Change to the Nth degree

On the op/ed page of a recent Daily News-Record, two letters to the editor criticized JMU and its impact on Harrisonburg. It’s a tiresome complaint. Plenty of naysayers dislike the fact that JMU is a big presence in Harrisonburg. And it always gets me steamed. I’ve started writing posts about this before, but this morning as I thought about it, I realized there is one impact that Madison has on the area that no one can disparage.

I could mention, of course, the revenue and jobs generated by JMU in the community. It is very substantial. In 2009, the number was somewhere around $442 million. JMU is also one of the area’s largest job creators, not only as a direct employer but through ancillary services created as a result of the university’s presence. I could also mention the many arts and sports programs that provide a dizzying array of theater, dance, recitals, art shows, concerts, games and opportunities for culture, entertainment and sport. I could point out the hundreds of thousands of hours contributed by faculty, staff and students to community organizations and outreaches. All by itself, I could cite the dream of the late Vida Huber and the influence of her Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services. I could list the many graduates who have stayed in the area to establish new businesses, bringing yet more jobs to Harrisonburg. And then there are JMU’s facilities that host community concerts, swim meets, high-school graduations, home and garden shows, fundraising banquets and many more.

One impact, however, dwarfs the rest. And that is the impact JMU has on the community’s children through generation after generation after generation of talented educators.

What brought me to this conclusion was a random thought this morning about the late Robert Saum (’60,’68M). Mr. Saum was my chemistry and molecular biology teacher at Harrisonburg High School. Anyone who sat in his classroom will remember his over-the-top enthusiasm for science and students. He was one of the best teachers I ever had. Decades later, I can still tell you about the innards of a cat and how chemical compounds work together. I also learned many principles about life and learning. As a student who leaned heavily toward the arts, English and social sciences, I was no chemistry whiz. In fact, in Mr. Saum’s class, I repeated one experiment 10 times before I got it right. From that victory on, Mr. Saum always called me the “KCLO3 Kid.” I wore my nickname as a badge of honor — and pocketed a wonderful lesson in perseverance.

But as talented and committed as Mr. Saum was, he was not the only great Madison teacher who taught me. He was one of many. As I thought about Mr. Saum and the most influential teachers in my life, I realized that the majority were graduates of Madison. For me — and my own three Dukes — the list of influential Madison teachers is very, very, very long: Angela Reeke, Charles “Bill” Blair, Jackie Driver, Keith Holland, Robert Saum, Sue Haley, Henry Buhl, Katherine Seig, Linda and Bob Failes, Garney Darrin, Elizabeth Neatrour, Nancy Mast, Ginger Alliotti, Joyce Jellum, Phillip Heap, Judy Warren, Nancy Stewart, Brooks Marshall, Daphyne Thomas, Harold Logan, Elias Semaan, Anna Lyons Sullivan, C.B. Dix, Bob Scott, Mac Long …… I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.

While I was also not a math whiz (despite the best efforts of Anna Lyons Sullivan and Harold Logan) I do remember the principle of exponentials — and that’s what Mr. Saum, Mr. Buhl, Miss Sullivan and Mrs. Stewart represent. One teacher’s influence on a single student can be stunning.  But teachers times students times classes times schools times years times decades. That is astonishing influence.  If you stop to think about it, few institutions impact communities with change that is deeper, wider or more important than schools — and that changes communities, Harrisonburg included. Henry Brook Adams wrote, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

That’s change to the Nth degree.

Anyone who sat in Mr. Saum’s chemistry class at Harrisonburg High School knows the kind of teacher I am talking about. Everyone who learned from one of the thousands of Madison teachers who fanned out all over the city, the county and the state has their own list of teachers. Great teachers change students’ lives. Mine certainly did.

Years ago, I went to see one of them, one who truly changed my life. Katherine Sieg. I told her how much she had meant in my life. Miss Sieg is no longer with us, as Mr. Saum is no longer here, but I thanked them both, and I am glad I did.

So when I hear someone talking about JMU in a less than complimentary way, I ask, “Who was your child’s favorite teacher?”

That usually does the trick.

Read more about JMU’s College of Education here:

About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

2 Responses to Change to the Nth degree

  1. phillybricks says:

    Letters to the editor can be such varied sources of opinion. I think Harrisonburg has a love/hate relationship with JMU. The benefits of its presence – student teachers, jobs, stimulating the local economy – are supplemental. While residents yield these benefits everyday, they are not as glaringly evident as the annoyances of a large percentage of your overall population made up of college students. It’s a knee jerk reaction to complain about traffic and kids with Jersey plates who label locals “townies” because it’s in your face. But all one needs to do is go to one of hundreds of small towns in VA without a university to see what Harrisonburg would be without JMU.


  2. Tom DuVal says:

    Bravo, Martha! This should be in the DNR.

    I find it ironic that 100+ years ago the Harrisonburg community, virtually as a whole it seems, came out to celebrate the announcement that the Normal School was coming. Our forefathers and foremothers must have recognized some of the benefits that were to come – the economic ones and the supply of well-trained teachers, if nothing else.

    I wonder how many of the complainers have jobs that exist because JMU is here….


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