Category Archives: The Delta Spring 2014

MOOCs: Significant Disruptor or a Fleeting Curiosity?

Sigma Nu Leadership conference

By Ben Nye (Arkansas)

The familiar image of a room with rows of students at their desks and a professor at the front delivering a lecture may be a thing of the past. The traditional model of higher education is being challenged by companies and universities offering free or reduced cost education through online video lectures and seminars for students. The question now is whether these MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, will become a serious challenger to brick and mortar colleges or merely a supplement to traditional models of higher education.

Consider Coursera: founded by former Stanford University Professor Sebastian Thrun, it is one of the largest MOOC providers in the world. In October, The Wall Street Journal reported that Coursera had enrolled over five million students and had developed partnerships with venerable educational institutions including Columbia, Princeton, Cal Tech, and Johns Hopkins to offer free academic lectures for students.

EdX — another MOOC provider created by MIT and Harvard — is currently offering a certificate completion series that was developed with input from companies such as Proctor & Gamble and Wal-Mart. Khan Academy, one of the first and most widely known providers of online video lessons, has now created over 5,000 videos with subtitles in 40 different languages. Speaking about the growth and success of MOOCs, edX President Anant Agarwal said, “We want to dramatically increase access to learning for students worldwide while, at the same time, reinventing campus education.”

Fraternities should consider joining the movement by hosting their own MOOCs or similar programs in ethical leadership, time management, career development, and other topics offered by the LEAD Program.

The Obama administration is taking notice. “A rising tide of innovation has the potential to shake up the higher education landscape. Promising approaches include three-year accelerated degrees, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and ‘flipped’ or ‘hybrid’ classrooms where students watch lectures at home and online,” the president said during a speech earlier this year. The president’s administration is hoping these MOOCs can help drive down the cost of higher education while maintaining a high level of quality regardless of location.

It appears that MOOCs may be doing just that. Writing for The Washington Post, Dylan Matthews noted that, “Single professors could handle classrooms with hundreds of thousands of students. The cost of providing degrees would plummet, making college vastly more accessible to those who want it.” Furthermore, MOOCs may not just lower the cost for students, but also for universities. Universities that develop partnerships with MOOCs may have the ability to generate much needed revenue by offering college credit for MOOCs. Blogger Martin Kich writing for the Academe Blog notes that, “Large state universities that adopt MOOCs that have been developed externally will most likely produce substantial, additional revenue from offering the MOOCs to [students] well beyond their currently substantial enrollments.”

MOOCs offer a great deal of promise: free lectures by university instructors, the ability to learn from any location, and a possible answer to the ballooning cost of higher education. Writing for The New York Times in January 2013, columnist Thomas Friedman said, “Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty.” Indeed, The New York Times had already named 2012 “The Year of The MOOC.”

The question before fraternities is whether MOOCs will have any impact on the number of students enrolled in traditional higher education programs.

In the midst of their high praise, MOOCs have also been subject to several criticisms. The Chronicle of Higher Education noted in April that the retention rate for most MOOCs “is around 10 percent.” Speaking last year to a representative from Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller stated that a typical course retains only 7-9% of its initial group of participants.

Another noteworthy statistic about MOOC performance was provided in a study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Reporting in the journal Nature, the researchers found that 83% of the individuals enrolled in a Coursera course already had two or four-year degrees. An additional 44% held advanced degrees. Summarizing their findings, the researchers wrote, “The individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most — those without access to higher education in developing countries — are underrepresented among the early adopters.”

It seems that even some of the MOOC phenomenon’s biggest proponents are beginning to temper their expectations. “[MOOCs cannot] really move the needle on fundamental educational problems,” the aforementioned Daphne Koller told The Chronicle of Higher Education. Sebastian Thrun, Coursera’s founder, told Fast Company that, “We don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished.”

While it seems that much of the hype surrounding MOOCs is premature, it doesn’t mean that they won’t be helpful additions to higher education. As blogger Jeff Kesselman reminds the reader, MOOCs should be considered similar to textbooks. “Massively Open Courses have been around for a very long time. They are called ‘books.’ And reading a book may give you some familiarity with the subject but it’s not likely…to be at the same level as completing a college course in it.”

The question before fraternities is whether MOOCs will have any impact on the number of students enrolled in traditional higher education programs. While it isn’t looking like MOOCs will disrupt existing models of higher education anytime soon, fraternities should still monitor the movement as it progresses. For universities worried about losing on-campus students to more convenient online classes, fraternities are positioned to provide the social cohesion that is missing from classes that don’t offer face-to-face contact. And if MOOCs continue to evolve as a supplement to traditional classes – a much more likely path – then fraternities should consider joining the movement by hosting their own MOOCs or similar programs in ethical leadership, time management, career development, and other topics offered by the LEAD Program.

