Biking for change

11707408_10206469400709164_8398608759566348462_nThree JMU Dukes participated in a cross-country bike ride to raise funds and awareness for the Ulman Cancer Fund. Today JMU communications intern Rachel Petty (’17) tells their story…..

Biking for Change

By Rachel Petty (’17)

Tornadoes, blown out tires and skinned knees didn’t stop three JMU Dukes from biking over 4000 miles from Baltimore to Portland, Oregon, as part of the Ulman Cancer Fund’s 4K for Cancer program.

Lizzy Powell, a 2015 alumna, along with Hannah Kotarski (’16) and Jessie Axsom (’16), both current seniors, departed for their 70-day journey on May 31 from the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. The girls each had their own motives for going, but their collective perseverance and compassion — two of 4K for Cancer’s core values — guided them through this trek across the United States.

Hannah, Lizzy, and Jessie along the road during their 4,000 mile journey

Hannah, Lizzy, and Jessie along the road during their 4,000 mile journey

“I’m biking across the country this summer to convey this sense of community to those currently battling cancer,” Lizzy said before her ride. “I want to bring hope to all the different people we meet, share their stories and ride in their honor.” The Ulman Cancer Fund’s main goal is to create a community of support for young adults and their loved ones as they fight cancer and embrace survivorship.

Too many young adults are diagnosed with cancer and may feel lost, isolated or hopeless. “Those affected whether the patient, family member, or friend, should not have to go through the challenge alone,” Hannah said.

Through visiting hospitals, taking part in community events and giving awareness presentations, the girls provided a shoulder to lean on for many cancer patients.

“I, as well as most of my peers, have had friends, family, and teammates whose lives have been destroyed by cancer,” Jessie shared. “In the wake of this destruction, however, I have also witnessed incredible examples of hope, strength, faith and bravery.”

The continuous growth of that hope and bravery is vital in a support network. While facing challenges of their own, the girls were able to foster that growth and truly make a difference in the lives of young adults and other cancer patients across the country.

The girls began their typical days at about 4 a.m. and shared the names of the people who their rides would be dedicated to that day. The names of those people guided them through whatever hardships they would face that day, including darkness, rain and brutally cold temperatures.

visiting_cancer_patient“These kids truly endured many trials and challenges on this trip,” said Theresa Garrison, Lizzy’s aunt and a JMU employee. “Bike wrecks, broken bikes, skinned knees, saddle sores, exhaustion, nowhere to sleep, no food, no shower, lightening, pouring rain and uphill uphill uphill climbs – these are just a few of the challenges they had to deal with.” There was even a day that the group could not bike into Des Moines, Iowa, since tornados and hail were in the area.

In addition to the difficulties they faced, the girls also had some extremely satisfying moments. “On the flip side – there is the reward – visiting cancer patients, handing out scholarships to cancer patients, meeting many new people along the way, seeing the beautiful country and being part of a team,” Theresa adds.

When the girls rode into Washington Park in Portland, Oregon, to end their trip on August 8, they were overcome with emotions. “Although we were all excited to see our families waiting for us in Washington Park, none of us was ready for the trip to be over,” Jessie said. “I think if given the opportunity most of us would have chosen to keep biking. So it was a very weird mix of excitement and accomplishment, but also sadness and anxiety.”

The girls will recall the memories they made and the people they impacted for a lifetime. “One really cool aspect of our trip was that every time we would stop on the side of a road for a break or at a gas station to get coffee, strangers would ask who we were and what we were doing,” Hannah said. “After we told them our story, they had nothing but more questions and [wanted] to tell us about their own personal cancer stories. People would ask us to ride for their friends and family and would give us monetary donations to keep us going.”

Cancer may live on, but these three Dukes proved that it doesn’t have to take over a person’s life. “I wanted to inspire and help those facing this lifelong journey with cancer as we embarked on ours,” Lizzy said.

And that’s exactly what they did.

