Teacher, cheerleader and friend

Dr. D turned bad days into happy ones
By Sylvia Witt Bailey ('67)

Originally published in Winter 2004, this is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.

Professor Emeritus of Business Z.S. Dickerson Jr. helped establish JMU's computer science program

Professor Emeritus of Business Z.S. Dickerson Jr. helped establish JMU's computer science program.

When President John F. Kennedy was shot in November of 1963, we Madison College freshmen who had just left the security of our homes were especially devastated and fearful. One special professor called us together to reassure us that everything was OK, and that our nation, our college and we as individuals would survive this tragedy and grow from it. At a time when I just wanted to crawl into the arms of my parents, Dr. Z.S. Dickerson helped my classmates and me see that we could handle this tragedy with the support and guidance of our college community.

Dr. D, as we affectionately called him, showed us that there were loving adults who truly cared about us as individuals, not just as students. In addition to chairing the business department, teaching several classes and supervising student teachers, Dr. D was also sponsor for the Class of 1967. He advised the national business fraternity Pi Omega Pi and became an important part of my college experience as a father figure, teacher, cheerleader and friend.

I can still feel the excitement of driving onto the Madison College campus in the fall of 1963. I also remember the pangs of anxi-ety as I stood behind Ashby Hall and waved goodbye to my parents. My apprehension continued as I met my roommate, learned my way around and stood in the seemingly endless lines to register for classes. My spirits lifted as I met my teachers, especially Dr. D, an exuberant man with a round face, big dimples and a hearty laugh that echoed through Harrison Hall.

The Class of '67 came to love and respect Dr. D and his charming wife, Mildred, as they soothed the homesickness and encouraged us to get involved in campus life. Mrs. D taught early childhood education. The Dickerson's children, Margaret Ann and Richard, became our class mascots and attended class meetings and functions and brought lots of playfulness to our lives. The Dickerson family adopted each of us into their circle by listening to our concerns, celebrating our joys and sharing our heartaches.

While Dr. D had high expectations for his students, he had such an upbeat, positive attitude that no one could feel less than joyful around him. We anticipated going to his classes because we knew that we would not only learn something of value, but we would remember it because of the way it was presented. He made learning just plain fun. One of the classes I enjoyed most was a preparatory class for student teaching. Dr. D. helped us prepare a "bible" that was a manual of everything we would need for our teaching experience. For 37 years, I've put into practice many of the principles I learned in that one class.

Dr. Dickerson had an ability to influence and persuade without controlling. His power was his charisma. His zeal, outlook and integrity made the greatest impressions on my life. At the annual business department Christmas party, he gathered his students around him to listen as he read Peter Marshall's Christmas Sermon. He also shared many amusing stories about his shenanigans growing up in Kentucky.

Dr. D turned bad days into happy ones. Once, he gave me an assignment to produce copies on the Ditto and Mimeograph machines (dinosaur precursors to today's sophisticated copiers). I inserted the masters into the typewriter backwards, and the copies came out as reverse images. Instead of requiring me to redo the project, Dr. D used his quick wit to soothe my frustrations. He attached a note that said, "This is a mind-puzzle — to read the messages, simply place in front of a mirror." With Dr. D's help, I learned to keep things in perspective and remember that sometimes honest effort counts more than perfect results. There are ways to salvage seemingly disastrous mistakes without destroying self-esteem. Thanks, Dr. D.

Dr. Dickerson's interest in his students continued beyond the halls of Madison College. When a faculty superior in Fairfax complained about my voice quality and drawl, Dr. D said, "Just leave her alone — when she gets back down into those mountains of southwest Virginia, they'll think that hillbilly twang is just great." While I was tapped in absentia as a charter member of Mortar Board (I was doing my student teaching), it was Dr. D who called me long distance to congratulate me. The night before my wedding, I got a surprise phone call from Dr. D. "I just wanted to be the last person to call you 'Miss Witt,'" he said.

Dr. Dickerson had a way of making each of us feel as though he or she was the most special person that he knew. He believed in us and taught us to believe in ourselves. He truly prepared us to teach or compete in the business world, but more importantly, he prepared us for life. My ultimate respect for this humble man will forever remain the same.

Sylvia Witt Bailey ('67)

Sylvia Witt Bailey ('67)

About the professor
Professor Emeritus of Business Z.S. Dickerson Jr., who helped establish JMU's computer science program, retired as associate dean of the School of Business. His wife, Mildred, is professor emerita of education, and they live in Harrisonburg. Since Dr. D's family and colleagues call him "Dick," an aura of mystery surrounds the initials "Z.S." Bailey says that her classmates often badgered him to tell his name; and he promised that he would after their graduation. "At the senior class picnic, he kept his word," she says, "but we were all sworn to secrecy."

About the author
Sylvia Witt Bailey ('67) is retired executive director of the Blue Ridge Regional Education and Training Council and a former instructor and career counselor at Hollins University. She also taught in the Roanoke County school system. She and Perry live in Salem and are the parents of four sons. They also have two grandsons.