Everyone loves the ‘Doctor-Deacon’

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The door to Deacon David Conroy's office at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale is covered with yellow sticky-notes and cut-out leaves posted by students with mostly inside and cryptic jokes shared by student and professor.

"I'm getting nervous," said one, and "1 2 3 pumpkin," was another.

Others are more personal.

"We love you," and "you are the best."

When he's there, his small office on the third floor of the McDiarmid Building has students pacing outside waiting to see the math professor. Some are looking for help with a tough math problem, while others just want to talk.

"It's not just teaching," said Deacon Conroy. "It's caring."

That caring was honored in 2014 by the Virginia Community College System that awarded Deacon Conroy the Chancellors Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE). It's a competitive and prestigious award presented to a faculty member "who represents the teaching excellence found in the Virginia Community College System."

The prize includes an academic stole that Deacon Conroy displays in his office.

Deacon Conroy, 73, has a doctorate in education from American University in Washington, and has been teaching math at NVCC for 48 years. He was ordained a deacon 38 years ago by Arlington Bishop Thomas J. Welsh.

Deacon Conroy lives in Fredericksburg and works in Annandale. During the school week, he stays in Annandale, coming home to wife Patricia - whom he calls his bride - on Friday. He stays the weekend to perform his diaconate duties at St. Patrick Church in Fredericksburg and St. Timothy Church in Chantilly. Weddings and baptisms fill the time. On Monday, he's back in Annandale teaching. It's a tough schedule, but one he loves.

He said he wears two hats - educator and deacon - and is able to blend both.

Mathematics scares many people. Deacon Conroy makes it accessible and understandable. And he listens.

He is the head of the NVCC campus ministry but now mostly does his ministering one-on-one. He wears a wooden cross around his neck, and that gets new students talking.

"I explain it on the first day of class," he said.

He tells the students, a mixture of different religions and cultures, the differences between priest and deacon.

Some of his students come in to talk about a math issue, but some move into more personal areas - relationship problems, stress and family issues.

"They see it as counseling," he said of the students who come to his office.

Deacon Conroy never tires of talking about the good he sees in his students.

In his acceptance speech for the CATE award, he told the story of a young woman in his math class who came to talk to him.

She said that there was a young man in the class who had holes in his shoes. She wanted to buy him a new pair, but didn't want him to know it was she who bought them. She asked Deacon Conroy to be the intermediary. He was, and the man never knew who the generous student was.

"This is just an example of the kind of goodness and generosity I wave witnessed over the years which is a hallmark of so many of our students," he told the audience.

In October, he was asked to give the keynote address at the seminar for new faculty members. He told the educators what he believes a community college professor should be, and how they could impact a student positively for the rest of their lives.

"Why are all of the special notes taped to my office door?" he asked.

He said it's because students want to be known, understood and appreciated by the faculty.

He told the new teachers that "each and every one of you good people are in your own lane, whereby you will have a profound influence on the minds and hearts of your students, in your realization that these students will be your living legacy to the future."

He told the poignant story of a young woman who walked with him to his office and told him he should write a book that captures his insights and techniques of teaching. He responded sarcastically, and things went quiet. When he turned to look at her, she was crying. He asked her what was wrong.

"She was very serious," he said, "because I could die, and my legacy of teaching would die with me."

Deacon Conroy finished by telling the new faculty that "the essential ingredient of teaching is to be a caring and sensitive teacher, keenly tuned to the academic and personal concerns of the students."

In 2012, Deacon Conroy received a letter that started with the salutation, "Doctor - Deacon." The letter writer, a female student, mused on the idea of "getting enough" - Getting enough money, enough leave, enough work done, enough to get a promotion.

"I wish for you 'enough,' but of different things," she wrote.

The writer listed her wishes for Deacon Conroy.

"Enough time with your grandchildren. Enough humor to get through the day. Enough coffee. Enough energy to counsel the lovers waiting to be married," she wrote.

She went on to say that she spent her life afraid of math, because she could never understand it. Now it was her favorite class of the semester, something she never could have imagined.

"This is what the whole thing is about," he said. "It's a joy and privilege to teach these students."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015