Changed by a FrOG

Hannah Collins ('15), center, and her fellow FRoGs

Hannah Collins (’15), center above “McGraw,” and her fellow FRoGs

In Grimm’s fairy tale, The Frog Prince, being changed by a frog is a central theme. The same might be said for the Madison Experience of JMU senior Hannah Collins. In today’s blog, Hannah, a public relations major who has worked in JMU Communications as an intern this semester, shares her moment of change.

Full circle as a FrOG

by Hannah Collins (’15)

Everyone has the moment; a moment when he or she realizes they are a different person than they used to be; a moment when they realize they have been changed for the better. At JMU, that moment is when you realize you have come full circle.

My moment didn’t happen until my senior year at JMU, which is interesting since I thought it would happen earlier. During my first three years at JMU, I always wanted to be a FrOG, First yeaR Orientation Guide. Being the person in a goldenrod yellow shirt getting excited about life and introducing First Years to a school I loved so much; I wanted to do that more than anything. So, as a junior in college, I applied, interviewed and got the position.

Here’s what orientation doesn’t tell you: You’re at 1787 August Orientation to prepare First Years for their life at JMU, but you end up seeing a change in your own life as well. You step into training at the beginning of the week, and you come out with an experience that is so amazing it’s almost impossible to explain to other people. Nothing, and no one, can prepare a FrOG for the overwhelming emotion, excitement and happiness that is 1787 August Orientation.

I started the week in a group of ten random people: nine FrOGs and one OPA, Orientation Peer Adviser. I left that week with 10 family members. People, who knew my heart, understood my frustrations and were there to give me hugs at the end of the day when I felt like I was failing. There are no words to describe how much this feeling of family encouraged me during my orientation experience.

This is JMU; this bond between 10 people who knew nothing about each other in the beginning and came out calling themselves family. This Orientation experience was the moment when I realized JMU was home, and JMU had changed me, forever. I was in charge of 22 fabulous First Years, and I had a fantastic partner. We were the people who would introduce these ladies to the JMU world. It was terrifying and exciting all at the same time. It was the moment that I realized I could do something that scared me. It was the moment I realized I was different, and ready to take on the challenge because of what this school had done for me.

Orientation brought me full circle. It took me from a timid, nervous freshman to a prepared, adult senior. It showed me how JMU is embedded in my life now and how this school has changed me for the better.

I’m not ready. I’m not ready to walk across the stage in May to shake someone’s hand and accept a diploma. But it’s not for the reasons you think. I’m not ready because I don’t want to leave. I am, however, ready in the sense that this school has prepared me; JMU has prepared me to enter the professional world as an adult, and shaped into a human being who can take on difficult and life-changing situations.

There’s a quote that circulates every year as graduation approaches –

“JMU is not just an institution of higher learning, it is a spirit, it is an atmosphere, it is…a way of life I am glad to say that I have lived.” –Alpha Spitzer (’37)

I never knew what this really meant until I experienced it as a FrOG during 1787 August Orientation. I have spent three and a half amazing years experiencing that way of life, that atmosphere, and that spirit. I was so happy to pass it on to the next generation of Dukes who will surely be changed by this school, as I was. I’m not ready, but I am thankful. I am thankful for my moment and all my experiences, and I look forward to finding more opportunities to Be the Change as I step into my next experiences in life.

To learn more about the life of a JMU FrOG, visit

GIVING thanks

As most of us revel in post-Thanksgiving stupor, here’s a story to make you smile. This year JMU alum Alissa McLaughlin (’01) and friends raised money, collected turkeys and ingredients and provided Thanksgiving meals to more than 100 families in her hometown of Philadelphia. To Alissa, food is far more than sustenance. South Philly Review writer Bill Chenervert explains why and just what’s behind Alissa’s passion for her community…..

GIVING thanks

By Bill Chenevert, staff writer, South Philly Review 

Volunteers with the Small Fry program, including founder Alissa McLaughlin, front row, middle, pack bags full of turkeys, recipes and healthy ingredients for families to take home and cook themselves.

