By Jamie Marsh
Eileen Nelson leads a discussion during one of her final classes.
A decade after retiring, psychology professor Eileen Nelson doesn’t really miss JMU. “No, I don’t,” she says with a chuckle. “Because all of the people who were close to me, still are.”
Sitting in her favorite chair, Nelson is literally surrounded with love from Madison admirers. There is a scrapbook on the coffee table, three more at the fireplace, and dozens more on bookshelves — all filled with letters and greeting cards from past students. In 1996, a group of students gave her a “risky but beloved” gift: a Persian cat that is still a constant companion. Just this week she has shared two meals with alumni, one whose high-school son was visiting campus for the first time.
“I hear from them constantly,” she says. “A day does not go by that I don’t have e-mails and phone calls from students. One of my former students called yesterday; Her daughter is getting married, and I’ll go to the wedding.” Nelson calls this her “JMU family,” which includes former colleagues. “One of the psychology professors brings me dinner on a regular basis because I don’t enjoy cooking. Isn’t that lovely? Pretty familial, wouldn’t you say?” Even amidst this outpouring of affection, Nelson is still “awed” by each call or letter, including David Hillgrove’s (’79) words in Madison magazine’s first “Professors You Love” column from 2000.
Here are some of her thoughts:
Madison: What did you think when you first read the article?
Nelson: It’s so exciting, first of all, anytime someone shares with you that they have these thoughts. I’m awed each time someone has taken the time to tell me this and expressed it so beautifully and, sincerely, I am just so humbled by the words that they write. I remember my students, I never forget them, and I remembered the first time I met David. This is when I first started teaching Human Growth and Development, and David had a student job with audiovisuals where he would bring the projector for the movie. This was an important thing, and he would be so kind to set them up for me, but then he would stay and listen to the class. He did this for two or three semesters, and then he finally took the class. He decided he wanted to hear all the lectures!
Madison: What was the best part of being on the JMU faculty?
Nelson: The ability to create new programs, to fill voids that existed, and to be creative. It wasn’t just doing the same thing every day. There were new courses; Psychology of the Young Adult was a favorite because I created it, and I loved to teach Counseling Psychology. Also, I enjoyed programs like Peer Advising. I created that from nothing because we had a need. We had a lot of psychology majors, and some faculty members are not into advising. Students find out very quickly who is, and I was spending so many hours every week advising that I decided that I needed something else. And I’ve enjoyed seeing so many of my students become tremendously successful. So many of them are in business, clinical psychology, and counseling of course. There are the Charles Haleys, who have achieved such fame. They are all such beautiful people.
Madison: How are you still involved with JMU?
Nelson: I helped found the JMU Faculty Emeriti Association, and it’s a big part of my life now. We have various activities, take trips, hear speakers. It’s very fun, and we help the university. We just donated a Monet print to the new performing arts center. I’m also taking courses from JMU’s Lifelong Learning Institute. I’ve taken Modern England History, which was great, and I’m going to take History of the Mennonites for a second time because I enjoyed it so much.
David Hillgrove, the first Professors You Love writer
David Hillgrove’s (’79) relationship with Nelson is still strong, in part because he visits campus frequently to see his daughters — Elizabeth (09) and Christine, a senior. “I cannot tell you how many times I’ve stood and told a current student at Madison a story about the ’70s,” he says. Now Christine has her own Madison stories. “She is absorbed by her professors, striking up professional relationships with them and conferring with them outside of class, as well.” Hillgrove sees that as one reason why so many of today’s leaders have emerged better people after four years at JMU: “If there is one thing JMU has been consistent about, it’s the ability and willingness to stay cutting edge, to provide ‘customer service’ and to lead the university setting with human understanding, despite being an institution. Eileen personified this in her classroom, in her advisory role, and as a human. She is JMU and the university is her.”