”

Immigrant families, she adds, are more likely to visit the museum before they visit the public library. And with Massanutten Regional Library located next door, it becomes an entre to the library next door. The placement also aligns with the museum’s longstanding mission to serve all community children.

Fred cites a local family whose child, adopted from Ethiopia, discovered a book in One World from his home country. “It was sort of a ‘wow’ moment,” he says.

Although electronic books and online sourcing is growing, there’s no substitute for a hands-on book when it comes to children, Gail believes. And she is an unapologetic advocate for traditional books.

Gail and Fred Fox help set the lights while the children pick out books.

Gail and Fred Fox help set the lights while the children pick out books.

“Through books you find the language,” she says, “you find how stories work, whether they’re oral or written…. There is such an intimacy between the reader and the child that you can’t get through flicking through a story on an Ipad.”

For a child from a different culture — or any child, for that matter — the experience of sharing a book is potent. Gail says, effusively: “Do you know how powerful it is when you’re reading a book to a child and [the child says] ‘Oh, that person looks like me!’”

The exhibit’s shelves have been filled with the help of several community organizations, including Blue Ridge Community College’s SPECTRUM International Multicultural Club. The group donated more than 40 bilingual books to One World. According to their website: “The purpose of purchasing these books is two-fold; it provides newly immigrated families the ability to read in their native language as well as learning the English language. It also provides SPECTRUM members the opportunity to share their heritage with the community.”

Books have also come from Rockingham Memorial Hospital’s Wellness Center, United Way, and Knitworks, a local business. Several were even sent by a AAA tourist group from Chicago after they visited Harrisonburg.

Impassioned advocates, the Foxes regularly encourage friends to bring books back from their international travels — including Gail’s fellow JMU alumni — to help grow the One World book collection. They hope it will encourage literacy and promote deeper cultural understanding throughout the community — and they believe it will, Gail says, “because children lead the way.”

Many thanks to Fred and Gail Fox, Daphyne Thomas (COB), Cristin Lambert Iwanicki (’03), Grace Tessier Weniger (’03), Sonali Aradhey, and university photographer Mike Miriello (’09) — and especially to Maya, Noah, Anish, Niranjan, Bree, Amaya and Connor for making our very early morning photo shoot a success!


On that hot, chaotic August day

Freshmen, take a look at your new roommates. They might become lifelong friends, and there’s also the possibility that they will change your lives forever. Read on for the heartwarming story of two random roommates with an extraordinary bond. But beware: The story of Denise Dance Waff (’00)∫ and Amanda Howard Hoban (’00) could bring you to tears….

“If there’s ANYTHING I can do…”

by Denise Dance Waff (’00)

Amanda Howard Hoban ('00) and Denise Dance Waff ('00) — once random roomates, now extraordinary friends.

Amanda Howard Hoban (’00) and Denise Dance Waff (’00) — once random roommates, now extraordinary friends.

From the moment I received my freshman housing assignment from James Madison University in 1996, I began wondering what my roommate would be like. Would we have anything in common? Would we get along? Would she even want to hang out with me?!! Fortunately, our first phone contact eased most of my fears as we got to know each other and worked out all the important logistics for dorm life: Who’s bringing the fridge? Who’s bringing the TV? By the time we met in Eagle Hall on that hot, chaotic, August day, I already knew we would be great roommates. We spent the afternoon unpacking our things and organizing our room, and then headed out to a cookout welcoming incoming freshman. By the end of the night, we had coordinated our schedules, mapped out where we’d meet for meals, and had completely planned how we’d spend our first weekend as college students. Oh yeah, we were going to get along just fine!

Over the next four years, Amanda and I did something not many randomly paired freshman roommates do — we continued to live together. From Wayland Hall to Ashby Crossing, the idea of living apart never even entered our minds. We were roommates, confidantes, partners in crime — we were best friends. I think it’s safe to say that neither of our JMU experiences would have been complete without the other.

20140816_130924After graduation in the spring of 2000, Amanda and I began our long-distance friendship, she in Northern Virginia and I in Richmond. There was no text messaging back then (man, I sound old), so we called and emailed on a weekly basis. We burned up Interstate 95 visiting each other during those early years. New jobs, apartments, birthdays. We didn’t really need a reason to celebrate if it meant we could spend a weekend together. As we settled into adulthood in the mid-2000s, we each established careers, got married, and purchased homes. We served as maid/matron of honor in each other’s weddings, planning bridal showers and bachelorette parties. Soon after, pregnancies were announced and babies were born — two boys for Amanda and one boy for me. Despite growing work and family responsibilities, we still found time to stay connected. And as with any good friendship, it was like no time had passed every time we talked.