Volunteers with the Small Fry program, including founder Alissa McLaughlin, front row, middle, pack bags full of turkeys, recipes and healthy ingredients for families to take home and cook themselves. Photo by Richard Barnes

Alissa McLaughlin, of the 2000 block of Pemberton Street, was volunteering with some children in her neighborhood, when she noticed a distinct lack of concentration in many of them with whom she was working. She asked the director of the Marian Anderson Recreation Center, 740 S. 17th St., why they seemed to struggle with behavior and focus, and the answer seems to have given her new purpose in life.

“He told me since most of the kids are on public assistance they were not eating over the weekends because they were provided school breakfast and lunch,” McLaughlin explained. “I figured if I taught the kids how to cook on Saturday and sent them home with supplies to practice the recipes, I could theoretically provide at least two healthy meals over the weekend.”

That was more three years ago, and it gave her the inspiration to start Small Fry, a program for 5- to 13-year-olds that focuses on nutrition and kitchen skills, aiming at them bringing home infectious energy and enthusiasm for making wholesome meals. And staying away from snack meals.

“The requirements are every meal has to be under 500 calories and all of the items in the recipe need to be on the food stamp-approved list so they are able to duplicate recipes at home,” the South of South resident said.

Her company, Radiant Matter, an event and logistics operation she founded five years ago, gave her the resources to start Small Fry with her own money (she admits to still figuring out nonprofit and IRS-exempt loose ends). She and her boyfriend have galvanized a strong group of volunteers and families and this past Saturday, they sent 110 kids home with turkeys, recipes and ingredients for side dishes.

“This weekend, we had 110 kids and we have 180 kids that are registered for Small Fry,” McLaughlin said, going on to describe the many things they didn’t see coming when it all got started: extreme camaraderie amongst families and volunteers, barricades of literacy and portion control and awareness of how rewarding it would be for those lending volunteer support. “The two main things are the kids need to eat, and we need to be there for these kids and be consistent.”

By showing kids how to make chicken nuggets that are baked, healthier versions of pizza, and “skinny” versions of Thanksgiving fix-ins like green bean casserole, stuffing, pie and mashed potatoes, McLaughlin has been emboldened to expand and continue Small Fry a little farther south and into subsidized housing communities.

“You can’t just fly in and fly out,” she noted. “Our community needs people that are going to walk alongside them. I’ve learned so much from my kids and their families that my life is 100 times better.”

They’re hopeful that a second location is up and running by January with an eye on Chew Recreation Center, 1800 Washington Ave.

Small Fry’s ambitions seem to grow as the program matures, too.

“We have also started couponing classes and budgeting classes for parents. We focus how to survive on one modest income” McLaughlin said, with her mom proving influential in the program’s founding and in leading lessons, too, showing parents “how to take one chicken and turn it into four meals for five people.”

As for a new space, McLaughlin and her volunteers plan on working with Community Center site’s directly because “sometimes you just kind of forge ahead.”

Thanks to South Philly Review staff writer Bill Chenevert for letting us reprint this story about Alissa and her Small Fry friends. It originally appeared on Nov. 26, 2014.


Second act

Imagine spending one day staring down death, or at least considering the possibility as real. Imagine doing so for weeks, months — or years. That is what American soldiers do — every day — and it is the memory that veterans live with every day thereafter. Some experience conflict close up; others see it from a distance, but the sacrifice they sign up for when they enlist in the military is unlike any other kind of commitment. This week, as we honor Veterans, we’d like to introduce you to one JMU student with a special passion for helping her fellow veterans. 

Chris Nelson ('15) on duty at Cedar Creek

Chris Nelson (’15) on duty at Cedar Creek

Chris Nelson (’15) knows the life of a soldier. As a retired Air Force  non-commissioned officer, she has lived the military life. For more than 20 years — 20 years and one day to be exact — Chris was an airborne missions systems specialist, providing inflight communication to, from, and among planes on various missions. One of her assignments was aboard AWACS — airborne warning and control planes — for NATO. She also flew on the National Air Operations Center, which she defines as “survivable mobile command center for the president, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the secretary of defense.”

While “I did not do combat,” she says, I flew on several combat sorties….My job was up in the air.”

