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A Life Well Lived

photo of Dr Marie V McDemmondMarie Valentine McDemmond — educator, accomplished leader, visionary, mentor, and “the first” in many aspects of her career — passed away July 27, 2022. She was 76 years old. She leaves a void in her family, the Norfolk State University community, and in the world of educators in the Commonwealth and beyond.

McDemmond also left us with a crop of diverse leaders and mentees taking on the mantle of leadership at NSU and elsewhere. She left her mark on the heart of all those she touched or interacted.

Dr. McDemmond served as NSU’s president from 1997 – 2005. She once said, “Leaders must always possess unwavering fortitude – for when they stumble – as all leaders do, they must pick themselves up and be able to achieve even more.” McDemmond lived by her word and embodied them in her mantra . . . achieving with excellence. Always impeccably dressed in her St. John suits, she had an iron will and left a legacy of transformative leadership. McDemmond believed that listening was a fundamental requisite of leadership. She was also quoted as saying, “A leader must be a visionary who constantly asks, why not?”

During a memorial service held on campus August 17, officiant Rev. Joy Carrington from the NSU campus ministry, said about McDemmond, “She was an unforgettable part of the university’s history. And, once a Spartan . . . always a Spartan. She possessed a whole lot of grit, and for those of you who don’t know, grit means diligence, persistence with fortitude.” Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston at the McDemmond Celebration of Life CeremonyNSU’s current president, Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston, told the audience, “We are standing on the shoulders of greatness. She did incredible things for Norfolk State University that are still in place today: the PASSPORT program with TCC, and she envisioned the reclamation of students who separated from the University through the NSU Reclamation Program. The foundation she laid with her distinguished career has truly positioned and launched NSU to be one of the premier HBCUs today. With her vision and sense of purpose, I only had to pick up the mantle and keep moving.”

Present and former administrators at NSU told BEHOLD that McDemmond believed in proactive transformation and navigated uncharted territories. She visualized partnerships that would groom university leaders of the future from the inside. Dr. Emma Best, who worked in the athletics department during the McDemmond era, remembers how personable the president was. “I met her on the elevator in Wilson Hall,” Best remembered. “I was on my way to Human Resources, and I recognized her. I said how are you, Dr. McDemmond? And she said, ‘fine’ and you are? I told her my name and she knew me. Dr. McDemmond with 2nd NSU president, Dr. Harrison B. WilsonShe explained she knew one of my sorority sisters and we started a conversation from there.” Best remembered feeling that even though McDemmond was the leader of the university, she treated her as an equal. Kathy Haverlesky, formerly with University Advancement, wrapped up the sentiment of the group when she said, “She was a smart woman. I loved her.” Haverlesky worked with the university’s foundation and McDemmond was legendary for her knowledge of finances, fundraising, and how to leverage money to elevate Norfolk State. Davida Williams, director of Auxiliary Services at Norfolk State, agreed with Haverlesky’s evaluation of McDemmond’s financial prowess. Williams joined the conversation and choking back tears stated, “As a finance person she understood our language. Not that she based everything solely on finances, but if we came to her and said this is what the impact will be, she understood the impact and we didn’t have to explain it further.” Dr. Best added, “She was a good listener, and she weighed her decisions carefully.” Sandra Williamson-Ashe, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, reminisced about McDemmond saying, “She was a walking charismatic book of knowledge . . . thought well on her feet. She was a consummate teacher. She was a born teacher.”

celebration of life programMarie V. McDemmond was NSU’s first female president and the first African American woman to lead a four-year university in Virginia. Her influence touched not only the NSU community but spread throughout the Commonwealth and around the country. Among her community outreach and connections, she was selected for the Dominion Strong Men and Women Series 2004, served as a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Public Policy and Executive Leadership in Higher Education, and was the first college president to be named as Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army of Virginia. She was named to the President’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs and headed up a region of the National Association of Colleges and Universities. McDemmond was recognized by the Outstanding Young Women of America, Who’s Who Among Black Americans, and Florida’s National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). NSU former executive vice president, Dr. Alvin J. Schexnider, offered a special tribute during McDemmond’s memorial service mentioning the commonalities he shared with his fellow educator. nsu welcomes dr marie v mcdemmondHe spoke about her leadership and her devotion to higher education. “It was through this shared commitment that we both found ourselves at Norfolk State University. Every day that we were here, we worked hard to advance the mission of Norfolk State and did everything we could to help it achieve its huge potential. Without a doubt, Dr. McDemmond’s greatest gift to NSU was her vision of what it could become.” Schexnider continued, “The most effective leaders . . . in any endeavor . . . are the women and men who possess a vision, and are capable of articulating that vision, and can draw others to support it. Effective leadership demands clear thinking, intentionality, persistence, and of course hard work. Marie V. McDemmond had a vision for Norfolk State and the Board of Visitors supported her in that vision.”

Dr. Marie V. McDemmond was an absolute educator, trailblazer, glass ceiling breaker, gifted leader, visionary, and counselor. “For me she was an inspiration, a mentor – someone who modeled the way,” said Davida Williams. President Adams-Gaston eloquently summed up the former president’s legacy stating, “She left an indelible footprint at NSU.”

McDemmond’s leadership catapulted Norfolk State into the realm of premier HBCUs. Highlights of her accomplishments include:

  • Envisioned a campus and community research hub, initially called the Research Innovations to Support Empowerment Center (RISE), today named in her honor as the Marie V. McDemmond Center for Applied Research
  • Created a new research and technology division and hired the division’s first vice president
  • Developed a comprehensive recruitment and marketing plan for new and transfer students
  • Implemented a university-wide budget process
  • Realigned the university’s nine schools into five maximizing resources
  • Developed Norfolk State’s leadership and vision
  • Established the Office of First-Year Experience
  • Established the Office of Enrollment Management
  • Became the first person in NSU’s history to donate $1 million
  • Began the plans for The Campaign for Norfolk State University: Initiatives for the Future – the university’s first-ever major gifts campaign