4kforcancer_JMU[2]“As one of my teammates said, when we dipped our tires in the Pacific together we knew we would never be the same,” Lizzy added. “The sights we saw and more importantly the people we met along the way were what made it the epic journey that it was.”

Rachel Petty (’17) is a junior Media Arts & Design major from Oakland, New Jersey. She is striving to become a journalist for either print or online media and is currently working as a Public Affairs Intern for JMU. In her free time, Rachel enjoys reading, writing, and traveling.


Finding a rational mind is hard

Sarah Bowles Stacy ('85M) calls it a "privilege" to serve her community's homeless.

Sarah Bowles Stacy (’85M) calls it a “privilege” to serve her community’s homeless.

For more than a year, I’ve been trying to get to one story about a friend with a heart of compassion for the homeless. I wanted to tell her story because she is living what it means to Be the Change. And she’s doing it by giving the best of who she is. She’s one of the smartest women I know — and talented. She’s moved a hospital — lock stock and barrel. She learned Italian when she and her family lived abroad during her husband’s military deployment  — that, after mastering Spanish. She did all this while raising two daughters and moving extensively. Sarah Bowles Stacy (’85M), a graduate of JMU’s Master of Public Administration program, left a corporate career to engage with her heart-call to serve her neighbors experiencing homelessness in 2010. Since then she has journeyed with an amazing team of advocates as they serve in the Resource Advocate Program and Winter Shelter at Springs Rescue Mission. She gets her daily inspiration and courage from amazing people who live, love and persevere in spite of facing mental illness, addiction and homelessness.

SRM, as it is called, is a faith-based mission that serves 27,000 families living below the poverty level in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado.

Recently, a blog post by Sarah popped up in my Facebook feed. The title was intriguing: Why don’t they just get a job? Have you ever wondered that? As I suspected, the answer is not simple. Sarah’s post, shared here with permission, will tell you why, and it will give you some insight into the complexities and challenges facing the homeless among us.

Why don’t they just get a job?

by Sarah Stacy (’85M)

20150203_gc_0212The annual census of people experiencing homelessness in our area has just been released, and the numbers are sobering. One cold night in January 2015 there were 243 people who slept outside. 243 people had no roof over their heads in spite of our community’s 200 emergency shelter beds. Every bed was full on that one cold night in January. That same night, a total of over 1000 people reported being homeless in El Paso County – they had no fixed place to live.

For many of you, that begs the question, “Why don’t they just get a job?” A job would change everything. Yes, a good job would change everything, but the journey to a job is a long one with lots of obstacles for my neighbors who are living outside.

You see, to get a job a person needs to be in their right mind. A rational mind that can interact appropriately, that can make sound decisions and that has the ability to learn new skills. The trouble is, finding a rational mind in the homeless camps is a hard thing to do. Survival and crisis activities move the function of the brain literally from the rational part to another part where everything becomes reactive so that they can simply stay alive.

How Survivor Mentality Affects Behavior

There are different theories to the science about how a brain functions, but most experts agree that our brains work very differently in crisis than they do in rational-thought mode. And that “survival mentality” really creates a physical difference in the function of the brain.
Matt Bennett of Coldspring Center writes in a recent blog post:

“Existing in highly stressful or traumatic settings, energy is directed towards survival reactions and not strategic thinking. This furthers the damage that traumatic stress and addiction cause on the biological functioning of the brain.”

In other words, we can get stuck in a crisis thought pattern, not operating under the rational thinking part of our brain. But all is not lost. Bennet goes on to describe the role of the Mentor, who dives into the darkness to help a fellow human emerge into their “right mind.”

A Beacon In the Dark

20150203_gc_0960That is exactly what the Advocates at the Resource Advocate Program do. They dive in, examine and sit with our guests in the midst of their trauma. They counsel and walk the journey with our friends who are living in the crisis of no housing. Willingly. They listen, they begin to understand, they grieve and they help develop a plan for the guest to emerge with right thinking. And sometimes, that journey leads to a fuller life. A sober life, with benefits and housing and possibly even the right job!

