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Longtime Dean of Darden College of Education Dies at 86

By Harry Minium

Donald A. Myers wasn't always in lockstep with the educational establishment. He eschewed the bell curve, a theory popular years ago that postulated grades should be distributed according to a half circular curve. Most students should receive Cs or Bs, with a set number failing.

He once gave a test to a class of extraordinary students and graded it with the bell curve to teach them a lesson. Many were shocked and some were incensed.

But they got the message - if you teach well enough, and your students work hard, no one should fail because of a theory.

"He showed them just how terrible the bell curve was," said Alice L. Twining, his wife and partner of 31 years.

"People knew they would get an A in his class if they went to every class, took notes, did all the paperwork and worked hard."

The former longtime dean of the Old Dominion University's Darden College of Education died peacefully at his home Feb. 2 after a long battle with dementia. He was 86.

James Koch, who was president during most of Myers' tenure as dean, said he "was a man with a very lively mind who constantly thought about how Old Dominion could generate the best teachers and administrators.

"He and I agreed the best thing Old Dominion could do was produce really competent people who were well prepared. Because when you get out there and start teaching, it's not necessarily like you thought it was going to be, and you have to react to that.

"Dr. Myers worked to train people who were mentally flexible and prepared for the real world."

Koch compares him to Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education from 2009 to 2015 who was reviled by both social conservatives and teachers unions.

"When he took a position, he didn't hide from it even though sometimes people didn't like it," Koch said. "I credit him with the willingness to make decisions and to make them his own."

Steve Tonelson, a longtime professor of education, has generated $25 million in grant money and credits Myers with making educational research important at ODU.

"He was the first dean of education here who put an emphasis on scholarship, in addition to teaching and service. He wanted us to research and to publish," said Tonelson said.

"Don also put people in positions and let them do their jobs. He empowered people."

A native of Omaha, Neb., Myers received his undergraduate degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, then his master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Chicago.

Because he went to public school in an urban area, he researched and wrote extensively about educating college students to teach to inner-city children.

And he loved to teach. So much so that after serving as dean for a decade, he spent 16 more years teaching at ODU before retiring nearly a decade ago.

Prior to moving to Norfolk, he taught at the State University of New York in Albany and Oklahoma State. He was dean of education at Nebraska-Omaha before coming to ODU at age 52. He immediately set about creating relationships between the University and local school systems.

Shortly after he arrived, a professor set him up on a blind date with Twining, who has a Ph.D. in psychology.

"A lot of men won't date a woman who's a psychologist," she said. "I could tell right away that he was very smart. I liked that in a man."

Koch was in his first month as ODU's President when they married, and walked into the wedding wearing a yellow coat.

"It was like sunshine walked into the door," she said. "He and Don worked so well together."

Theirs was a marriage in the truest sense. She had a 3-year-old boy when they married. "He helped me raise this little boy and did a great job," she said.

"He was a wonderful man. He had a great sense of humor and so was polite. Deans, of course, have a lot of power, but I'd never seen a dean with so much power be so polite to people around him.

"He taught me how to be a manager. He said, 'Don't ever interrupt your secretary. You treat everyone with respect.' "

Every night, she said, he came home and cooked dinner.

"He would cook a French meal," she said. "The sauces he made were fabulous."

His sense of humor was evident in the kitchen, where a sign read: "I value the opinions you keep to yourself."

In later years, as his dementia worsened, Twining became a full-time caretaker.

"My father will be missed terribly," wrote his daughter, Sherri Myers Gescheidler, in an online tribute.

"He was my best friend and biggest supporter throughout my life. He was my hero. Dad was my rock and the best father.

"My heart goes out to Alice, his partner in life, who my dad adored, loved, respected and was so proud of. We'll all miss him deeply."

A celebration of Myers life is planned for Virginia Beach; the date and place have yet to be set.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to local nonprofit organizations.

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