Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine



Walk the Walk
Montpelier Spring 1999

Cecil Bradfield has flopped an age-worn cop-out firmly on its hypocritical head. "Do as I do, not as I say," sums up the educational approach of the sociology professor and Aging and Family Studies program director.

Whether it's visiting residents in nursing homes, working with Harrisonburg's homeless at Mercy House or cleaning an outhouse in rural Appalachia, "Dr. B." never asks a student to do something he's not willing to do himself.

"He walks the talk," says Elizabeth Whiston-Dean (M.A. '92), former Bradfield protégé and director of community service at Mary Washington College.

Many JMU programs bear the Bradfield stamp of authorship or influence -- Community Service-Learning, Alternative Spring Break, Elderhostel, the Lifelong Learning Institute, the Aging and Family Studies program, to name a few. They are all part of Bradfield's efforts to push his lessons and his students beyond theoretical notions of social issues into the world of real people caught up in real life.

Over his 28 years at JMU, his programs have coalesced into a major component of what the university calls its "total undergraduate education" -- supplementing or integrating classroom learning with experiences that shape personal development, hone decision-making abilities, offer leadership skills and encourage collaboration among diverse individuals.

There's scholarship behind his efforts, but it's Bradfield's application that most gains converts among students. The professor teaches by example to combine scholarship with stewardship.

An ordained Lutheran minister, Bradfield blends his vision of education with his own spirituality and philosophy of caring. "Life is a stewardship," he says. "It's the notion that we have received therefore we give."

By rolling up his own sleeves and attacking complex social issues with a hands-on, person-to-person simplicity, he challenges students to throw off their blinders to the world around them and get involved. "You are the 1 percent minority of privilege in the world in terms of education, wealth, health, access to technology," he often tells students. "That [privilege] expects of us some responsibility for the rest of the world."

Such involvement, he says, challenges stereotypes and breaks down barriers that divide. When visiting the barrios and villages of Mexico or the cities of East Germany, working in Appalachian coal country, or helping with social service agencies in Harrisonburg, students find they often have much in common with those they serve and get more than they give. With Bradfield there as mentor, motivator and friend to nudge them along, students come away with a new understanding, an education.

During the decade-long Seminar in Appalachia special studies course, for instance, students traveled annually to Clay County, Ky., one of the poorest of America's poor counties, for a multi-week, 24-hour-a-day immersion in a completely different culture. There they came face to face with the "boom or bust" coal mine economy, an unofficial unemployment rate of close to 50 percent, poverty and limited educational opportunities. Students also saw a tenured professor who was as comfortable lecturing about the sociological trends that shape the culture as he was sorting clothes at the community thrift store, heading down the hill with a bucket and a brush to clean the outhouse or pitching horseshoes with the community sages.

There they also learned to look beyond the poverty and see the people, to see strong basic values -- less competition, taking care of family, taking care of neighbors -- that are at the very core of Appalachian society. "There are very few homeless people here," Bradfield says, "and very few homes for the aging. They take care of their own."

There too, as in other courses and programs that Bradfield has taught or directed, students learned the value of reflection -- of taking time to sort out new experiences, new thoughts, new ideas and to ponder what they mean. Nightly "walks with Dr. B" to vent feelings and pose questions were a staple of those Appalachian seminars. Similar strolls through campus or office chats are standard fare at JMU.

Social Work Department Head R. Ann Myers, with whom Bradfield has enjoyed a 20-year collaboration on presentations, papers and projects -- including establishing the Center for Service-Learning -- calls his availability and his approachability two of his greatest strengths. "A lot of good conversation came when he was playing horseshoes," Myers says. "When the focus is not on conversation is when the best conversation takes place."

Whiston-Dean, who served as CS-L's graduate assistant in the early 1990s, remembers one typically hectic day when she was racing through the CS-L office with more tasks to do than time to complete. "Liz, do you ever just be?" Bradfield asked quietly. The question stopped her in her tracks and reminded her that life is more than checking off lists. Equally important are silence and meditation.

Reflection, Bradfield says, cements hands-on learning experiences, hones leadership skills and turns students into teachers who can share with others not only what they've done, but also what it means. Reflection also raises questions that beg for answers. Questions like, why does our affluent society have the homeless, the hungry, the poor?

Those questions are the cornerstone of JMU's CS-L, which Bradfield and Myers started as a pilot program in 1987 on the belief that incorporating "real-world experiences" in teaching benefits both students and the community. "We started with the notion of connecting service and learning," Myers says, rather than volunteerism. A notion that service-learning requires leadership, vested "ownership" in the agencies students served, and responsibility. "The community is not just a laboratory," Whiston-Dean recalls Bradfield's saying. "You can't treat it as an experiment. You have a responsibility to your agency and the people in it to do a good job."

The program quickly won strong administrative, faculty and community acceptance. Today CS-L places between 600 and 800 students a semester, and the university offers 20 different classes that include a service-learning component. JMU's student-led Alternative Spring Break program offers 16 trips, with students traveling throughout the country and beyond. It received the 1998 Program of the Year Award from Break Away, the national organization that promotes community service by college students. And the San Francisco-based magazine, Mother Jones, included JMU in its top 10 list of schools "that prove activism and community service are alive and well on campus."