That, however, did not preclude making sacrifices familiar to all veterans. She was often away from her husband and three children, and the family moved around a lot — Oklahoma, Germany, Nebraska, and finally Northern Virginia. “I did a lot of traveling, a lot of deploying around the world with small children. That was difficult,” she says.

Now she’s a full-time student — a second act in life. At 20, Chris thought college was beyond her. Neither of her parents went to college, and she says, candidly: “My parents couldn’t afford to send us to school.” But after being in the military, which, she says, encourages higher education, it became a goal. Chris is the first in her family to attend college.

She understands acutely that the transition from military life to civilian life is not always smooth. The rigors of military life, the restrictions, and all the rules and regulations are left behind. “I feel like I’ve been in a box for 20 years because there are very strict rules about how to look, what you can wear, and things you can do…..I had a security clearance, so I couldn’t go to certain places….,” she says.

Chris initially thought she would pursue a degree in homeland security. That made sense. After all, it’s what she had done for two decades. Still, she says, “I didn’t think it was the best fit for my family.”

Instead — with her husband’s encouragement — Chris enrolled at Lord Fairfax Community College with a different purpose: “I’m going to take a variety of classes to try and figure out what it is that I want to do.”

top_logo_new3-21What she discovered was an interest in history. “I fell in love with history of the Shenandoah Valley — the Civil War history,” she says. So when the opportunity arose to volunteer at nearby Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, Chris jumped at the chance.

Cedar Creek, one of the National Park Service’s newest historic parks, near Strasburg, Va., adjoins Belle Grove, the historic home of President James Madison’s sister, Nellie Madison Hite.

Her volunteer job became a full-time position, which she holds today, while at the same time managing a family and the life of a full-time student. No doubt, 20 years of military discipline allows her to juggle all of that.

By the time she earned her associates degree and enrolled at JMU, she knew she wanted to study history. But history isn’t her only pursuit. Chris is double majoring in history and psychology.

While studying history is for fun, she says, studying psychology has a deeper and more personal meaning for Chris. “You’re in a war zone seeing things the average person just wouldn’t understand., and then you come back to the real world and you’re expected to function like nothing happened. I want to be there for those people.”

NPS-logo-color.jpgShe hopes to someday be able to help veterans, some who suffer from PTSD, as well women in abusive relationships.

When she first came to JMU, she sought out other veterans.

“I am not a social person,” she admits, “and I knew that if I was going to be attending school at JMU I would need to have a group of people that I could [identify with] — someone to talk to. So I searched and found out there was a student veterans group, and I contacted them. That was not the norm…. but I knew, because of my personal situation, that I needed to have that in place before I would be able to fit in.”

She found that fit in the Student Veteran Association. This year, Chris is serving as president and through SVA, she wants to provide a place where veterans can meet and associate but also find resources for navigating higher education. The military imbues self-reliance; as a result, she says, “most veterans do not like to ask for help.” That’s where SVA can help. And for Chris, that means advocating for fellow veterans.

“They’re just certain things that we (veterans) need that the average person just doesn’t understand. For example, for the GI Bill we get our tuition paid for — and there are different kinds of GI Bills…. They’ll pay for your tuition, but every class you take has to be part of your degree plan, and they won’t pay for any classes that are outside of your degree plan.”

“Also we have a basic allowance for housing …… You get paid a certain amount for the number of credit hours you take. If you can’t get into your required classes then that amount of money is being reduced because you get paid per credit, right? There are a lot of veterans who are going to school after they get out of the military and their family is living on that. Many of the veterans have wives and children…. Some … are living off of that money and — I think it’s about $1300. So if you can imagine a family trying to live on $1300 while the veterans is going to school. It’s really important to us to be able to get into the classes that we need or we’re not going to get paid…”

That’s where SVA can help and at JMU, that need extends wide. Chris says that the male/female ratio is 64/36. Almost half — 46 percent are 31 years old or older; 36 percent are 25-30; and 18 percent are between 18 and 20.

According to Bill Wilson, director of the Madison Institute and a member of the Veterans Scholars Task Force, 210 veterans and service members are currently enrolled at JMU. In addition, 370 dependents are using post 9/11 GI benefits.

