Kings and paupers


Last May, John Thomas MacKenzie Rowe (’12), known to his friends as Mac Rowe, graduated from JMU with a degree in media arts and design, a minor in film studies, and a musician’s dream. He headed north to the Big Apple. Since then, he’s learned a lot about the roots and the cost of change. Now a solid New Yorker, he shares an honest and gritty perspective on change and what really happens when you pass through ….

Everyone’s story

by Mac Rowe (’12)

I stepped off the train in New York City unknown and unnamed.  Just a kid with a guitar, some harmonicas, and a lot to say.  You hear about these sorts of things in books and movies, but it was time to create my own life, to carve a place out of the steel and stone of the city for a story that I thought, and still think, is everyone’s story. I have lived in the capital of the world now since June 11, 2012, and I have only left once. It is certainly different here, especially from the pace and mentality of James Madison University in the beautifully sleepy Harrisonburg. The city can be hard and not for everyone, and I’m not even sure it was really for me, but I have since made it mine.

MacRoweJMU surely preaches a great deal about change and how each and every student can be a change in whatever they do. I know there are many that at first disregard this notion — they shake off the idea that they could ever do anything that has not been done before.  However, JMU never does keep the cynics or insecure for long.  These doubts are only minor delusions that can swiftly be quelled by the excellent faculty and services provided in and out of the classroom.  Sure, there have been countless changes made in the past, but we do not possess the foresight to fathom what we are capable of.  If we did, there would be no reason to even be educated.

Thus, in order to change anything, we must first be changed. So I ask you why you came to college in the first place. Was it to pursue a certain field about which you are passionate? Was it because due to American social norms, the general consensus for 18-year-olds is to pursue higher education? Did you come to party? Did you come to find love? Did you come to challenge yourself because no one else in your family ever pursued higher education? Did you come simply to make a better life for yourself and your loved ones? Whatever it was you came for really does not matter. What matters is that your expectations for how you will learn and essentially live will be not only exceeded but also entirely different after four years, or however long you attend.

I’ve seen a lot of things in New York City. With a population of over eight million and just a few hundred square miles of land, you’re bound to see something. I have seen and lived in a city that is simultaneously thriving and dying. There are golden kings, and filthy paupers. What I have seen is a place in dire need of reform and change.  Of course New York is a well-oiled machine that works all the time, but there are many pieces that have fallen through the cracks. I have met lifelong friends and also countless ideological enemies. Just like any new place, there is always a learning curve and an adaption phase. But I think what I have learned at JMU that has helped me stay alive here.

When I speak of the education I received at JMU, I’m not talking about the tests, the papers, how much I could eat at D-Hall, or all the loves and losses I endured. I’m talking about that stuff between the lines of this page. I’m talking about the blood shed with my friends and fellow students I never knew, the memories branded straight onto my brain, the tears, the hate, the joy, the triumph, and the eventual moving on from all of that. When I say that in order to change anything, you first must be changed, all these ideas mentioned are the catalysts to your change. And I know you know exactly what I’m talking about.  You may have never put them into words or feel it unnecessary to speak of all which molds you.  But I can tell you for certain, we are given a short amount of time and why would you ever waste all that has molded you? Why would you make for naught all that has led up to this point? Why would you choose to make life more difficult for your children and their children? I assure you that many have bled for you by taking hold of the great mystery of existence. Their change that they fought for was and is now your change. So, take hold of those messages you are ever decoding through perception. Own them. Suffer. Learn. Change.

What I intend to do in New York is give a voice to the voiceless as a musician. What you intend to do wherever you end up is completely up to you. But be with me in this fight — suffer, bleed, and live with me so that we may change our worlds around us, but also the entire world itself. It can be done. You’ve seen it in all the books, movies, and anything that ever influenced you enough to make the hair stand on the back of your neck.

I’m not imploring anyone to move to a huge city and have a borderline crazy mission. What I am imploring you to do is to take what you’re given and give it back tenfold – all of it.  JMU is changing you whether you like it or not. And you will change things around you whether you like it or not. So stay hungry, keep fighting, and know deep within yourself there is no one too small to forge some of the greatest change this world has ever seen.

You can catch up with Mac on Facebook, Vimeo or LinkedIn.