This month our friend “RS” got a part-time job and entered a program offered at the Pikes Peak Workforce Center that will further his career skills and education. Thanks to that program, he will be starting college next month. With frequent illness and the frustrations of living on the street, those things were not easy to accomplish. RS would literally have been unable to complete all the steps without the patient assistance of a compassionate Advocate.

Get a job? So much easier said than done when you live outside and your brain is stuck in survival or crisis mode. But the Advocates at RAP understand the challenges and are here to walk with our friends, connecting them to the resources that enable life transformation.

If you’d like to be a part of the team that makes this change possible for our homeless neighbors, please contact the Springs Rescue Mission Volunteer Coordinator and register for our next volunteer orientation.

To learn more about the Springs Rescue Mission, visit their website here:  (And don’t miss the Stories of Hope!)
You can also learn much more about the complicated and often heartbreaking issues of homelessness on SRMs’ blog  here:
(Photos courtesy of Springs Rescue Mission)


The gift that Nasaruni brings

In the second blog post about JMU’s involvement with the Nasaruni Academy for Maasai Girls, a professor looks at the impact of an international collaboration. (To read part one, click here.) 

How working with Nasaruni and Moses Sayo has impacted JMU students … and me as a professor

By Dr. Michelle Cude, associate professor of middle, secondary and mathematics education at JMU and executive director of the Nasaruni Academy for Maasai Girls

True education, according to Paulo Freire, teaches us to “deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”* Participating in transforming the world is precisely the call for the social studies education students in my methods classes. Nasaruni Academy for Maasai Girls gives us the opportunity to make that a reality.

Michelle Cude and students of the Nasaruni Academy for Maasai Girls

Michelle Cude and students of the Nasaruni Academy for Maasai Girls

Future social studies educators need to develop a global mindset which includes more than just a wider view of the world map. It involves active engagement with those who live on the other side of the globe and have far fewer opportunities than we do here in America. I call on my students to embrace the calling of globalizing their profession, and being the change they want to see in the world. . . something we hear a lot about here at JMU, but don’t always know what to do about it.

Specifically, JMU’s Future Social Studies Educators (FSSE), a student organization on campus to which many of these students belong, has adopted Nasaruni Academy as one of its official philanthropies. The officers, especially, work on T-shirt sales and other fundraising events to raise both money for the school and awareness of the need for girls’ education internationally. The latter is particularly near to the heart of some who help sponsor the “Girl Rising” film showings at Grafton-Stovall Theatre. This film, a production of Ten Times Ten and other partners, highlights the stories of girls in several international settings who struggle to gain even a small chance of an education. For JMU students (often a packed theater full), this is a truly eye-opening look outside of the JMU bubble in a dramatic way. Those who attend the film and want to help make education possible in one small Maasai community in Kenya often donate to our cause. These funds have helped to buy windows for the new classroom, as well as new desks.

Michelle Cude with colleagues, including Bishop Moses Sayo (far left) and Alice Sayo (far right)

Michelle Cude with colleagues, including Bishop Moses Sayo (far left) and Alice Sayo (far right)

Students in MSSE 470: Methods of Teaching Social Studies soon find out that this is not the normal class where you sit and take notes on lectures. Instead, I engage my students in active ways both in the local community through Skyline Literacy citizenship training and through the global impact of Nasaruni Academy. Moses Sayo came as a guest speaker to my methods class this past semester. He was able to personally open the students’ eyes to the harsh realities Maasai girls face for their bleak future without education and hope. Students then engaged with me in deep discussion about the ethical side to working for transformation in a culture so far from their own. While this struck many as invasive, Moses himself was able to assure them of the positive impact and benefit for his people. This is truly a Maasai initiative, not our idea to change them, thus giving firmly positive ethical foundations for this work. Such conversations of the role of ethics in education deepen the experience of JMU students pursuing this career.