The Veterans Scholars Task Force is a group of JMU faculty working to make JMU veteran friendly. As SVA president, Chris is also a member of the task force.

As advocates for veterans, Chris says, “SVA is here to do support these veterans, to try to give them a place where they can come and get information, where they can have camaraderie with other people who are in the same path as they are, have the same kind of life experience.”

Chris has important goals for SVA that she hopes to launch during her one-year term. “My objective is to move us forward. We are in a position now where we are meeting and having the camaraderie. That’s very important, but I want to move us even further forward to where we are doing things to actually help the veterans here.”

She wants SVA to be a resource for JMU veterans and their families. “We want to be the people they come to and ask questions. We may not have the answers, but we will know who to steer them to, to answer those questions, or if they just need to have someone to sit and talk to — there’s a bond between military members and just knowing the person sitting next to you has been through or understands what you’ve been through is a huge comfort.”


Looking for veterans resources at JMU? Check out these links:



Fairytale change

Whenever a student leaves campus, travels across an ocean and lands in a foreign country, change is inevitable. But for one JMU senior, that change ended with a wholly unexpected honor. JMU Communications intern Emily Tait (’15) tells the story of her classmate, Kate Landes (’15)…..

“Praktikum in Deutschland”

By Emily Tait (’15)

landes-titelbild BergstadtfestThe Study Abroad program at JMU is one of the university’s many positive attributes. With semesters offered anywhere from Australia ranging across all of Europe, students have the opportunity to experience education in all corners of the world. Through complete immersion in a foreign way of life, JMU students are able to grow not just intellectually, but also emotionally and culturally. Study Abroad creates opportunities of a lifetime that are often many students’ favorite memories from their time at JMU.

Kate Landes (’15) was able to have a firsthand encounter of Study Abroad through JMU’s Germany Music program. Although this program has been running for 12 years, Landes was the first music industry major to embark on this trip to Germany. While there, she participated in an internship with the administration in the Middle-Saxony Opera House in Freiberg.

During her time abroad, Landes mainly worked with the production crew of the Theater Freiberg and helped set up microphones, amps and soundboards for various shows, including the opera, Die Zigeunerbaron. In addition to this, Landes attended rehearsals with the prestigious Bergmusikkorps Saxonia Freiberg, a local community band, and played her French horn alongside them at one of Freiberg’s festivals, the Bergstadfest.

One of the traditions of the festival is to hold a parade in the streets of Freiberg that ends with a ceremony and concert in the Obermarkt, which is the “upper market.” Landes was asked to march in this parade with the Bergmusikkorps Saxonia Freiberg, and — little did she know — it would end with her reception of one of the greatest honors from the city.

Becoming an honorary citizen of Freiberg

Becoming an honorary citizen of Freiberg

“The director, Roland Achtziger, made an announcement in front of all these people stating that the Bergmusikkorps Saxonia Freiberg has a very special guest this year — an international student from America. Suddenly, I became red in the face and tears filled my eyes as I stepped forward on stage in front of thousands of people. The next thing I knew, they were conducting a traditional ceremony for me known as the ‘Arschledersprung.’ [At the end of the ceremony] I was given some gifts and a certificate that I had completed the ‘Arschledersprung’ and was now an honorary [citizen] of Freiberg.”

Having had a taste of true German culture, Landes’ experience abroad was one that is truly irreplaceable. She pioneered the Germany Music program for future music industry majors at JMU, and certainly left a lasting, positive impact on the city of Freiberg.

“I worked so incredibly hard every single day and got an amazing experience from all the aspects of an opera house. No words can correctly describe how I feel about my internship in Freiberg. It was truly a fairytale.”

Change that reverberates

George ('79) and Sam ('15) Harrison in front of Keezell Hall. (Photo by Katie Landes, JMU photography services)

George (’79) and Sam (’15) Harrison in front of Keezell Hall on JMU’s campus. (Photo by Katie Landes, JMU photography services)

When Sam Harrison graduates from JMU next year with a degree in computer science and a minor in math, he’ll have his parents to thank, his professors, probably his friends, and one man he’s never met — but if it weren’t for that man there might not be a James Madison University.

