A little departure today: Following is a piece I wrote three years ago. At the time, it was cathartic. I publish it today, Sept. 8, on the third anniversary of the death of a friend who taught me more than I could have ever expected.
A month ago, my friend died. And I am diminished because of her loss. I am also greatly improved by having known her. Few people one encounters in life have lasting impact — we say they do, but they really don’t. Most people we know, we simply know, and what we learn from them is minimal.
But if you are very lucky, you come across an individual who teaches you lessons that are priceless, lessons that make you a better person, a better soul.
That was my friend Michelle.
A girl from Craigsville
Michelle and I could not have been more different. She was a girl from tiny Craigsville, Virginia, raised by her grandparents, the first in her family to go to college, and by any measure the most successful individual in her branch of the family. I, on the other hand, was raised with a silver spoon. My parents and grandparents were college educated. My great grandfather was valedictorian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 1889.
Yet Michelle taught me lessons more valuable than all those I learned in classrooms. That alone, I think, should be a lesson to those so eager to lift up students of lesser means and fewer opportunities, those so eager to impart wisdom and guidance to them. Perhaps they should learn from them as well.
Michelle would tell you proudly that she was a redneck from Craigsville — and it was one indication of her great humility. She was never ashamed of where she came from or who she was. When you met Michelle, you knew Michelle. She owned no pretense and refused to be anything other than who she was. In this respect, she was the most genuine person I’ve ever known.
In an op-ed in the New York Times, educator Vicki Madden reflected on her own journey from a low-income home lacking in opportunity to the Ivy League and the challenges such students face. She wrote:
“In spite of our collective belief that education is the engine for climbing the socioeconomic ladder — the heart of the ‘American dream’ myth — colleges now are more divided by wealth than ever. When lower-income students start college, they often struggle to finish for many reasons, but social isolation and alienation can be big factors.” *
She went on to explain: “I know something about the lives behind the numbers….The other students I encountered on campus seemed foreign to me. Their parents had gone to Ivy League schools; they played tennis. I had never before been east of Nebraska. My mother raised five children while she worked for the post office, and we kept a goat in our yard to reduce the amount of garbage we’d have to pay for at the county dump.”
Michelle understood the struggle that Madden describes. She understood the isolation that first students encounter. You see Craigsville, less than 50 miles from Harrisonburg geographically, was far away culturally — more akin to the deep mountains of West Virginia than the upstart “college” town.
She told me once about her first experience at James Madison University. She missed orientation held earlier that summer, and when she registered for classes, the adviser scolded her for not attending. Michelle did not tell him — or her — that her absence was not because she hadn’t wanted to come. It was because she had no transportation to get there.
But she persevered, understanding that this was the place she wanted to be. It was the place she came to love.
Falling in love with a university
I don’t know — but wish I did — who at Buffalo Gap High School encouraged Michelle to apply to JMU. That individual deserves a metal. They inspired a dream, but then again, it might have been something in Michelle herself, who deep down believed she could succeed.
It was never easy for the girl from Craigsville who, until she was in the fourth grade, suffered taunts from classmates because her grandparents’ outhouse was visible from the bus stop. Her first days on campus as a freshman presented challenges. In the fall of 1984, Michelle was assigned to a triple room with roommates from New Jersey and California. They might as well have been from Nepal and Ecuador. They could not understand her Southern drawl, and she had no idea what they were saying. But again she — and they — persevered and became fast friends. To their credit and benefit, her roommates had the generosity and wisdom to get to know this open and unassuming freshman — to look beyond their differences and to find the remarkable person she was.
As a student, she would tell you that she wasn’t initially successful, that it was hard, that she sometimes made the wrong choices. But in the end, she made it, developing along the way a devotion to her alma mater that was second to none. She fell in love with JMU, for what it did for her, for what it was, and for what she believed it could be.
No one loved the university like she did, evinced by an office overflowing with JMU memorabilia. I suspect that the day she graduated in the spring of 1988 with a degree in communications was one of the happiest days of her life. The other was coming back to join the staff of Madison magazine as assistant editor. In a short order, she rose to the editor’s chair and from there guided the magazine to 14 CASE awards, including a personal one for writing and a Grand Award for the magazine that deemed it to be the best alumni magazine in the nation. And quite appropriately, in 2005, she received the university’s Distinguished Service Award. Few Dukes were ever so deserving.
Being editor of Madison magazine was, she always said, her dream job. She felt immensely fortunate and she never forgot it. I often likened her to Joseph Meister, the first person saved by Louis Pasteur’s rabies vaccine. For the rest of his life, Joseph Meister served as a gatekeeper at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. The same might be said for Michelle in her devotion to JMU. She loved JMU with every fiber of her being. It was, in many ways, the greatest love of her life, and the prospect of ever being separated from it terrified her.
Living with gratitude
And true to form, she never forgot those who helped her along the way. In 2002, she wrote about one professor, Dr. Paul Cline, who turned things around for her. “I am…,” she wrote, “a different kind of person for having known him at all. He quenched the thirst for knowledge and made it strong at the same time.”
