Professors you love

Eileen Nelson


I am human: She taught me that

By David Hillgrove ('79)

Originally published in Fall 2000, 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.

I am personally responsible for Eileen Nelson's retirement, and I feel terrible.

No one should be expected to run as hard or do as much as I have asked of her, and yet she continues to give. And I suppose I have sucked all the energy out of her heaven-sent life. Let me explain. I am a public school teacher.

Much to the dismay and confusion of children who've encountered me in public, I shop for groceries on my own, am married with children, and I even go to the bathroom when given the opportunity. I am human.

Eileen Nelson taught me that.

"No one should be expected to run as hard or do as much as I have asked of her, and yet she continues to give. And I suppose I have sucked all the energy out of her heaven-sent life."

Because of an unusually good stroke of luck, I have taught at all three levels of education. In high schools, I've felt complete joy when the proverbial light bulb comes on in that stubborn learner's head. I've seen success stories, and I've been a part of fantastic comebacks. Conversely, I've endured bad plays, poor song contests, notoriously skillless athletic contests and other nameless gatherings. I've pushed constitutional amendments, governmental concepts and philosophical differences harder than any insurance salesmen I've met. I've been thunderstruck by the emotional roller coasters of teen pregnancies, broken romances, failed college admissions and alcoholic parents. And I've hugged entire families, tear-filled with joy that their son was the first family graduate.

Eileen Nelson has been there with me for every one of them.

In middle schools, I've dealt with the mixed emotions of the adolescent female. I've put with the giggling, the anger turned to laughter turned to tears, and the paralyzing indifference. I've restrained feelings of revenge when 115-pound boys threaten full-grown adults with their attitude. I've watched nerds grow into real people.

Eileen Nelson served as an unpaid consultant throughout much of that purgatory on Earth.

In elementary schools, I've wiped tears away, hugged fears away and given enough high-fives to earn an NBA title. I have seen the sad-eyed, the wide-eyed and the blind-eyed.

Eileen Nelson stood proudly in the corner of my heart as I extended her legacy across the commonwealth.

Eileen Nelson with faculty at Johnston Hall
Professor Nelson (second from left) poses with other faculty members for this yearbook photo outside of Johnston Hall.

Eileen (which I never dared to call her as an undergrad) made it into the high school hallways with me. She was role model, confidante, friend and mentor. She was hero, she was star. She showed me why; she told me why, and she made me want to.

"I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to teach others the magic of literature and English in a unique way that would show appreciation and love for the subject."

I took every class she offered (five I believe), so I knew her as instructor. I loved her humor, her style, her manner and her enormous eyes (which showed every emotion I've ever felt). She came into my life when I finally began to care about something in life. Who's to say she isn't the reason, rather than the coincidence?

I almost minored in psychology in her classes alone. Without question, my favorite was adolescent psychology, a course that awakened whatever gifts I've given to teens across Virginia in the '80s.

Additionally, I knew her because I had a campus job where I earned the astounding rate of $1.90 per hour. I carried audiovisual equipment around campus for professors. Most professors treated me as a grunt, a paid employee, but as you can imagine, Eileen always treated me as though I brought her gold and frankincense. I sat in on many of her classes, sometimes contributing, and felt as though I was overpaid.

It was in one of those classes where I sat as "film projector boy," in the waning days of my senior year, that I realized that for me, Eileen Nelson is Maslow, Erickson, Kohlberg, Piaget and Freud. She didn't tell me about them, nor simply demand their information from me. She became these great thinkers and she made me feel them to truly get to know their powerful lessons.

Eileen Nelson is M. Scott Peck, Wayne Dyer, Leo Buscalia and Robert Ludlum. She just hasn't sold as many books. She saw through the self-conscious, anxiety-ridden teenager who was me and told me of the great future I was to become.

Eileen Nelson appeared whenever I encouraged students, gave public presentations or addressed the PTA. Equally important, Eileen Nelson made a cameo mental appearance every time I analyzed an athletic team cut list, explained to a child why she flunked or consoled a family at a funeral of a boy far too young to die.

Photo of Professor Eileen Nelson

She gave so fearlessly of herself that she has lived on in me. Because she made human growth and development come alive, she branded the material in my head with the same marketing zeal as the Xerox copy, the Kleenex tissue or the IBM computer.

Eileen Nelson is everything good about me. I love her, as do hundreds of other students who met this woman who was willing to risk her heart for our future. I went to classes as a skinny, goofy-haired idealistic typical college dolt, yet I went on to influence hundreds of teen-age lives. Thank you Eileen. You've been as much a part of me as you have been of this phenomenal university. You've affected all of our eternities, because you will never fully know where your influence will end.

About the professor 
During her 27 years at JMU, psychology professor Eileen Nelson advised more than 8,000 students, supervised 35 honors theses and 25 graduate theses, created the department's Peer Advising Center, served as sports psychologist for the men's basketball team and gave permanent residence to Duke Dogs III and IV. Nelson, who is married to retired political science professor William Nelson, retired in June 2000.

About the author
David Hillgrove has taught in West Point, Va., and the Metro-Richmond area since 1979. He has taught K-5, middle school, high school and adult education and spent eight years in publishing, writing sports stories and parent columns. David and Dorothy ('81) have three children: Elizabeth, 13, Christine, 11, and Katie, 7.

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Published: Monday, February 10, 2014

Last Updated: Monday, February 22, 2021

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