Robert Scott, vice president for institutional effectiveness, says service-learning experiences serve JMU students well. "When we look at what employers are asking in terms of our graduates, we see they want individuals who understand how to work effectively with diverse individuals in collaborative environments, be part of the decision process. [Community service-learning] experiences ... sensitize you to the world."

Bradfield delights in seeing "stereotypes blown out of the water" and replaced with common interests, respect and appreciation for diversity. That passion is evident in the Aging and Family Studies program, where the Bradfield-coined term "wellderly" is a rallying call against the stereotypes of elderly as frail and senile, and in the LLI, a program that Bradfield directed until last year. The LLI provides challenging learning opportunities for senior citizens and, through its intergenerational component, a forum for the meeting of traditional college students and senior citizens in a common setting of education.

In addition to founding and directing CS-L, Elderhostel and LLI, Bradfield has developed and taught numerous courses -- like Homeless in America, Social Gerontology, Medical Sociology and the Sociology of Death and Dying -- and presented countless papers. He has served as associate vice president for academic affairs, speaker of the faculty senate, and acting head of the department of sociology, anthropology and social work. Last year he received the latest in a string of awards -- the James Madison Distinguished Alumni Service Award and the Virginia Association for Non Profit Homes for the Aged Public Service Award. Bradfield received the Dolley Madison Award for Community Enhancement in 1997 and has been nominated by his department for the CASE "Professor of the Year" four times.

He acknowledges his achievements and accolades with humor and humbleness. "It's always satisfying to help create something that thrives without you." But that's Bradfield's style. While it's hard to think of the towering professor as a mother bird, in some ways the analogy fits. He delights in creating and nurturing a project and those who will eventually lead it, then pushing both out of the nest to watch the fledglings soar on their own.

"He's a mentor in the true sense of the word," Myers says. "He's supportive behind the scenes. He never loses sight of the bigger picture" -- the overall success of a program, the people who are running it and those it serves.

Perhaps the importance of mentoring and confidence in others comes from his background. Born and raised in rural West Virginia, Bradfield is the youngest of five children and the only sibling to graduate from high school and go to college. As a young teen, he decided he wanted to be a rural minister, a dream that would take him 350 miles away to Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, and Trinity Lutheran Seminary for eight years of education. Never mind that the cost for a year of school was nearly a third of the family's income. Bradfield's mother reasoned, "If you're going to be a preacher you'll need all this book learning." The matter was settled.

In 1965 he was named pastor of three small churches around Franklin, W.Va., but he was far from done with academia. He picked up a course or two at Madison to sandwich between visits with church members who were hospitalized in Harrisonburg, and before long, he had completed a master's in social science and acquired a mentor, Elmer Smith, then head of JMU's sociology, anthropology and social work department.

It was Smith who offered Bradfield a teaching post in 1971, and it was Smith who once asked casually enough, "Cecil, have you ever thought about working on a doctorate?" To Bradfield's "No," he said simply, "Well maybe you should." Bradfield did, and earned a doctorate in sociology from American University in 1975.

Bradfield has always stressed quality -- not quantity -- in his life, but now that emphasis takes on a note of urgency. Last year, he was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. He's put the idea of a bone marrow transplant, the only known cure for the disease, on the back burner -- primarily because of the risks involved and the extended period of isolation the procedure would require. Isolation is not on Bradfield's agenda. He's off his daily doses of Interferon and glad to be rid of the drug's side effects. He is taking an oral form of chemotherapy and "living each day as fully as possible."

"Sociological influences have shaped how I've responded," Bradfield explains. "I have been helped by framing my situation in terms of my discipline. I don't want you to think I don't have some emotions about it, but the academic perspective has helped me cope."

So too have his lifelong observation that "death is a part of life" and "a good support system of family -- my wife, Nancy, my daughter, Ann -- siblings, and a few close friends. My faith is a big part of that." And, he emphasizes, "part is a basic satisfaction with my life to this point. While I'd like to live a long life, I've done and seen things I've never expected. If I think only of myself, I'm very comfortable at this point, except for those who will miss me."

Bradfield sees further opportunities to do what he's always done -- apply personal experience to what he teaches. He's now armed with his own experience of dealing with medical jargon, procedures and professionals when he addresses medical topics in his social issues class. And in an article published in the January 1999 edition of New Horizon: Tips and Resources for People with Cancer, he notes that, as a pastor and long-time teacher of the course Sociology of Death and Dying, he now seems to be "practicing what I've preached."

As Bradfield contemplates the end of his life, others consider the impact of his life and of his commitment to service-learning. "Service-learning is a part of his life," Whiston-Dean says. "That's something that everyone he was overseeing could see. It was not the flavor of the month. He is what we would like all our service learners to be," she adds, "a lifelong learner and an active citizen."

Bradfield has reduced his involvement on university committees but still is actively teaching, researching and writing -- using his own experiences for his most recent paper for the Virginia Social Science Association titled "Living with Dying: A Sociologist Reflects on His Own Death."

"I reminded my students that you do not stop your craft just because you have a life-threatening illness," he says.

To those who know him, this pronouncement comes as no great surprise. While his illness has forced him to put his priorities squarely on his two great loves of family and teaching, Bradfield continues to contribute the way he always has, person to person.

His greatest contribution, Scott says, is "how he's touched thousands of lives," Scott says. Count among them 28 years worth of JMU students and, in turn, all those they have touched.


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