Hopefully in the not-too-far distant future, I’ll be able to take some students there to experience the deep desire to learn, the intoxicating smiles and joy of the children, and the powerful transformative feeling of being a part of something truly making a global difference. This is the gift that Nasaruni brings to my students and to me, as a professor – the opportunity to live out the calling to Be the Change.

kenya 1 275To learn more about the Nasaruni Academy for Maasai Girls, visit their website:

To learn more about JMU’s College of Education, visit:


*Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970, by Paulo Freire

All photos courtesy of Michelle Cude


Sayo’s hope for better lives

While James Madison University is located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, a world away from some of the world’s challenges, the impact of JMU is hardly isolated. In our next two blog posts, JMU staff writer Janet Smith (’81) and Associate Professor of middle, secondary and mathematics education Michelle Cude illuminate what happens when the Madison spirit travels to distant lands and how such an intersection of cultures can bring positive change on both sides of the Atlantic…..

A dream, a haven, a reality

By Janet Smith (‘81)

kenya 1 088When Alice Sayo arrived at James Madison University in 2011 as an international exchange fellow, she quickly discovered she was among kindred spirits.

The public high-school principal found JMU’s Be the Change attitude in her College of Education faculty and student colleagues and soon felt comfortable sharing her dream for a new school in her hometown of Narok, Kenya, where the closest public school is about 6 kilometers away.

Only four years later, the Nasaruni Academy for Maasai Girls – Sayo’s hope for better lives – is a growing reality since its establishment in 2012 with 13 students.

Nasaruni, which means “haven” in the Maasai language, is just that for 50 girls enrolled in grades K-3 of the day school. With four teachers plus a volunteer student teacher on staff, the girls are learning English, Swahili, social studies, math, geography and sciences in the standard curriculum required by the Kenyan government.

The academy is their haven from a future without education that usually results in a lifetime of employment as babysitters or domestic workers or arranged marriages at ages 14 or 15, according to Alice Sayo’s husband, Bishop Moses Sayo, who visited JMU in the spring semester. He serves as assistant director of the academy led by his wife.

kenya smcam1 143“All along she had this dream,” Moses Sayo recalled. He related that his wife’s life did not follow the usual Maasai path after the death of her father. Her mother and an older brother wanted more for Alice, the 11th of 12 children, and made sure she graduated from high school in Kenya and went on to higher education.

During her International Leaders in Education fellowship at JMU, she was “inspired that anything is possible,” Moses said. And Alice had more than a dream in her quiver of resources. She had support, including monetary support, from her JMU friends. Members of the social studies methods class she was enrolled in at JMU raised money to help purchase 5 acres of land for the academy.

Alice’s dream spurred the members of Future Social Studies Educators at JMU to dream big and join her in making a real difference. FSSE exists so future social studies teachers can network with each other and the outside education community to better prepare for teaching.

The organization, with Dr. Michelle Cude, associate professor of middle, secondary and mathematics education, as faculty advisor, views Nasaruni Academy as its main charity.

Alice and Moses Sayo

Alice Sayo and Bishop Moses Sayo

Brandi St John, FSSE’s vice president of administration and service, said the organization’s sustained commitment to the school has led to the purchase of desks for the classroom and collection of toothbrushes and other personal supplies the girls may need. “Over the past year, we have exclusively been focusing on raising money for a dormitory so that the school can have more girls attend. We have also been in contact with H2O for Life and are working to have our school on their list of sites that people can fund to help build the girls a well for fresh water.”

Michele Cude and Alice Sayo

Michele Cude and Alice Sayo

St John, a history major who will complete her master of arts in teaching degree in 2016, sees supporting the Nasaruni Academy as important in her future role as a social studies teacher. “I chose to teach social studies because I want to help students see the global impact that each of us can make on any given day.”

