Col. Donald K. Jamison ’57 – who deeply influenced thousands of cadets during his decades of service as a professor, coach and adviser at VMI – died Nov. 19, 2019. He was 85.
A native of Roanoke, Virginia, Jamison was involved with the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Baptist Club, participated in intramural sports for four years, was in the Regimental Band and was a member of the staff of The Bomb as a cadet. He was a Distinguished Military Student during his 2nd and 1st Class years.
After leaving VMI, Jamison earned a master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. He returned to VMI and was in the classroom for a short time after which he earned his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.
Jamison returned to the Institute and the Department of Civil Engineering immediately after receiving his doctorate. His career would stretch over almost four decades, during which he headed the department from 1971-78 and again from 1984-91 and held the Benjamin H. Powell Jr. ’36 Distinguished Professorial Chair in Engineering. He retired as a professor in 1992.
A popular and effective teacher, Jamison was nevertheless demanding – and more than a little mischievous. Capt. Ned Riester ’78 – former department head and a former student of Jamison’s – remembered some of what Jamison would do. In one class, fluid mechanics, “he had a favorite momentum problem, problem 3.87, and he required the students to submit it totally correct. If not, they got negative points and had to resubmit. When it was correct, they would get a zero. He would say, ‘I have them begging for a zero,’” Riester recalls.
“He also used to flip a coin to decide which problem to grade in his classes. He could do all kinds of coin tricks, and he always seemed to land on the problem he wanted to grade. Some cadets – I think they were from the Class of ’77 – actually presented him with a two-headed coin.”
One year, when VMI still conducted classes Saturday mornings, Jamison cleared all the desks out of his classroom for classes on the morning after Ring Figure, which required cadets to stand to take notes.
Jamison also was a strong “professional citizen.” A recognized expert in numerous fields, including fluid mechanics, he was widely published and was in high demand as a consultant by many organizations, including the U.S. Department of Defense.
Jamison did not limit his service to VMI to the classroom. He gave much of his time and talent to VMI athletics and, more precisely, the Institute’s cadet-athletes. He served as the coach of the tennis team from 1968-84. In 1981, his team had 17 wins. Besides that, he served on the executive committee of the VMI Athletic Council and was a longtime academic adviser to cadet-athletes, hundreds of whom benefited from his wisdom and insights, both born out of his long experience at – and intense love of – the Institute.
He also served for many years as the superintendent’s representative to the VMI Honor Court and was the deputy director of VMI Research Labs. He also perpetuated the Institute’s citizen-soldier tradition by serving in the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers as a reservist from 1957-65.
His service to the Institute earned him many honors. For his work on the Honor Court, he received the VMI Achievement Medal. Besides being a longtime holder of the Powell Chair, he received the Pletta Award as Virginia’s Engineering Educator of the Year in 1995. In April 2010, VMI honored his contributions to the Department of Civil Engineering when it named a fluid mechanics laboratory in his honor. He was twice recognized for his work on behalf of VMI athletics, first in 2002 by the VMI Keydet Club which presented him with its highest honor, the Spirit of VMI Award, and then in 2013 by the Institute itself when, by special citation, he was named to the VMI Sports Hall of Fame.
His son, Mark D. Jamison ’83, recounted what he described as his father’s “sole focus” of his VMI career, “It was on the cadets. I’ve had people tell me while they were not stellar students, my father always treated them with respect and that, if they would try, he would help them.” This devotion was not restricted to the classroom. “I once asked him why he stayed to the end of every game. He responded that he was there to support the cadet-athletes.”
The tributes that are the most meaningful and which reflect the meaningful effects he had on VMI are those paid to Jamison by his former students and athletes. His son recalled that one class “gave him an old survey instrument in a box with an engraved plate that stated ‘Don Jamison – It’s Always about the Cadets.’” In 1998, Jeff Hamilton ’81 initiated the Jamison ’57 Family Scholarship, which was enhanced by many others, particularly at the occasion of the Colonel Don Jamison Appreciation Day in 2011. This special event was organized by a number of grateful former students. Perhaps the most moving tributes were described by Riester, “Whenever anyone who graduated within the past 60 years would stop by the office, they always asked how Col. Jamison was doing. Most would then add, ‘I wouldn’t have graduated if it wasn’t for him.’”
Jamison is survived by his wife of 61 years, Priscilla S. Jamison; daughter, Lynne Jamison Kinder; and son, Mark, to whom Jamison presented his diploma.