The gift from September 11

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...

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The sky was an exquisite shade of blue that morning. Nothing hinted at the immediate future — or the malevolence that had taken flight. In the city, New Yorkers boarded subway trains, sipped on cups of coffee and greeted colleagues. In Harrisonburg, students shuffled toward their 9 o’clocks. It was a beautiful day.

Until 8:46.

The news came in pieces. One student in Godwin Hall’s computer lab heard classes were canceled. Something had happened. As a friend drove her home in his convertible, she reveled in the gorgeous day. “I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until I saw my roommates. They were stone-faced. One said, ‘We can’t get in touch with Katie’s dad.’ That was the hard part. All the phones were down.”

Everyone was glued to a television screen somewhere, in offices, homes and residence halls. We were the reluctant audience to a tragedy. Everywhere a collective gasp rose as disbelief gave way to reality. The World Trade Towers were crumbling. Then the Pentagon. And a plane went down in rural Pennsylvania.

We had touched tragedy before, or at least brushed by it, but this felt different. This was aimed at America, and it had penetrated deep into our collective American heart. Together we shuddered at the sights and sounds. On campus, President Rose received the chilling message: “He, I feel, is lost and probably not to be found.” Everywhere students craved information about parents, siblings, friends who they knew were too close to the fire. In the end, we would learn the JMU community had lost four of its own.

We all floated in a state of disbelief, like the moment when a roller coaster peaks and then propelled by a reality as powerful as gravity, we plummeted. We were breathless, lightheaded, as we descended into tragedy. As a nation, we recoiled.

And then we reacted.

I, like most mothers, took stock of my children. I drove to pick up my middle-schooler. I’m not sure why, but it felt like the right thing to do. I have often thought of the mothers and fathers, the wives and husbands, the children who had said goodbye at breakfast that morning. What did they do? Students reached out to each other. The world was suddenly insecure. With every step we took, we were searching for normalcy, for explanation, but none came. There was no reason.

Today’s college students were only 8 to 11 years old that fateful day. They watched the tragedy through children’s eyes, but the vision still stung. Scott Dyer (’12) remembers: “I was homeschooled that year and watched it all happen. My sister’s friend died on the plane in Pennsylvania. When you are that age you can remember it all, but you can’t do anything about it.” Anthony Baracat (’13) was in Disney World: “My dad was at a conference. There were a lot of pilots attending and I remember seeing them all cry. I was very concerned for my family’s safety. I wanted to take a self-defense class.”

The next day was Mary Marks (’12) birthday. “School was canceled, but wherever we went people were crying and sad. I did not understand the significance. I was very confused. The attack made me more aware of the world and how much power the U.S. has and how many enemies we have.” Josh Thoemke (’12) says, “I remember staring at the blue sky all day long and being afraid of it. It made me feel less invincible.”

Tyler McAvoy (’12) remembers: “I was beginning 6th grade, and my nervousness about making friends and not getting thrown in a locker by some mustached, pre-teen 8th graders was my priority at that point. I do remember the moment I discovered the towers fell. My teacher tried to break it to us easily.  ‘Something happened in New York today,’ she said, her voice trailing off. The stuffy classroom was silent and for a few minutes, we sat stunned, confused and scared. After regaining some composure, our teacher flipped on CNN, and we spent the rest of the day watching things unfold in a city many of us had seen only in pictures. It was a surreal experience, a bad dream, something intangible and truly unable to grasp.  How does an 11-year-old comprehend the loss of 3,000 lives? How could we understand the destruction of a skyscraper, or the plumes of smoke that covered people in ash as they ran from Ground Zero? Ten years later, I’m not sure I’ve fully wrapped my mind around it.”

On JMU’s campus, the Classes of 2002, ’03, ’04 and ’05 gave blood in massive numbers. They held hands and cried together. There were no Republicans or Democrats that day, no blacks or whites, no liberals or conservatives. Just us.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.”*  What happened in the aftermath of September 11 was exquisite. As smoke cleared over Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, tragedy united us. We were one nation. We rose up together, wounded but resilient. We were not separated by our differences but united in our sorrow. All of our disagreements, both petty and important, sank to the bottom of our consciousnesses. We were hit by a sudden clarity of what bound us together — our freedom and purpose as a nation.