20140707_153050 In the summer of 2010, my husband and I began contemplating having a second child. With almost two years of parenting experience behind us, we figured we were adequately equipped to give our son a sibling. Around that same time, I received devastating news. At age 32, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. What I had naively believed only happened to women over age 50 had actually happened to me. After my initial shock/anger wore off, I began telling people, which was almost as hard as hearing it the first time myself. I emailed Amanda because I was not strong enough to say the words out loud, and I remember literally feeling her sadness when I read her reply. She ended her email with the statement, “All I can say is if there is anything, and I mean anything, that I (or Joe and I) can do for you, just say the word. Don’t even hesitate.” Little did she or I know how true those words would ring true in the future.

Fast forward to 2013.

With chemotherapy, radiation, and multiple surgeries behind me, I was cancer-free and ready to put this awful disease behind me. At the urging of my doctors, my husband and I had preserved our ability to have more children by freezing embryos prior to my cancer treatments. I shared with Amanda that carrying a child would be risky for me and that my doctors were not supportive of this idea. Without hesitation, Amanda offered to carry a child for me and my husband. It was the most selfless , amazing, and humbling thing anyone had ever said to me.

Now, obviously, the next part of the story is anything but simple — doctor appointments, medications, legal contracts (required by law). It has been a PROCESS, to say the least. But in March 2014, we received the BEST news ever — we were PREGNANT!

As I write this, Amanda is currently 25 weeks with our precious baby boy. I am still just as humbled now as I was when we began this journey last year, and at times, my gratitude is so overwhelming it takes my breath away. Despite her concerns over her growing size (“I feel as big as a HOUSE!”), she has never looked more beautiful to me and I have never loved her more. We have been bonded as friends for 18 years, and now we will be bonded as family for a lifetime.

And although we were randomly paired by JMU, I am certain there was nothing “random” about it.

Thanks to Denise and Amanda for sharing their amazing story. We’ll update this story — in about 15 weeks or so. Many thanks, also, to my former colleague, writer Colleen Dixon, who told us about this story.

Which one will you love?

Dr. Isaac Woo and his favorite student, his son Johnny.

Dr. Isaac Woo and his favorite student, his son Johnny.

If you’re coming to James Madison University as a freshman or transfer student next month, you probably have in mind the name of a former teacher who made a difference in your life. Maybe he inspired you. Maybe she challenged you at a moment when you needed a push. Maybe he disciplined you and in the process helped you understand the value of hard work or cooperation or integrity. Maybe she was just kind to you at a time when life was not.

Are you thinking of a name? I suspect you are.

Now, consider this:  The art and science of teaching, the kind of educational mentorship that inspires, is paramount at JMU. Here on our campus, teaching is not something professors do as a sideline while they conduct research. It is not an afterthought but a calling. Many professors come here because their primary mission as scholars is to impart knowledge and inspiration to a new generation. Many do research, of course, and JMU is very good at that as well, but commitment to teaching each student is their primary goal.

One JMU professor, Dr. Isaac Woo told me how much he loves the interaction and rapport he has with his students, how much he values the experiences he can provide for them—and in turn, how much is gained from the synergy that occurs. Growing up and going to school in his native Korea, Dr. Woo, who teaches communication studies in the College of Arts and Letters, says that he didn’t feel the same kind of engagement with his own teachers. But JMU is “very unique and engaging” in this respect, he has found. In deciding to join the JMU faculty, Woo says, “student and teacher interaction attracted me a lot. When I came here, they looked very close. They worked together.”

If you need more proof of our commitment to teaching, check out Madison magazine’s feature, Professors You Love —which, not surprisingly, is the magazine’s most popular feature for 14 years running. You’ll find the newest installment in the next edition of the magazine. Madison hits mailboxes and newsstands around campus in September and will explore changes in education and how we maintain our humanity in the midst of such change. You will also learn more about Dr. Woo and his Madison Experience.

Scholarship is not a barrier here, but it is the common ground that welcomes every student. It is a mountaintop experience replete with challenges, steep rock walls to ascend and inspiring vistas to savor—but it is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that comes with talented guides who are eager to climb alongside you. It’s your job as freshmen to find them. In fact, the most oft-repeated advice from alumni to freshman is this:  Get to know your professors!

And if you do, it’s a pretty sure bet that in four years you’ll look back over your JMU experience and click off a roster of  professors you’ve come to love.

So who will it be?

From unknown to friend

by Annamarie Frost (’13, ’14M)

Annamarie Frost ('13) (left) and her once-unknown roommate who became a friend.

Annamarie Frost (’13) (left) and her once-unknown roommate who became a friend.

