TEACHER AND MENTOR
Dr. J.W. Carmichael by Quo Vadis Webster
The director of Xavier's premedical program reflects on her long and sometimes hilarious relationship with its founder, Dr. J.W. Carmichael.
My introduction to the man, the myth, and the legend whom I’ve come to call “JDub” came the summer before my ninth grade in high school. I’d spent some time on Xavier’s campus in its math and science programs, but it wasn’t until I headed to high school that I was able to participate in the science programs spearheaded by Dr. Carmichael: The Summer Science Academy (SSA).
SSA consisted of MathStar, BioStar, ChemStar, SOAR-1, and the Howard Hughes Summer Program. I’d heard Dr. Carmichael’s name from older students at my school, so when I started MathStar I was already aware of the “little, loud, and crazy man in suspenders” who oversaw the summer programs. I was somewhat daunted by the thought of him, yet curious to see what he was like, and I remember clear as day the first time I saw him in person: a short and stocky white gentleman who walked with a bit of a limp and whose dusty blonde hair seemed too perfect to be real. By the end of the summer, I understood that he genuinely cared about making a positive impact in the lives of the students under his care, including us pre-college kids.
When in 1996 I enrolled as a freshman at Xavier, Dr. Carmichael became my premed advisor and so I met regularly with him in preparation for application to medical school. In this role, he was like that zany uncle who’d let you get away with things that your parents would not, yet still was a respected authority figure. The same meetings that I now conduct with XU premeds, I attended as an XU premed; the same letters that were sent home to inform my mom of the academic goals I had (and had not) met, I now send them to the parents of currently enrolled students. So great was my love and familiarity of Dr. Carmichael and the premed office that I worked with SSA the summers after my freshman year, sophomore year, and senior year.
It was during the summer months working in the premed office that I really got to know Dr. Carmichael and better understand the authentic nature of his love for Xavier and New Orleans. I learned of the health issues that he endured while still committing himself fully to the advancement of XU students; I saw him beam with delight and pride when his students reached milestones such as improving a chemistry grade or getting into medical school, or when alumni stopped by to thank him for believing in them and pointing them in the direction of greatness; and I witnessed how obsessive he was about identifying problems and developing solutions—from networking elaborate computer databases, to improving MCAT performance, to making sure that the experiences of the participants in his summer programs were such that they’d choose Xavier later on when they applied to universities. His was a never-ending quest to ensure the success of current and future Xavierites, and he mobilized his colleagues and many others around his cause.
Having worked closely with Dr. Carmichael on Xavier’s campus, as well as assisting him with his personal life both pre- and post-retirement, I have many, many, many stories I could share about him, but I will just say here that he has had a huge impact on my life as a student, as a professional, and as a friend. Dr. Carmichael, raised in a southern Baptist family in New Mexico, and having been severely burned as a child (then having to endure the emotional and physical effects of his injuries), was lured to New Orleans in 1970 by Mardi Gras and all-night bars. But such was his love for teaching, and eventually premedical advising, that he committed virtually all his time to his work and his students at Xavier. Although he left organized religion behind when he left New Mexico—he would tell people he was atheist, or agnostic, or a voodoo practitioner, or worshipping in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster—his devotion to Xavier and her students felt religious, almost spiritual. That he had such a special bond with several Sisters on Xavier's campus is both perplexing and befitting. It was a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament who brought him to Xavier, and, I’d argue, the spirit of his beloved SBS friends was at the top of his list for staying so long!
Contrary to what some may think, Dr. Carmichael’s work as premedical advisor was not at all part of his original plan, nor was it his area of expertise. He constantly reminded everyone “I’m a chemist!” But he was a problem-solver first and foremost, and he let Xavier President Dr. Norman Francis know that someone needed to be dedicated to assisting students with their applications to medical school. Dr. Francis agreed….and told him to do it! The rest is history! To this day, Xavier receives consulting and interview requests to share the “magic” that Dr. Carmichael and his colleagues created all those years ago and that has carried thousands of Xavierites into successful careers in the health professions. Even people who didn’t attend Xavier have been impacted by him because they know someone who did. It would tickle us all when someone would meet Dr. Carmichael for the first time and find out that he’s not tall and dark, as he’d like people to believe. Whenever he was asked to submit a picture for some publication or honor, he’d always send a picture of Denzel Washington until he’d have to relent and send the “real” picture!
Dr. Carmichael built a culture here. If Xavier were a well-tailored suit, he’s a pattern piece and one of the seams! He’s been recognized nationally and internationally, and has received numerous awards for his achievements. But those who really know him know that he cared about NONE of the accolades unless they could be used to help students. How ironic is it that the least religious person I know has been one of the most enduring stewards of St. Katharine Drexel’s mission?
On a personal note, the impact Dr. Carmichael has had on my life since graduating from Xavier University cannot be overstated. When I couldn’t enroll in medical school because my mom was sick, he created a full-time position for me; he made sure that I remained on the payroll during the Hurricane Katrina closure; he introduced me to food I’d never eaten, movies I never would have watched, and NPR; he has been a surrogate father, grandfather, zany uncle, and friend to me; he invested in my work and personal well-being. He is truly family to me and, while he can be a thorn in my side, I cannot forget the beautiful rose that is JWC (he’d KILL me for saying that).
Quo Vadis Webster is Director of Xavier University’s premedical program.