If there is a legacy that we as a nation should cherish from the tragedy of September 11, it is this: What separates us should always be secondary to what unites us. Every one of us — all ethnicities, all political persuasions, all religions, all classes — should strive to recapture and hold on to the unity that was so pervasive in the weeks and months following September 11.

We will never forget the date. It is seared into our American heart just as Pearl Harbor had scarred our collective heart 60 years before. But the farther one moves from tragedy, the softer its impact becomes. Like grief, it fades. Gradually, our unity splintered. Too soon we allowed our politics and religion and divergent points of view to eat away at our unity. Too soon we were caught up in differences of opinion that really don’t matter at all when they are held up against the immensity of what we found when we lost so many.

Martin Luther King once wrote: “We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”* If we as a nation learn to subjugate our differences beneath our common identity as we did after September 11, we honor those who died that day. With their loss we were all diminished, and we must never forget the inestimable value of what we lost — and what we gained.

If we can rekindle, breathe life into the unity that we knew immediately after the towers fell, if we can place in permanent and proper perspective the value of each American above our own special and petty interests and opinions, then we can keep the gift from September 11. If that happens, those lost, including Bruce Simmons (’83), Craig M. Blass (’96), Matthew Horning (’97) and Brian Thompson, the father of Daniel Thompson (’03), will have died to create a world better than the one they left. Their lives, their deaths, will shore up the bedrock of a nation like none other: a nation that rushes to give blood, to aid neighbors, that shares its wealth and knowledge, that has as its foundational principal the inclination to lift each other up.

Monuments built at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., will long tell the story of those we loved and lost on that fateful morning, as will the memorial on JMU’s campus. But monuments no matter how beautifully crafted, no matter how grand or expansive, do not sufficiently honor those who died. The only honor that will approach their sacrifice is if we unite to change the world. Our national unity, the precious and seemingly fleeting glimpse that appeared following September 11, must be reignited and stoked, in as much as we hold up a brilliant bright light for a dark world.

It is not pride or arrogance that should lead us, but the humble recognition that 2,819 individuals by their tragic deaths brought us all to our knees and to our senses. We are one nation. It is the great gift from September 11, and it will last as long as we cling to it.

To read more about the Madison community’s response on campus, visit:  And to read moving and first hand accounts written by alumni, visit:

*Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray   *Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963
(Many thanks to Tyler McAvoy (’12) and Matt Turner (’12) for their help with this post.)

Shedding light on blackout goggles

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Recently, we received an update from Be the Changer Matt Miller’s (’98) C-Different Foundation, an organization that assists visually impaired athletes to live active lives through sports. Not only is Matt advocating on behalf of these athletes, he is addressing some new sports regulations, which are detrimental to their success. Although Matt can’t declare total victory yet, he and the C Different Foundation are making significant inroads. I am inspired by what Matt and his organization are doing.  I think you will be, too, so I wanted to share this story from Matt’s newsletter…..

Blacking Out Blackout Goggles

(from the C Different newsletter, September 2010)

On May 1, 2010 the national and international governing bodies of the sport of triathlon began enforcing a new rule whereby all blind and visually impaired athletes wishing to be considered for national and international competition recognition must wear blackout goggles or face automatic disqualification from competition.  Shortly thereafter, world champion triathlete, Aaron Scheidies, was disqualified from a race where he was not wearing the blackout goggles.  The rule, it was argued, would enable blind and visually impaired triathletes of various visual acuity to compete on the same level which would attract more blind and visually impaired athletes to the sport in turn raising the percentages for triathlon to become a Paralympic sport in the near future.  Those who opposed the rule sited the increased potential for physical injuries during competition suffered by blind and visually impaired triathletes, their guides and other racers.  Furthermore, it was belittling, minimizing and discriminating. Either way, the governing bodies had acted and now it was time for the C Different Foundation to take the lead in reacting.  C Different founder, Matt Miller, put out the clarion call to blind and visually impaired athletes, guides, and supporters to stand up in solidarity against this rule by agreeing to participate in the New York City Triathlon. The C Different Foundation athletes would race in this event, but would not wear the blackout goggles as a form of polite protest.  Many experienced triathletes jumped on board immediately.  Some athletes who had never raced in a triathlon or never even considered it decided to make their debut in this event.  Triathletes who were busy preparing for other races including Ironman triathlons felt this stand against a discriminating rule was too important not to answer the call.  Jan Ditchfield put together a Canadian contingency to bring to the event.  As the number of blind and visually impaired triathletes agreeing to race grew so did the demand to find sighted guides, tandem bicycles and other equipment.  In total, 31 blind and visually impaired triathletes from the United States and Canada registered to race.  They and their guides swam, biked and ran countless hours in preparation for the triathlon.  Triathletes, guides and supporters volunteered to help the C Different Foundation with the logistics of arranging transportation, equipment and housing for the pending significant stand on the approaching July weekend.