So you’ve decided to attend JMU. You’ve gone to your Summer Springboard day, and your excitement about starting college is getting greater each day. Every time you walk into a store your eyes are immediately drawn to the dorm room displays, and you can’t wait to move into your dorm room. There’s only one thing missing…

You don’t know who your roommate will be!

Five years ago, I was in your same shoes. No one from my area was going to JMU, so I chose to get a random roommate assigned to me by the Office of Residence Life. I figured that this was going to be the one time in my life that I could leave my roommate fate in someone else’s hands. Plus, if the roommate pairing happened to not work out, I wouldn’t have to blame myself for choosing that person. And by living in a residence hall, I knew that I could always look to my RA for help sorting out a potential disagreement between the two of us, if needed. So I filled out the short survey about my habits and hoped that I would get a roommate who was compatible to me.

JMU%20winter-1My freshman year roommate and I were a great match from the beginning. She was from Maryland and I was from Georgia. We were both outgoing individuals who loved to stay up late but would then have trouble waking up to our early morning alarms. Her family even sent me little care packages around different holidays! We only lived together during our freshman year because I became an RA the following year. So in order to stay in communication with each other, we established our own tradition of having a weekly catch up meal at D Hall for Cheesy Thursday all the way up to our final week as undergrads at JMU. To this day, I am so glad I chose a random roommate because I had such a great experience with it and gained a friend for life.

The transition from high school to college is a big deal for everyone. Many of you will be adjusting from having your own room at home (and maybe even bathroom) to sharing those spaces with others. By living with a roommate, you have an immediate connection in your residence hall. Your roommate is an automatic buddy to join you for walks across campus to your morning classes, rides on the Shopper bus to Walmart and meals at the dining halls. You can attend sporting events or check out different JMU organizations together. Some of these activities are intimidating to do on your own, so having a roommate go with you can sometimes make it easier.

Annamarie Frost and Laura Hardiman on the last day of their year as freshmen roommates...but hardly their last day as  friends.

Annamarie Frost and Laura Hardiman on the last day of their year as freshmen roommates…but hardly their last day as

Between now and August 1st, enjoy the rest of your summer break and start shopping for those dorm essentials. (But let me recommend that you wait until your find out your roommate before making those larger purchases of the TV and mini fridge!) Before you know it, you’ll find out the name of your roommate, quickly Facebook friend them, and start getting to know the person you will share a space with from August to May.

And no matter how much time passes, this person will always have the title of roommate to you, but it is my hope that over time, they will gain the title of a friend as well.

DSC_0096ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Double Duke Annamarie Frost graduated in May 2013 with a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Liberal Studies and minors in Elementary Education and General Music. While at JMU, she worked for the Office of Residence Life as an RA for 1 year and a hall director for 3 years. She was also very involved with Student Ambassadors, SGA, and The Madison Society. In May 2014, she earned her Master of Arts in Teaching. This fall, she’ll be a first year teacher in Loudoun County Public Schools. Annamarie will be teaching 3rd grade at Sully Elementary in Sterling, Va.


Where cold is hot


If you love sweet summer treats, something to take the hot out of summer, and something scrumptious to satisfy the palate, you’ll love what Sandra Tran (’12) and Gil Welsford (’12) have cooked up in Northern Virginia —  although cooked isn’t quite the right word.

They’ve created a concoction from delicious fresh and locally grown produce and added a dose of liquid nitrogen. It’s called NiceCream — a made-to-order-while-you-wait premium version of the summer delight that usually takes hours of elbow grease and rock salt — or a trip to the store.

With their business, The NiceCream Factory, Gil and Sandra are hoping to change the way you think about desserts.

Since last fall, they’ve been doing special events and pop-ups at places like farmers market. They also do catering, parties and take-out.

This summer, they’ve opened a brand new storefront in Arlington, Va. — The Nice Cream Factory. And it appears to be catching on. Reviews on their Facebook page are almost unanimously positive.

A cool place for a hot day.

A cool place for a hot day.

These two friends and partners met at JMU, both graduates of the College of Business, and share a spirit of entrepreneurship.

As undergraduates, they each made their mark on JMU before striking out to pursue their joint entrepreneurial venture. Gil created “Club Gilty,” a non-alcoholic night club for students, and Sandra, along with fellow Duke Dan Smokin (’11) started JMUTeach, a program where students design and teach semester-long courses for their peers.

Now that Gil and Sandra have teamed up, we’ll be watching. Anything this good is likely to spread because who does not like NiceCream?!

To learn more about NiceCream, visit their website: And to learn more about Gil, Sandra, check out this article by Taylor Deer (’13) on the College of Business website:

Better yet, if you’re in downtown Arlington — around 2831 Clarendon Blvd. — go by and try some NiceCream.
And let us know if it’s as good as it sounds….



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