Her involvement with FSSE and the academy has given St John a clearer, more specific illustration of the educational plight of girls internationally. “We all know that in other parts of the world women do not get a chance to be educated, but until you know of a particular group and spend time learning and helping those girls, you don’t think much of it and after a while they become an afterthought. The Nasaruni Academy has truly show me what it is like to fight for an education and how hard it is to gain that education.”

kenya smcam1 064

“I hope to bring everything that I have learned and the experiences I have gained from my work with the Nasaruni Academy, Dr. Cude and Bishop Sayo into my classroom and hopefully show my students what education and cultural values are like in other parts of the world and how they can each make an impact in other parts of the world from their desks in the United States.”

Moses Sayo, who is now back in Kenya, said while visiting JMU, “I am thrilled to realize we have like-minded people here at JMU. We are making connections to make things happen. I find great inspiration in that.”

kenya 1 238To learn more visit these websites:

Photographs courtesy of Michelle Cude

A meaningful life of change

When Ellen Childers of the Madison College Class of 1962 wrote us about her friend and classmate Betty Harrington Griffiths, we recognized, as did Ellen, that her late friend had lived a life of positive change. With information provided by Ellen, our summer intern, Max Hamilton, a student at the University of Virginia, wrote about Betty and her life, which beautifully reflected the university’s mission: “We are a community committed to preparing students to be educated and enlightened citizens who lead productive and meaningful lives.” Betty Griffiths certainly did…..

A meaningful life of change

by Max Hamilton

Bob and Betty Griffith

Bob and Betty Griffith

Even in the week prior to her death, environmental activist and James Madison University alumna Betty Harrington Griffiths showed how one individual can be a force for positive change.

A member of the graduating class of 1962, Betty passed away on Nov. 18, 2014, from pancreatic cancer. She was 74 years old.

When Betty  left Madison College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology, she moved to California with her husband, Bob, whom she married in 1965. She worked as a secretary at Stanford University while her husband pursued his master’s degree. Three years later, the couple moved to Corvallis, Oregon, home of Oregon State University, where Betty earned her own master’s degree — one in counseling.

For more than 25 years, Betty worked in human and mental health services, spending most of her career in that field as Linn County’s director of alcohol and drug treatment. It was the kind of department that few county governments are able to sustain, but Betty’s did — and its the survival, Betty’s colleague, Tony Howell, attributes to her dedication. She also volunteered for several related organizations in Corvallis: Community Outreach, Corvallis Community Day Care, Corvallis Neighborhood Housing Services and other organizations geared toward assisting low-income community members.

In 1992, Betty won a seat on the Corvallis City Council. She served continuously until 2006, holding the positions of president and vice president at certain points in her tenure. As a council member, Betty, a passionate outdoors person, championed sustainable development and planning, green spaces and funding for parks while continuing to protect the interests of low-income members of her community.

Betty’s legacy of sustainable development activism extended past her years on the city council. She was a co-founder and board member of the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition and a board member and board president of the Greenbelt Land Trust, also based in Corvallis. During her time on the board of the latter organization, Betty oversaw the organization’s expansion into three neighboring counties, national land trust accreditation and acquisition of Bald Hill Farm, a sustainably-operated farm. Betty — already in her 70’s — maintained an active administrative role in both organizations despite her battle with cancer, arriving at meetings, planning and sending out emails up to just a few days before her death.

Betty was widely admired by many, and as a tribute to her life, eleven of her sorority sisters from the class of 1962 and JMU’s Alpha Sigma Alpha chapter have dedicated a bench in Corvallis Park in her honor. As Ellen Childers, wrote: “Even though ‘Be the Change’ was not a motto when we were in college, Betty is an exemplary example of ‘Be the Change’.”

Editor’s note: Information provided by Ellen included articles that appeared in the Corvallis Gazette-Times.

The power of a mentor

“What do you want to get out of our time?”

by Brad Jenkins (’99)

Stephen and I had been meeting for a couple weeks, and it looked like we were settling into a familiar routine: lunch at Market One on campus (our usual: burgers and fries) and small talk about life at JMU — his as a student and mine overseeing the student newspaper and teaching.