New York City was the stage and 62 triathletes from two countries representing one foundation with a sole purpose were the players set to swim one mile in the Hudson River, bike 25 miles along Henry Hudson Highway, and run 6.2 miles around and into famed Central Park.  Aaron Scheidies, Patricia Walsh, Mark Griffin, Annie Young, Darwin Doose.  From the experienced elite to the nervous novice, all converged on the city which never sleeps to say we will not rest until the blackout goggles form of discrimination is eliminated.  When a major event occurs in New York, people take notice.  They certainly did. At the airports, in restaurants, and on the streets, New Yorkers were curious about the large group of tandem bicycles, wet suits and race jerseys.  Many of them had never met a blind or visually impaired person and did not know they raced in triathlons, but were extremely supportive and stated the rule was ridiculous and should be changed.  Leading up to the triathlon and throughout the weekend, newspaper articles, radio stories, and television segments were dedicated to shining a light on the rule’s impact on the blind and visually impaired as well as the steps which the C Different Foundations athletes and volunteers had taken to denounce it.

How does it feel to be different than me? Are we the same? C Different athletes have different eye conditions, visual acuity, and stories.  Each has travelled down a different path to arrive at the same point in time sitting shoulder to shoulder on the pier preparing to jump into the Hudson River.  As Israel Antonio called upon his past NYC experience to help calm Annie Young’s nerves, Mark Griffin and Aaron Scheidies were voicing their support and confidence in Israel’s ability to get through his toughest challenge, the swim portion.  Once in the water, his guide, Brendan Hermes’ steady calming influence enabled Israel to glide through the Hudson River cutting his swim time finish by over 60 percent from his previous time.  The only scary moment being when the rope connecting Israel and Brendan, slid down from Israel’s waist to his knees trapping his legs together making it impossible to kick.  Luckily, Brendan noticed and as both men continued to move through the river, Brendan was able to free Israel’s legs.  Meanwhile, Aaron Scheidies and Matt West experienced a moment of anxiety when someone swam through their tether ripping it and causing them to lose sight of each other.  Aaron pressed on blindly through the water and was quickly rejoined by Matt as they coasted to the finish, on to the bike, then the run portion where Aaron balanced an obligation to his sponsors by wearing blackout goggles so that he may remain eligible to qualify for the World Championships while displaying his personal dislike for the blackout goggles rule by walking the entire ten kilometers in protest.  Other athletes and guides joined Aaron and Matt walking along side them in solidarity.  Patricia Walsh and her guide, Caroline Gaynor, rolled to a very comfortable victory by 25 minutes to their nearest competitor.

Matt Miller and the entire C Different Foundation family claimed victory when USAT officials had a meeting with Matt where he was able to express the feelings and concerns of the blind and visually impaired over the blackout goggles. USAT officials admitted they were unaware of how many blind and visually impaired triathletes compete in their events, but the strong showing at the New York City Triathlon, which serves as the PC National Championships, opened their eyes.  As a result, they have agreed not to uphold the blackout goggles any more.  Unfortunately, for the time being, the rule does remain in place for international sanctioned events for world championship consideration. Wherever there are rules and mindsets yet unchanged which discriminate, the C Different Foundation athletes, guides, and volunteers will be there speaking and displaying that blackout goggles do not hurt a race category or a list of names on a page.  Rather, they hurt real human beings who are simply looking for an equal chance to race and be accepted as individuals.

– Israel Antonio

Read more about Matt here: and at his new C Different website:

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