Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

The Un Couple
Montpelier Summer 1999

The Un Couple

When it comes to their son, Parents Council members stick together despite divorce Rob Downs is a typical freshman. When he's not studying or going to class, he likes to lift weights and play racquetball at UREC. And when he and his roommate get back from a good workout, they love a late-night Papa John's pizza.

And like most students, Rob welcomes occasional breaks from pulling all-nighters, D-hall food and pumping quarters into the laundry machines. But Rob's visits home take a little coordination. His parents are divorced.

"I usually stay with one parent and then commute with my brothers to visit the other," Downs says. "I don't have a car, so I'm always begging somebody to take me somewhere." No matter which parent he's with, however, the subject of JMU is sure to come up in conversation. And Rob's mom and dad are more educated about the subject than most -- they serve on the Parents Council -- together.

Robert W. Downs Jr. is a professor in the School of Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Beth Downs is an ordained minister and director of Ministerial Services for the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church. Neither had a surplus of leisure time on their hands, nor a need to add memberships to their resumes. What they shared was a real interest in their son, Robert Miles Downs ('02), and the university he attends.

"We've been divorced five years," Beth Downs says, "but we continue to parent our children together. Hopefully, society is creating some new models for divorced parents. Just because we're not married anymore doesn't mean we can't continue to parent together."

In a time when so many marriages end in divorce and family dynamics can turn acrimonious, Bob and Beth Downs are a breath of fresh air. They are the perfect "uncouple." The Downses continue to go to the same church, have many of the same friends and support each other's interests.

"Bob really has limited time, but he's the one who initiated serving on the Parents Council," Beth says. "He's interested in higher education, and I want to support his interests."

Applications to serve on the council are sent to all incoming freshmen parents. About 100 to 125 parents apply for the positions annually, according to Glenda Rooney, Parents Council coordinator. Applicants are asked to state why they are interested in serving on the council and what they would contribute to JMU. The Downses' letter was one that gave Rooney pause.

"I was just so attracted to this couple's commitment to their student," she says. "This was a divorced couple, but they said they would only serve on the Parents Council if they could do it together."

Other divorced and single parents serve on the Parents Council, but these are the first who have served on the council together, according to Rooney.

"When I read the Downses' letter, I thought that they have a really healthy attitude," she says. "They want to provide good, mutual support of their student."

In his letter of application, Bob wrote, "Our family will bring a unique perspective to the Council. Beth and I separated and divorced about five years ago, but we have both remained actively involved in our children's lives. We have three sons and we share joint legal and physical custody (50/50) of the children. We are very proud of the successful relationship that we both maintain with our children, and we will both be pleased to cooperate further by maintaining active participation on the council."

The Un Couple

Rooney and a small committee screen the applications down to 15 or 16 as they look for diversity in geography and occupations, as well as the candidates who can contribute to the university at the greatest level. Then, the chairs and vice chairs of the council do phone interviews to choose new members.

"The main thing we are looking for is people who are very passionate about the university," Rooney says. "More and more of our applicants are JMU alums themselves, but the most important thing is that their agenda is our agenda."

Formed in 1978, the Parents Council consists of six representatives for each of the four classes at JMU. Representatives are eligible to serve for four years or until their children are no longer enrolled at JMU. For parents with two or more children attending JMU, this can mean a long-term commitment to their new alma mater.

"We had one couple serve on the Parents Council for 11 years by the time their third student graduated," Rooney says. "It was definitely tougher on those parents than on their children at graduation after 11 years."

Harry and Riz Carey are serving their second year as chairmen of the Parents Council, but their son, Brian, graduated in May.

"We still have a daughter [Colleen] who is a sophomore, but after being on the council for seven years, that will make it even harder to leave," Riz says. "We feel more attached to JMU than our own universities. It's become sort of like our child. We don't want to cut the apron strings."

The reason parents say they have such a hard time leaving JMU behind is because it's so much fun to serve on the Parents Council. Many members say it's like being able to go to college without having to take any classes.

The council meets twice a year including Parents Weekend. In between, members hold regional picnics for incoming freshmen, help host Early Action admissions receptions, attend other official university events and, more generally, serve as advocates for JMU and provide a liaison and helping hand to other JMU parents.

Parents Council members are not decision-makers, but advocates for the university. Many think of themselves as cheerleaders for JMU. "They understand our mission and share it with others," Rooney explains.

"I've already been really impressed with JMU," Beth Downs says. "I trust the school to do a good job with my son, but it's nice to know more about what's going on there. I like being able to make a contribution."

Bob Downs has been impressed with the structure of the Parents Council meetings.

"I expected it to be loosely organized," he says. "I thought we'd just help out on an ad hoc basis, but it's a very organized, productive group of people."

After Parents Council meetings, the Downses usually take their son out for a meal.

"I'm very lucky," the ISAT major says. "They get along and that's cool. My friends whose parents are divorced are sort of jealous because it's hard for them to imagine [their parents getting along so well]."

Bob Downs has remarried and has a stepdaughter who has applied to JMU. The Downses also have a son who is a junior in high school and a son who is in the 7th grade, so the Downses might spend quite a bit of time serving together on the JMU Parents Council.

"It seems strange to some people that a divorced couple can carry on a conversation," Bob says. "But we will always be interested in what's going on with our children, so it makes good sense to cooperate for their sake."

  • Story by Sande Snead Fulk ('92)
  • Photos by DeeDee Eicher Niarhos ('72)

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