ThinkstockPhotos-462259013“So, what do you want to get out of our time together?” I asked. It’s a question I routinely ask the students I mentor through JMU’s Civic Learning Mentoring Program, which is run through the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices. The goal of the weekly meetings, held for eight to 15 weeks, is to give students who have violated a university policy the chance to be mentored and think through their mission and goals.

The program, begun in the mid-1990s, has grown over the years so that at least 50 students are being mentored at any given time, says RJ Ohgren, who coordinates it. The program, which represents about 7 percent of all violation sanctions, has a pool of nearly 100 trained faculty and staff mentors to call on.

Usually, students greet my question with a stare or a “Let me think about that and I’ll let you know.” The next week, I’ll ask again, and the response is similar.

Stephen was different.

“I’d like to do something,” he told me, “accomplish something.” He had a couple ideas: Maybe we could learn something together or work on a project.

Stephen’s early reception to being mentored surprised me, given where he’d been when he started meeting with me in the fall of 2012. Already, he had spent a semester suspended from JMU and attending a community college near his hometown after violating alcohol policies for a third time. The Civic Learning program was his last chance to get through his final year and graduate in May.

It took a while for us to figure out what our “project” would be. As fall turned into winter and Stephen started thinking about graduation, we continued having lunch and I kept listening. Meanwhile, Stephen was trying to figure out to do with the communications degree he was about to get.

One day over lunch, Stephen casually told me how he had recently helped some of his friends settle an argument.

“Doesn’t conflict bother you?” I asked, adding that I dreaded it.

No, he told me, adding that he actually enjoyed helping people figure out how to solve disagreements.

“Have you ever heard of the mediation center?” I asked.

He hadn’t, so later that week I sent Stephen some information on Harrisonburg’s Fairfield Center, a mediation group that was looking for interns. It could be a place to test out whether mediation fit him. He eventually got the internship, working about 30 hours a week during the spring semester.

Given the academic, emotional, relational and career challenges that come with being in college these days, there’s a lot to mine, but finding these gold nuggets takes a good amount of listening. Students in the program are often at a crossroads, even if they won’t admit it, which is often be the case.

Another guy I mentored, Robby (I’ve changed his name*), came to me unhappy about having to be mentored. He told me up front he wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. Week after week, as we engaged in small talk over coffee, I wondered if I was making a difference.

But I kept on listening, and almost at the end of our dozen weeks together, Robby met me with sagging eyes and a solemn expression. After spending much of the semester working to make it into a fraternity he really wanted to be part of, he had found out the night before he did not make the cut.

The disappointment had crushed him, and the only way he knew how to deal with the pain was to plan for a night of drinking during the coming weekend.

Several times, I told Robby I was sorry he didn’t get in, and sorry he felt so hurt. I shared with him several major disappointments I had faced, including a recent freelancing job I loved and then lost. “It stinks,” I told him. There was no glossing over it: Disappointment is painful.

But then I challenged him: “This is an opportunity,” I said, “to figure out a way to deal with your disappointment. You can numb it with alcohol this weekend, but after you sober up, the disappointment will still be there.”

I wish the next part of the story was Robby’s telling me he found a new way to deal with pain. He didn’t, not this time, anyway. I see mentoring as seed-planting, though. Maybe that advice didn’t sprout fruit now. Maybe later, though.

I don’t often see the long-term effects of mentoring. After they’ve finished their required weeks with me, the guys I mentor are glad to be done, and I only hear from them again through a reflection paper they write. That’s usually it.

I expected the same thing with Stephen. It had been nearly two years since he graduated when a friend heard about my time volunteering as a mentor and asked if I’d write about it. I sent Stephen an e-mail asking if he still had his reflection paper. Somehow, I had misplaced it.

A day later, he wrote back and attached the paper, and I chuckled again as I read his description of me: “a kick-ass mentor.” That was a new superlative, but one I am proud to own.

Stephen also suggested we have lunch sometime. So a couple weeks later, as the spring semester was winding down, he drove from Northern Virginia and we met for pizza.