And there might not be a Sam Harrison.

The man Sam never met, Sen. George B. Keezell, is legendary in the annals of the university. Determined to have the Commonwealth of Virginia plant a new school in Harrisonburg early in the 20th century, the politically adept senator from Rockingham County plied some legislative maneuvers to persuade the Virginia’s General Assembly to bring a new Normal School to the city. As a result of the senator’s determination, Virginia’s newest Normal School, the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Harrisonburg — now JMU — came to be in 1908.

A grandfatherly figure who towered above most of his contemporaries at 6 feet 6 inches tall, Sen. Keezell was “a sincere advocate of education for women,” wrote JMU historian Raymond Dingledine in his book, Madison College: The First Fifty Years. It didn’t hurt that Keezell was also the ranking member of the Committee on Public Institutions and Education and chairman of the Finance Committee. As chairman of yet another special committee, the senator also helped negotiate for the land on which the campus would be built.

In 1958, 17 years after the senator’s death, Madison College celebrated its golden anniversary. At the time, the college presented a tribute to Sen. Keezell, deeming him to be the “father of the institution.”

Sen. George B. Keezell

Sen. George B. Keezell

Born in 1854, George B. Keezell came from a family that valued education, so it’s not hard to understand why bringing a new school to the valley was a top priority for him. According to biographer Lyon Gardiner Tyler in Vol. III of the Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography: “He utilized every spare moment to read history and biography, and standard literature of all kinds, and this supplemented the educational training he acquired at a collegiate institute in Baltimore, Maryland.”

Many of the senator’s children and grandchildren would seek higher education as well, including his son Rembrandt who was valedictorian of the class of 1914 at  Virginia Military Institute, and his granddaughters, Rennie Keezell Harrison, a 1945 graduate of the College of Williams and Mary, and her sister Narice. Narice Keezell Bowman, who lives in Midlothian, Va., is a 1947 education graduate of Madison College. She was, perhaps, the first person close to the senator to benefit directly from her grandfather’s efforts.

The legacy didn’t end there. Senator Keezell’s great grandsons also graduated from JMU — George Harrison, a 1979 political science graduate, and Bill Harrison, a 1978 history graduate. Bill later earned an M.A. in history from the University of Virginia.  Today, George is a banker in Richmond, Va. Sadly, Bill, a successful real estate professional, died in 2009.

The Keezell Building in downtown Harrisonburg

The Keezell Building in downtown Harrisonburg

The Keezell legacy is significant, especially in Virginia education, and it is built on a penchant for community involvement. George Harrison remembers growing up in Harrisonburg and learning a strong work ethic from his grandmother,  Meta Keezell who owned and managed the Keezell Building in downtown Harrisonburg after her husband Rembrandt returned from service as a Captain in the U.S. Army in France during World War I. Meta Keezell was also active in the American Legion Auxiliary and the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation. Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record,* which Senator Keezell owned until 1923 when he sold it to fellow senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr, operated out of the Keezell Building from 1907 to 1941. The building still stands on the corner of Newman and Main Steet in the heart of Harrisonburg. It was added to the National Register of Historic Property in 2007.

Interestingly, the newspaper’s link to the early days of the university, is even closer. Not only did the newspaper play an important role in promoting Harrisonburg as the new school’s ideal location, according to Dingledine, the first office of the first president, Julian A. Burruss, was located in the Keezell building in the offices of the News-Register. In fact, he shared the editor’s office when he first came to town.

And then there is Sam Harrison. The good senator was Sam’s great, great grandfather. So when Sam Harrison graduates next spring as a member of JMU’s Class of 2015, it will mark the fifth generation of Sen. Keezell’s family to benefit from the institution he promoted more than a century ago.

For the extended Keezell family, this reverberating change is personal, but for more than 100,000 graduates of JMU — and the next 100,000, yet to enroll — it is an opportunity second to none.

Thanks to George and Sam Harrison and to Daily-News Record editor Peter Yates for their help in gathering information for this story.

*Originally the Rockingham County Record, through mergers and name changes, the paper became the Daily-News Record.

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!

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