Michelle was like that. No matter what kindness came her way, she was endlessly grateful — the way a person is grateful when they can hardly believe you would do something for them. It was a reflection of her deep humility, itself a reflection of the humble beginnings she refused to despise and instead, wisely valued. It was no surprise that as people learned of her death, the most common response was a reference to her endless gratitude and kindness. She gave and gave and gave, never expecting anything in return.
After her passing, I learned that every August when the new class of freshman arrived on campus, she would make a trip to her old, first dormitory room and stealthily, without anyone seeing, slip a $20 bill and a note under the door, telling the newest Dukes to enjoy a pizza on her, complements of a prior resident.
Around the office, she was almost always the first one to be inclusive — to make sure students were included in our annual end-of-the-year luncheon, and the first one to circulate a birthday or sympathy card. She genuinely cared for people, their feelings, and their worth. She had a heart of gold. And what is most remarkable is that she never expected one iota of payback. It was never do this for that. It was simply: Do this because it matters. Because you matter.
This was true of everyone who ever did anything for her — and for the university she loved. Hundreds of people who wrote for Madison magazine over the years received thank you notes and letters from Michelle, many of them hand-written. After each issue of the magazine dropped, she took time to thank all individuals for their contributions — every contributor, every issue — whether they were members of the faculty, students, staff, alumni or freelancers. She was generous with her praise and effusive in her gratitude, often signing thank you notes with her favorite salutation: “You rock!” It was her way of expressing her supreme appreciation for a story — or a kindness.
Any kindness that came her way was met with supreme — and utterly genuine — gratitude. A kind word could bring her to tears, a gift would send her to her desk where she would write a thank you note. Gratitude was an expression that was so fundamental to her that to not be grateful would have been unthinkable.
Only weeks before her death, a mutual friend who knew that Michelle was related to President James Madison, the university’s eponym, through his sister Nelly, gave me some mementoes she had found in an the attic of an old ancestral home to give to her. (Michelle’s little joke was that Mr. Madison had married into her family, which was true.) When I delivered them, Michelle cried — and immediately sent a note to the giver.
Such gratitude was on display daily by Michelle, the sold-out Duke.
Determined to excellence
Michelle and I once sat side by side taking a Myers-Brigg test. We laughed at how similar our charts were, ironic given our extreme personal differences. Both our graphs formed giant check marks, informing us that we were both highly creative introverts who tended toward perfectionism. Her tendency, however, was extreme. It didn’t even fit completely on the graph.
Perfectionism often inhibits individuals, but for Michelle it became a standard for the magazine she cared for so deeply. In this respect, she had, perhaps, chosen the perfect occupation because editors lacking this tendency are not very good editors. She worked tirelessly — and often into the late hours of the night, a quiet time without distractions that creative types need in the way that humans need air. She made sure every word, sentence, headline, cutline, paragraph and page were as perfect as she could make them.
Of course, she could be stubborn, but I’ve never known an editor worth his or her salt who didn’t have a stiff backbone. Editors, by nature of their jobs, have to be tough, and she was tough when it came to the magazine. She was determined to get it just right, even when it was hard work, even when she was up against deadlines. Part of the magazine’s success was Michelle’s laser-like ability to spot copy errors — and she knew AP style like nobody’s business. She would comb through text over and over and over, making certain it was perfect. An editor at Vogue magazine once perused Madison magazine and was astonished that she, a big-time professional editor, could not find a single mistake.
Editing a 60-plus page magazine is a daunting task, especially when you consider the coordination it requires with multiple writers, designers, constituents and readers. It requires a solid grasp of the material and a whole understanding of the standard magazine process. Adding Michelle’s encyclopedic knowledge of JMU to her own professional expertise contributed to its success. If she didn’t know a piece of information, she always knew the person to ask for it. In this sense, she was the consummate journalist.
She was also a writer’s editor. One on one, she was engaging, always striking a balance between correction and affirmation. She was always — always — cognizant of writers’ egos — which I assure you are universally fragile.
Every writer, in a sense, has a split personality. We are tough enough to go after a story, yet we are insecure enough to understand the nuances and unspoken sentiments that make a good story. As a writer and editor, Michelle understood this intuitively, and she treated writers, including legions of student interns, with supreme respect, embuing us with a kind of necessary courage. For me, her supportive words — sometimes couched in requests for changes — were affirming, never causing doubt. As a writer, I always appreciated that a suggestion here and there would always make me a better writer. Every honest writer understands that.
She wasn’t always treated with respect, sometimes suffering the arrogance that academic degrees and titles can produce, but whatever darts and arrows she suffered she absorbed as personal shrapnel in her fight to guarantee that Madison magazine would be the best she could humanly make it. She was determined that the university she loved would have the best magazine she could produce, no matter how much it cost her. A few weeks before she died, when the magazine’s production schedule was changed, she forfeited the deposit on a beach house and gave up her vacation. She did that often. Her devotion to Madison was complete.
And once again, she taught me. I learned that excellence requires sacrifice. Especially in a fast-paced world of carelessly lent words and capricious communications, excellence should always be the standard.