Stephen was the same confident, outgoing person I remembered, but he had matured and become less arrogant than when I had seen him as a student, something he’d later confirm.

“I’m getting married!” he announced as we sat down at our booth, then flipped through some photos on his phone before getting to his engagement photo.

Stephen has had several jobs since graduation, all of them in sales, and each one has led to the next. But that first job, right out of college? The interviewer noticed Stephen had worked in a mediation center, and it was the clincher.

I couldn’t help but remind Stephen that I had told him about the mediation center during our Civic Learning days. He hadn’t forgotten.

After about 90 minutes catching up over lunch, Stephen headed home and I went back to my office.

A few days later, I had another appointment with Robby. We drank coffee. He talked. Thinking back to my pizza lunch with Stephen, I couldn’t help but hope.


To learn more about the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices, visit their website:


Brad Jenkins (’99) is the general manager of The Breeze, the twice-weekly student newspaper at JMU. In that role, he oversees operations of the print newspaper, a news website, a lifestyles magazine and an annual magazine guide to JMU. He also is an adjunct instructor in the School of Media Arts and Design, where he teaches feature writing and feature-magazine production. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in JMU’s College Student Personnel Administration program, a decision that was inspired in part by his experience as a mentor.


* Editor’s note: The student named Stephen in this story has given his permission for his first name to be used. The other student, Robby, is a pseudonym.

Snapping change

The Madison of 1972 was a very different place than the Madison of today. During the 1970s, the public perception of the college began a dramatic transformation. One of the players in that tectonic shift was photographer Tommy Thompson. His photography helped the public understand that the Madison of old was shedding its identity as a teachers college for women and becoming a vibrant and exciting co-educational university. Tommy retired this year, but thousands of his images remain, along with the influence on many students he mentored over the years. Kayla Marsh (’16) takes a look back over a career defined by change.

A picture of change

by Kayla Marsh (’16)  

It was a dark year for Tommy Thompson. It was 1972, and Thompson had just taken over as the director of JMU’s photography department.  Processing photos in Thompson’s first year as the university’s photographer took place in the cold and dreadful “worm room.”  Sharing the Burruss Hall attic with another professor who was raising planaria — small worms used by science students — made the upgrade six months later to a real office in Godwin Hall feel all the more worthwhile. While the chemicals from working in the “worm room” stained Thompson’s fingernails and most of his clothing, nothing could stop his passion for photography at JMU.

“I did it all. I did sports and academic work. I enjoyed being a photographer. It was a neat time,” Thompson said in his gentle, southern accent.

(Photo of Tommy Thompson  courtesy of The Breeze)

(Photo of Tommy Thompson courtesy of The Breeze)

More than four decades later, Thompson is still at JMU, but just for a few more weeks. Although he retired from his job as a university photographer in 2000, he continued his work as an adjunct instructor in the School of Media Arts and Design, where he has taught photojournalism since 1975.

“I’ve always looked at students not as students, but as young photographers wanting to learn, and if I could trip a light on one out of the 18 [students I teach each semester] I thought I was doing pretty good,” Thompson said.

Thompson has seen numerous students become success stories. One former student, Maryland’s Portrait Photographer of the Year for four consecutive years and Kodak Gallery Award winner, Sandra Paetow, started out looking for federal work study that involved typing in 1976. Thompson’s department had one of the only jobs left.

“Well, you have to take pictures if you’re going to work for me,” Thompson said to Paetow while introducing her to the capital-letters-only typewriter.

Another Tommy Thompson success story happened in in 2004 — when Thompson mentored a student named Casey Templeton. Templeton, now 31, is a commercial advertising photographer based in Richmond, Va., where he works for himself. Though Thompson was no longer working for the JMU photography department after 2000, he still visited the department, where he met Templeton, who went on to become a nationally recognized collegiate photographer and also took photos for National Geographic and other major publications.

“He taught me to re-evaluate my standard of quality. He really pushed me to do better,” Templeton said.

