JMU writing, rhetoric and technical communications professor Erin Lambert Hartman explained that a philosophy professor once taught her an important lesson about what it means to be a good person.
Her professor said, “A good person is someone animals and children don’t feel afraid to be around.”
Whitten Maher is one student who Hartman said lived up to such a definition and stood out from the rest in all of her eight years of teaching.
Maher who was part of the class of 2010, died on Dec. 20, 2012 at the age of 25 after taking his own life. Maher served as both a design editor and an opinion editor for The Breeze. During his time, he authored an award-winning column called “Gadfly.”
“When Whitten died, I felt a profound sense of loss to this lineage, because what I, and others, had passed along to him seemed to have come to an end,” Hartman, his former GHUM 200 professor, said.
This led Hartman and Whitten’s family to create The Whitten Maher Scholarship for Writing and Design, which will be awarded in the next school year.
The scholarship is open to all full or part-time students of any major. Applicants must also be enrolled as a student for the fall semester.
“[Applicants] have to submit a written work or design that falls under one or more of the following categories: educates through a civic purpose, promotes empathy rather than derision or seeks to support or encourage populations that feel misunderstood,” Kelly Snow, the director of the Office of Annual Giving, said.
All three categories mirror Whitten’s personality and his writing; creating the scholarship in his honor as a way to bring his spirit back.
“Writing anything is like trying to join a conversation that started long before you arrived, and will continue long after you leave, and I sensed that Whitten really understood this,” Hartman said. “He expressed this in the classroom, in his papers and often through his articles for The Breeze.”
Whitten was also gay and many of the articles he wrote discussed sexual orientation.
Hartman remembers his ability and willingness to understand the point of view of others, even those he didn’t agree with.
“When Whitten wrote, he was able to voice ideas that humanized those who, for whatever reasons, are not fully represented within that conversation,” Hartman said. “Likewise, he humanized those who expressed ideas with which he disagreed or that deeply offended him.”
Hartman also explained that Whitten understood the importance of listening to others. His style let the readers know that he heard them, as this further encouraged them to listen to what he had to say.
“Ultimately, it is this approach to writing that we’re seeking to promote in the recipients of this memorial scholarship,” Hartman said.
While Hartman remembers Maher for his writing, his work at The Breeze is what Brad Jenkins, general manager of The Breeze, remembers the most.
Whitten, who served as opinion editor and design editor for The Breeze for more than two years, is also responsible for much of The Breeze’s current layout.
“His design work, I would say, is the thing that sticks with me the most because it’s the thing that I still, every Monday and Thursday, look at,” Jenkins said.
He explained that Whitten was able to “demonstrate” the story he was trying to tell through his design.
“The point of design is not to necessarily make something look pretty, it’s to communicate something, and he understood that,” Jenkins said.
Other than his work, Jenkins said Maher was known for his kindness to those he interacted with and his ability to work under pressure — especially when it came to deadlines. His dedication and compassion to his work was something many of his professors admired.
Snow, who didn’t know Maher personally, experienced this sentiment when she met up with many of the WRTC professors who are supporting the scholarship.
“All of them were so touched by Whitten and were certainly grieving his loss,” Snow said. “So, it was just very powerful to see so many faculty members wanting to pull together to make this happen.”
His considerate attitude was re-emphasized to Hartman when his final paper was accepted at the 2009 General Education Conference.
“As tragic as Whitten’s death will always be, I choose to see that he has given us an opportunity to create something that honors the great potential he had, a potential that lives in others, a potential this scholarship seeks to support,” Hartman said.
According to Snow, the scholarship provides recipients $1,000 each year they apply, and many of its supporters include JMU professors and many friends of the Maher family.
Students can nominate themselves or can be nominated by a full/part-time faculty member. Along with a PDF of the nomination and the piece being turned in, a cover letter with the student’s contact information must be turned in by May 2 to be considered for the scholarship.
Contact Erin Flynn at email@example.com.