A faith to forgive
There were many parts of Michelle’s life to which I was not privy, and here our lives diverged even further. Michelle loved jewelry and fashion; I prefer sweatshirts and tennis shoes. She loved heavy metal — especially Metallica; I, on the other hand, prefer Copland, Gershwin and Rachmaninoff. She was a faithful devotee of Rolling Stone (a magazine for which she had also freelanced) while I prefer Southern Living. She once told me that the place she felt most comfortable was in a mosh pit. I cannot fathom it!
And while I am at ease on golf courses and country clubs, she found peace in the backwoods of Western Virginia. She was an avid hunter, outdoorswoman and conservationist — long before environmentalism became chic. In her skill as a hunter, she modeled Native Americans — using, as they taught, every muscle, bone and tendon that she took from the forests around Craigsville. Every fall, she took her quota of deer — a lot of meat for one person. What she didn’t use herself went into the freezers of needy local families. I wonder who will fill them this winter?
While Michelle and I were so different, we shared one significant commonality — a strong faith in God. It was the single thing that bound us together most closely as friends. I often had the words to express it, but Michelle always had the actions. And here, once again, Michelle lived it in a remarkable way — in a way I came to admire. Whenever someone had hurt her or had been cruel to her she would fuss for a minute and almost invariably follow by saying, “I’ve got to forgive them.” Those were sincere words, not meant to impress anyone but to set her heart right. Her anger never lasted for long, and I never saw it dissolve into bitterness or vindication; it always softened into a willingness to forgive — knowing that that alone was the best way to change her and to change circumstances.
I learned from Michelle that differences shouldn’t matter, that forgiveness was possible. It was, perhaps, the best lesson of diversity; that in the end, we are all human, fallible, mortal, and in need of forgiveness.
I learned from her than even in the midst of dark times that forgiveness was a bright and cleansing light. In the wake of her life, I want to emulate my friend, to offer forgiveness, even when it is unwarranted because, as someone reminded me recently, forgiveness is not for the one to be forgiven. It is for me.
The week after her death, I sat in Forbes Concert Hall listening to Virginia Supreme Court Justice William C. Mims talk about justice. Bill is an old friend, whose father gave me my first job. An accomplished man by anyone’s standards, he talked about how the world is changed when individuals practice personal justice. He wasn’t talking about courts or legalities or universities or HR protocols. He was talking about the practice of personal justice, which he defined as a supreme triumvirate: humility, empathy and gratitude.
As he spoke, I couldn’t help but think about Michelle, and how she embodied all three characteristics. While she lived, she wasn’t always the recipient of justice, but she never failed to deliver it.
Her last two years were difficult ones. She lost multiple people close to her, including her father and her lifelong best friend. She didn’t take a minute to grieve. Instead, she held fast to the job she loved, at the university she cherished, and she made sure — as she always made sure — that the needs of those around her and the needs of the university came before her own well-being. For Michelle, working was a kind of therapy. She loved her job; it was, in many ways, the whole of her life, her greatest love. To abandon it, even to grieve, meant abandoning it.
So she soldiered on, working through her sadness and pain in the only way she knew how.
It was hard for me to watch her grieve, and as one who has suffered little in life and faced none of the challenges Michelle faced, I would stop by her office regularly to cheer her up. I would do as I — a hopeless encourager — was wont to do: I was upbeat and offered her what sympathy I could.
But still she cried.
Gradually I began to realize that all the sympathy in the world, especially the rote sympathies — attending funerals or sending flowers — was not what my grieving friend needed. She needed empathy. Ironically, I learned it from Michelle, as I watched her empathize with others even in the midst of her own suffering. I learned that sympathy is easy — the cheap plastic replica of empathy. I learned what true empathy was.
Recently, Sarita Hartz-Hendrickson wrote on her blog: “I can be one person’s hug of empathy because I know what it is to lose and I know how rare it is to find someone who doesn’t try to explain the pain away, but stands in the middle of it, a brave and somber tree.” **
That was Michelle. One who understood empathy better than anyone I have ever known.
Justice Mims defined it beautifully when he said empathy was feeling someone else’s pain. Michelle taught me that, and I am forever grateful because that lesson alone dwarfed all the many others she taught me.
Perhaps that’s why her death hit me so hard. Perhaps that why it was so hard to see her desk cleaned out, her name whisked away, and every semblance of her erased. I miss her terribly. I am heartbroken that she has left us. And in a selfish way, I am sad that she is not here to teach me more lessons.
Perhaps it is because Michelle Hite changed my life forever. Perhaps in the faith she and I shared, I can know that she is now complete and happy.
On the anniversary of her best friend’s death, Michelle took a rare day off and spent the time in their favorite spot, a fishing hole tucked under the mountains west of Craigsville. I’m sure these were her thoughts that day — thoughts that she wrote on her Facebook page about the grandfather who raised her, a man she adored:
“I get told I’m too tenderhearted almost daily …. I wouldn’t have it any other way. You had more integrity and soul and character than anyone I have ever known. I am proud to be told I’m tenderhearted like you, PawPaw…..Save me a good spot by the riverbank….I’ll be coming with some peanut butter bait! Brown trout, beware!”
*Why Poor Students Struggle by Vicki Madden, New York Times, Sept. 21, 2014.