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"In Your Newspaper, On Your Campus": Remembering Whitten Maher


 
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In a world which often prizes surface over substance, Whitten Maher sought “the engagement of two people and a frank, heartfelt discussion.” Throughout Maher’s 2007-2010 tenure as Breeze contributing writer, “Gadfly” columnist, Opinion Editor, and Design Editor, he exposed the partisan rhetoric that drives wedges between us and spoke powerfully for and to readers who felt marginalized.

Now in its sixth year, the Whitten Maher Memorial Scholarship recognizes undergraduates in all JMU disciplines whose writing and design reflects Maher’s commitment to advocacy and change. Past scholarship recipients have valued his work and sought to build on his example:

Michael Dolzer (‘17 recipient): “My only goal is for my work to make a difference, just like Whitten did.”

Abigail Mumma (’18 recipient): It’s not enough to show up one day or go to a few meetings. Being an informed and active citizen is about consistency, and the ability to remain enthusiastic for the long haul.

Adaoma Okafor (‘16 recipient): “My submission…describes my internal struggle as a person of color in a society where I did not feel valued, an experience that could be applicable to people belonging to a variety of marginalized populations.”

Fight Like Hell for the Living

Maher valued honest and unfiltered engagement with the significant issues facing us. Writing about a 2008 presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, Maher applauded the candidates’ refreshingly useful responses. Regarding the political commentary that followed, he decried the “rabid pack of pundits” who take us away from the “heart of the matter.”

Maher’s column Gadfly also gave voice to those without one, especially members of the LGBTQ+ community. In his October 8, 2009, article titled “For You, Wherever You Are,” Maher used his platform to speak to and for individuals struggling to live their true identities:

I’m writing because I wish I could have read something like this in my college newspaper before I came out…. This column isn’t for me because what I went through was not unique, and more people have experienced it than you will ever know.

Even though Maher sometimes “felt like no one was listening,” he undoubtedly touched his audience. One donor to the Whitten Maher Memorial Scholarship expressed her enduring gratitude for his work and legacy:

Whitten was my classmate. As a young queer woman, his writing saved my life. I donate this money to give other Duke Dogs the means to create the lasting difference in someone else’s life that Whitten did in mine, even in our short time together at JMU. Honor the dead and fight like hell for the living.

The Whitten Maher Memorial Scholarship

As Maher’s professors and colleagues at New York City-based think tank Demos have recalled, Maher encouraged building bridges, giving voice to the marginalized and oppressed, and creating dialogue rather than divisiveness. It was with these goals in mind that his parents, along with former WRTC faculty member Erin Lambert Hartman, established The Whitten Maher Memorial Scholarship after his death on December 20, 2012.

The scholarship encourages and recognizes academic and nonacademic writing and design that conveys the compassion, intensity, and reasoning reflected in Whitten Maher’s work. The scholarship is open to all returning JMU undergraduates in all academic disciplines, and recipients are awarded at least $1,000.

For submission information, see the Whitten Maher Memorial Scholarship website. Featured there is a selection of Whitten Maher’s Breeze columns in their original print format, along with remembrances from his JMU and Demos colleagues. For a Breeze article marking the tenth anniversary of Maher’s service as Breeze Design Editor, check out Connor Murphy's January 17, 2019, "Scholarship Named After Whitten Maher Honors His Life." For a more extended journey through Whitten Maher’s work, type “Whitten Maher” into The Breeze site’s search bar.

 

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Published: Friday, January 25, 2019

Last Updated: Tuesday, February 23, 2021

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