He also taught the importance of maintaining quality relationships with clients. Thompson has built a platform in the School of Media Arts and Design and credibility for photography. He only teaches one class but takes it so seriously that it has raised the bar as far as how sought-after the class is among students. Thompson reminds students that they can always do better.

“I wouldn’t be where I was if it wasn’t for him. He’s continued to be a great asset for me, on my thinking, my industry and my work. He is the reason I am able to make a living doing this,” Templeton said.

SMAD professor George Johnson, who will take over teaching the photo class in the fall, has known Thompson since 1984 and has seen him work well with students.

“The photographers he’s had have just been phenomenal,” Johnson said. “The passion that the students had and the guidance that Tommy gave them is all it took to get them out there.”

Thompson’s own beginnings were humble. Out of high school, he wanted to be in the Navy but “didn’t like the bell-bottomed trousers,” and, at 5-foot-7, was too short, calling himself “the runt of the family.” After doing police reporting and surveillance photography, Thompson started working for Harrisonburg radio station WKCY as a newsman. Desperate for a new job, he worked for free starting out, but little by little began to get paid because of his quick ability to find stories, which led to a job at Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record. He would beat others to stories and get them on the Associated Press wire, which then distributed content to member newspapers.

The university hired Thompson four years after he started work at the Daily News-Record.

“I had a natural curiosity. Being in the news and having those credentials gets you into a lot of places. It was helpful to stay in the news business,” Thompson said.

When JMU hired him in 1972, he was part of then-JMU President Ronald Carrier’s plan to hire photographers and expand the public information staff. At first, Thompson was given six assignments but didn’t have a camera, equipment or a studio.

Just like he did with students, Thompson guided JMU, helping the university make the switch from film to digital photography. In the 1980s, with computers becoming essential to photography, Thompson kept pushing for new equipment to match the change in technology.

“I told the institution we were changing to digital, which didn’t go over well with artists who were used to putting things together by hand, the old way,” Thompson said.

And so the photography department said goodbye to the wet darkroom and brown skin from the chemicals that came with it.

While working at JMU, he worked for media companies such as United Press International, shooting photography in Western Virginia until the 1990s.

“There weren’t that many people around. I was good. I won a lot of awards—a variety at the time,” Thompson said.

Thompson has been able to bring his practical experience to the classroom, where he most recently has taught every Tuesday and Thursday at 2 p.m. Smiling in his gray polo and jeans, he’s approachable. He assigns his class a “read the background” project in which the CEO of a company may want his picture taken under a tree when it’s sunny. He draws a diagram of the lighting setup before sending them outside, and says, “Here’s the sun. You probably recognize it.”

He lists off every possible situation that could happen in a real-life scenario, but reassures them one thing that will always help them succeed.

“You have to use you intellect, which all of you have. Your creativity, which all of you have,” he tells them.

He takes his students on an assignment to practice what he taught. He looks up, waving to other students passing by the photo site, turns and says, “Now how’d y’all do?”

SMAD student Abigail Moore (’16) said Thompson’s class has helped her become more comfortable with the camera.

“He’s really passionate, so he is really into the class,” she said.  “He has a good sense of humor and pushes you to step out of your comfort zone.”

When Thompson retires from JMU, he will continue to take personal and commercial photographs and keep up with new technology. He plans to set up his quadcopter, which can take aerial photos, something he’s always wanted more time for.

“I have plenty to do, it’s just finding time to do it,” he said. “I love just doing my photography. It’s just been amazing to see how receptive these young people have been to my techniques.”

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 Author Kayla Marsh, a senior from Louisa, Va., is studying journalism in JMU’s School of Media Arts and Design. She is also a copy editor for the student newspaper, The Breeze. After she graduates next year, Kayla hopes to work as a reporter or producer at a news station or as an editor for a magazine. She is still deciding between print and broadcast but says: “I hope to figure that out within the next year!” 
Our thanks, once again, to Brad Jenkins, adjunct instructor in SMAD and adviser to The Breeze, for sharing this story with us. It first appeared in April 2015.


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