Faithful friends

Brutal honesty leads to treasured friendship
By Gail Clary ( '81 )

Originally published in Spring 2009, 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.

Chemistry professor James J.J. Leary

Chemistry professor James "J.J." Leary

Come in my office, Clary! " My heart sank through my toenails as I wondered what I had done to warrant a summons into the office of "J.J.," as Dr. James J. Leary preferred to be addressed. Dr. Leary was my analytical chemistry professor, and this was my first course with him. I had completed my first two years at Madison taking pre-med courses, but I did not officially declare chemistry as my major until my junior year. I had heard through the grapevine that J.J. was a "tough but good and fair professor." So, what did he want with inconspicuous me?

"Clary, why don't you laugh at my jokes? I see you right there on the front row. (I was nearsighted). And you never laugh at my jokes, Why?" he asked.

Being a naive 20-year-old, I gave him an honest, politically incorrect answer — not weighing the possible consequences of my bluntness. "Well, Dr. Leary, I think your jokes are tasteless," I replied.

That day began what has become one of my most treasured friendships.

Dr. Leary somehow took a liking to me, mentoring me through the rest of my career in the JMU Chemistry Department. He invited me to participate in a research project with him, and we were fortunate to present and publish our work. While I was in medical school, I was able to use my knowledge gained from that JMU project to further a biochemistry project at the Medical College of Virginia (now known as Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine). He also steered me toward applying for a National Science Foundation Summer Research Program at Chapel Hill, N.C. I was accepted to the program in 1980 and was grateful for the opportunity to spend three months in a research lab. There I realized that I enjoyed working with people more than pipettes.

I studied both analytical chemistry and instrumental analysis with Dr. Leary during my junior year. Both were very difficult and intense courses, but I have to admit upon reflection that they were among my favorite courses because of J.J.'s brilliance and lively dialogue. The analytical skills that I learned in his courses provided a firm foundation for my career and my daily activities as a pulmonary/critical care and sleep medicine subspecialist.

A JMU chemistry major's life — long hours in Miller Hall with a small group of students and professors — was almost (well not quite) like being in the show The Waltons! We were like family, and even though many of us were very competitive and aiming for medical school, we had a very supportive camaraderie.

I returned from the Chapel Hill NSF research experience convinced that I did not want to be a chemist, but Dr. Leary continued to encourage me through my senior year. We worked well together on our computer equations project, and he never made me feel inferior for choosing to pursue an M.D. instead of a Ph.D. I was privileged to receive the JMU Chemistry Department Award in 1981, but the credit should have gone to Dr. Leary for believing in me and for challenging me to fulfill my highest expectations.

Since graduation, I have maintained a friendship with Dr. Leary, his lovely wife, Sandy, and their sons, Sherman and Brian. I have been a guest in their home on many occasions, and I have watched their boys play Little League baseball and head off to war in Afghanistan. I have few friends in my life who make as much effort as Dr. Leary does to stay in touch. We have shared the joys of my medical school graduation, my marriage and my becoming a mother. We have also supported each other through family losses and other times of sadness and distress. I daresay that few of us are blessed to have such enduring friendships, especially with a college professor.

I have fond memories of the chemistry professors who served JMU students, but I thank Dr. Leary most of all for being a great professor, an advocate for higher learning and a faithful friend.

About the professor
Chemistry professor James "J.J." Leary joined the JMU faculty in 1973. He received the 1994-95 Distinguished Teaching Award and has published on a wide variety of subjects, often with undergraduate co-authors. A significant amount of his work and research has been at the point where analytical chemistry overlaps with applied mathematics or physics.

About the author
Gail Clary ('81) is a senior partner with Carolina Lung and Sleep Physicians, where she practices pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine, and also teaches in the Family Practice Residency program. Best Doctors Inc. honored Clary as one of the "Best Doctors in N.C." in pulmonary and critical care medicine. She and her husband, Jim Pearce, live in Hendersonville, N.C., with their 12-year-old daughter, Victoria.