Finding heart in tragedy

The first phone call stunned me. A horrific accident. Three people dead. A fourth badly injured. Friends. The deaths left the small community of Keezletown reeling.

Anyone who had played in a local middle- or high-school band knew Martha and Gary Dovel. The couple owned and ran Shen-Valley Band Instrument Service in Harrisonburg, supplying and servicing trumpets, saxophones, flutes, trombones, drum sticks (hundreds of drum sticks!) and band music to thousands of students throughout the Shenandoah Valley.

Gary was quiet, with a shy smile. He was also the best at what he did. Whenever a valve stuck on a trumpet or a trombone slide was dropped and bent, Gary could fix it. Martha, always smiling, served her community not only through the band shop, but in countless other ways. She was one of those “go to” people. The PTA, the baseball teams that her son Scott played on, high school teams, all enjoyed Martha’s enthusiasm. Still, her greatest accomplishment and her greatest joy was her children Eric, Julie, and Scott. I can still hear my friend Martha’s voice as we chatted about our sons. She called her youngest “Scottie,” and she was always smiling when she talked about him. He was bright and enthusiastic and energetic.

Now Scott was hurting in ways that the rest of us could only imagine. As we all gathered to say our final goodbyes to Martha and Gary Dovel and to young Brielle Nelson, Scott’s girlfriend, we all said a prayer for the full recovery of the only survivor, Scott, who was scheduled to join JMU’s freshman class in only weeks. Would he, though?

The second phone call came out of the blue. To this day I don’t remember who called or even from what office, but  I will never ever forget the words: “We are trying to find out where Scott is staying. We want to help any way we can.”

I was amazed that an institution as big as JMU would care so much for one student to make the effort to track down Scott’s caregiver following the accident. Scott Dovel was one of thousands. And many students have needs — still JMU was calling. “We want to help,” the woman on the other end of the line said.

Scott’s recovery was long and painful, but he recovered. And with a courage that few are called on to muster, Scott enrolled that year at JMU, his mother’s alma mater, bandaged, hurting yet resolved. This month, Scott Dovel was eligible to graduate with his class after a courageous and successful battle to recover and  thrive that is a credit to Scott — and to his parents and their influence on his life.

I communicated with Scott shortly before graduation and he told me that, although he was ready to graduate, he had requested to wait until May to walk. “So that I can walk with my friends ……,” he wrote.

Somewhere deep in James Madison University there is an extraordinary heart — one that is unlike any other college or university that I know. A very wise teacher once shared with me her favorite saying. “Children,” she said, “are not things to be molded, but people to be unfolded.” In the same way, JMU looks at its own students. If I were to paraphase, I’d say, “JMU students are not numbers to be processed, but individuals to be unfolded.”

JMU often talks about its commitment to student success. It is so much more than a slogan or a nice catch phrase. Here it is genuine — as genuine as the clear note of a well-tuned trumpet.

Scott Dovel’s story taught me that.

To learn more about the heart of JMU, read about Madison Forever at
You can also learn more about Shen-Valley Band Instrument Service, now owned and run by the Dovel children and still serving the local community.

The heart with Wilson Hall’s cupola was created by JMU graphic designer Lynda Ramsey.


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....

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: