The Thank You I Didn’t Say

I chose the wrong major in college. I may have mentioned that once before. I was too stupid stubborn to just change majors… So I took some art and writing classes when I could, and I struggled through.

The Exercise Science program at Willamette University carried one of the highest credit loads; it tied with a couple other science degrees. It was not the ‘jock major’ it may be at other schools. The classes were taught largely by four professors, all very different from each other, and choosing an advisor was a strategic battle plan for me. In my mind, whomever I chose would undoubtedly figure out how inept I was, and write me off.

I eventually chose Professor Abendroth-Smith. She told us to call her Julie, or Jules, and while that wasn’t unheard of at the time, it was a reflection of her easygoing demeanor.  After my first class with Julie, I was so glad that I was able to have her as my advisor. She was smart, and funny, and she made difficult material accessible (even if I still wasn’t getting it, I know it was exponentially better than if I’d been sitting in a lecture hall with a professor droning on while scrawling notes across the whiteboards, unaware of the students).  Julie didn’t just lecture, she got us out of the classroom frequently for labs, and we did a lot of hands-on learning “kinesthetic kinesiology,” if you will.

Even though putting off a research paper is infinitely more complicated than putting off an essay I did my best to procrastinate regardless, and pulled many an all-nighter trying to read journal articles and write about them simultaneously. There were times when I barely got my work turned in, whether that involved sliding things under doors after hours, or emailing attachments at 11:59 p.m.  The aspect of my writing that took the biggest hit was my editing. The philosophy became “If spellcheck didn’t catch it, it must not be that bad.”

One time, I turned in a paper for Research and Design (a class with my advisor) that said asses. Yep. Booties. I got that back circled in red with a question mark. Yeah… that was supposed to be assess. Damn you, spellcheck. Sorry Jules.

I did squeak by with an A in there, since that was a writing-based class, and had very little math to deal with. By senior year, I was in over my head. Not that I was failing anything… I just really could have used another semester to finish things up well, and that really wasn’t an option. I wasn’t focused on school, and I was giving minimal effort. I had to retake Biomechanics (another class my advisor taught), and I can still remember how it felt, knowing I had turned in a test with answers using formulas that made absolutely no sense.

We had a really cool project for that class too, where we got to use 2-D kinematics to analyze biomechanical differences between two subjects performing an activity, like: beginner vs. expert kicking a ball, shooting a jump shot, etc… My friend Jodi actually brought up this project last week, because it is a memory so dear to her heart. But, she owed me for the “rats that got pneumonia” experiment, or maybe I still owe her for the “VO2 max testing after drinking baking soda” experiment. Although I do think the two involving blood draws canceled each other out. Each of these fiascoes highly scientific experiments may have been a true test of our friendship, but we helped each other when we had to.

Anyway, in this case I dragged Jodi out to a (very quiet, isolated) corner of campus, wearing all spandex as necessitated by the kinematic software, and strapped her to a pair of roller skis. Yes, those exist. From the 70’s, in this case. They were used for dry land training for cross-country skiers, although I think they might just use inline skates now. Jodi was to play the ‘beginner’ and my mom was driving down to be the ‘expert’ (they were her skis). The video was great, not to say Jodi wasn’t graceful, but my mom’s decade on the US ski team gave her a slight edge, and the differences would be easy to analyze. Except that I didnt know quite what to do with the numbers. I couldn’t run the data correctly, and I was out of time. Perhaps a lackluster final product, but a good memory.

Jules’ face was one spot I could focus on that year as I defended my senior thesis. I don’t do public speaking, except with 10-year-olds. She hadn’t been my thesis advisor, but as I stood looking up into the very small audience and panel, feeling nauseous, shaking too badly to hold my notecards, and sweating through a shirt for the first and only time in my life, she was smiling encouragingly.

Closer to the end of senior year, I sat down with Julie, both of us across the desk from the person checking to make sure that my transcript was all ready to go for graduation. And when he paused, and frowned, and looked up and said, “You, are short one quarter credit,” the world froze for a second. I had dropped an activity class, “Core Body Conditioning,” because it was at 8:00 am, and what the hell was I thinking? I never dreamed that it was the crucial .25 credit that was going to stand between me and my cap and gown. No one had caught it. But my advisor, Julianne Abendroth-Smith calmly leaned in and squeezed my hand and told me, “Don’t worry, we will take care of this.”

And she did. She created a quarter credit independent study with her, tied into my internship, to get me across that all-important finish line. And I was so thankful. I put more effort into it than I had into anything in quite a while. The internship in pediatric physical therapy was amazing to begin with, and I used a case study of one of the little girls as a platform to research Rett syndrome. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t taking for granted that she’d helped me.  Looking back, I don’t know what Julie thought of me.. If she knew I was capable of more, or knew the things I wasn’t saying. She never pushed too hard to get me to talk, but I am pretty sure that if I’d gone to her, she would have listened. I never did, I was (and am still) not very good at showing weakness, and I never opened up. But she didn’t just write me off as a student that didn’t care. And I’d given her ample reason to.

I tell people this occasionally. How indebted I feel to her, how generous and understanding she was. It’s not something I am proud of… I literally would not have graduated without her, and maybe didn’t deserve to. When I came back to Willamette three years later for my master’s program, I was a different student. I finished with a 4.0. I went by the ExSci department one time, in hopes of catching her, but she wasn’t there. I tried to catch her eye at graduation, but I don’t think she saw me. I had periodic half-formed plans over the years of sending her a card, writing her an email at least, sending her some pictures of my students working on their “Human Body” labs that I’d created.. I wanted her to know how much I appreciated what she’d done for me.

What has stopped me?  Procrastination. Guilt. Pride. Embarrassment. Mostly the latter.

So when my friend Travis called tonight to tell me that she had died I learned an excruciating lesson about why you don’t put those things off. I can’t tell her now. I can’t thank her.

She wasn’t old,  she wasn’t ill. I know her daughters aren’t still as young as they are in my head, but they are younger than me. She was an intelligent, caring woman, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic, and creative,  and I respected her immensely. I know that I am not the only student who feels this gratitude; her compassion helped many of us. She had all the qualities of a great teacher.

I thought writing-as-catharsis would be the plan tonight, but 1200 words later… I don’t feel any better.

Thank you Jules, for Bungee-Jumping Barbie lab and Frisbee in the Quad lab, for writing story problems with our names in them, and thank you for believing in me when I didn’t.


~ by Lindsey on January 6, 2011.

6 Responses to “The Thank You I Didn’t Say”

  1. Julianne was first and foremost a teacher. She was for several years a member of the American Society of Biomechanics executive board with responsibilities for educational projects of the society. Her focus on education ranged from professional to very personal as described in this essay.

    She was a colleague and friend who will truly be missed. I add my thanks to those of this essay for her life well lived and shared.

    Gerald Smith
    Utah State University

  2. Lindsey-

    Thanks for sharing your story about Jules – it captures the essence of Jules as a caring advisor/teacher/person. I just learned of her death an hour ago and my tears have not dried.

    I taught Jules when she was a master’s student at the University of Oregon in 1986. I left the U. of O. in 1987, but met Jules again at the U. of Northern Colorado in 1988 when she enrolled in the EdD program in Kinesiology. I was her advisor and she was my graduate assistant. She taught the labs for my class and she was a natural teacher. I wished we could have continued as teacher-student forever, but the sad plight of a professor/teacher is that your favorite students will eventually graduate and move on.

    Luckily for me, Jules succeeded in the field and I would get to see her occasionally – the last time was this past summer at a biomechanics conference. I am so sad that I will not see her again – she was a special person – she had a positive affect on all those she encountered. I will miss her greatly.

    Peter McGinnis
    SUNY Cortland
    Cortland, New York

  3. I went to High School with her, way down in the southernmost part of California. Knew her brother; she was a couple of years behind me. Was chiefly aware of her basketball exploits in High School and at the University of Colorado. I knew she was bright, grasped Calculus and such, but I never figured her for an academic, per se. She was no doubt a practically-minded academic. Had one date with her, when I was a freshman in college, and she was a Junior in High School. Lost contact with her during the college years. She was a wonderful person: bright, witty, compassionate. She will be missed.

  4. Julie was a professor here at SUNY Brockport and although she was only with us a short time, she was a wonderful addition to our department. We have just learned of her passing and are truly sorry to hear such news. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends and all who knew her.
    Cathy Houston-Wilson and the Department of Physical Education/SUNY Brockport

  5. Julie was a customer of mine but our relationship was a great friendship. I will miss her dearly. She had the best attitude and was one of the nicest individuals I have ever met. I always looked forward to seeing her every year at the ISBS Conference. I will be thinking of her a lot when I am in Portugal for ISBS. She was such a thoughtful wonderful person and she will be greatly missed.

  6. Lindsey,
    I have just read this blog post. I am a staff member at WU and reached the link to your blog through a FB post in honor of the 2nd Annual Run (2012) For Jules 5K. I knew Jules through work, and knew her as a remarkable person. I want you to know how touched I am by your story. Julie would be so proud of you and all you have done. Thank you for having the courage to share such a touching story.

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