Institutions of higher education should anticipate MOOCs sticking around as their growth has been undeniable. In fact, universities would be wise to incorporate some of their methods into their course offerings. But to think that MOOCs will replace and radically disrupt the traditional university is premature. MOOCs are a great tool, but the difficult task of educating America’s college students will likely remain a function performed by the traditional college or university.

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History, Tradition and Heroes

By Grand Historian Bob McCully (San Diego State)

 Is history important?  Is it worth using limited resources to preserve?  Does anybody really care that much about history?  Are traditions worth continuing? I’d turn those questions around and ask a different question. What is the glue that holds all of us together as initiates of Sigma Nu and how can we strengthen that bond?

What connects us – whether I’m from a large chapter and you’re from a small one?  Whether my chapter is over a hundred years old and yours is less than five?  Whether I was initiated 50 years ago and you were initiated last week?  Whether I attended a public school and you a private one – whether in Canada or the United States?

The Few. The Proud. The Marines.

Past Regent Robert Durham at a recent College of Chapters shared an interesting study.  The conclusion was that one of the most

One of the many historical items received at the General Fraternity office.

One of the many historical items received at the General Fraternity office.

successful organizations at building camaraderie and loyalty among its members is the United States Marine Corps.  Once you’re a Marine, you’re always a Marine.  You don’t lose pride in the organization or your fellow Marines once you have it.

What can Sigma Nu as an organization learn from this?  The study concluded that Marine’s focus on Corps history, traditions and heroes created loyalty and pride.

Every year, on November 10th, the Marine Corps hold a Birthday Ball to celebrate their founding over 238 years ago and their connection and pride in the Corps.  At these formal balls, a birthday cake is cut and the first and second slices are presented to the oldest and youngest Marines in attendance. The Marines Hymn is the oldest official song in the armed forces.  The Marine Corps band is the oldest continuously active professional music organization in the United States and has played at the inauguration of every president except those of the first two, George Washington and John Adams.

The Corps teaches history as a part of basic training and holds up those fearless men who epitomize courage and leadership.  A Marine leader leaves no man wounded or dead on the battlefield and also ensures his men are comfortably fed, clothed and housed. In fact, in the field an officer lines up after his men in the mess lines to be certain all his men are fed.

Emphasis on history, tradition and heroes plays an important role in creating the Marine Corps’ esprit de corps.

What Can we Learn

So, can Sigma Nu as an organization learn from the example of the US Marines? While our founding was more recent than 238 years ago, in the years since our founding in 1869, we have developed a rich history of our own.  While our traditions don’t involve carrying a rifle or sending men into battle, they are shared by over 230,000 men in over 279 active and dormant chapters. While many of our heroes don’t wear uniforms, they still inspire us with examples of Love, Truth and Honor.

Thus, with this edition of The Delta, I’d like to launch a Heritage Initiative with the idea of preserving and promoting our history, traditions and heroes. Let me share with you some thoughts and ideas, as well as actions that have already taken place along those lines.


Last year, I attended a conference for fraternity and sorority historians and archivists held at the University of Illinois.  In addition  to participants from traditional fraternities and sororities, there were others representing cultural-based fraternities and Eta Kappa History croppedsororities that have sprung up in recent decades.  Many of us envied these newer organizations because their founders and early members were still alive and available to be interviewed and questioned about their motivations and struggles in founding a new organization.  We encouraged them to take advantage of this opportunity to capture their early members on video and audio tape to ensure it is preserved for future generations.  Can you imagine if the technology had been around when Sigma Nu’s founders were still alive, how much more we would know about the founding of the Legion of Honor and its early history?

Fortunately for many of our Sigma Nu chapters, particularly those in the Zeta series forward, the opportunity to preserve the memories of your founders still exists. Find and take the time to interview these men while they’re still around and make sure it’s done in a way that will be preserved for the future.  Videotape them, audiotape them and get them to write down their memories while you can and send copies to the Sigma Nu archives in Lexington for preservation purposes.

Let me share with you two different examples of early chapter history’s that were published just last year.

My own chapter at San Diego State University celebrated its 50th anniversary in February 2013. As part of the celebration, Jeff Giardi (Eta Kappa #1) spent the last five years researching and writing about the first 10 years of the chapter and its predecessor local fraternity.  Over that time, he solicited thoughts and remembrances from early initiates of the chapter.  After countless hours of interviewing, researching, writing and editing, he produced a 785 page history of those early days.  Copies of his two-volume set are now housed in the Richard R. Fletcher Honor Library in Lexington as well as the Sigma Nu archives for future researchers.

While I’m not suggesting every chapter history needs to take five years or expand over 700+ pages, the key is that the process begins somewhere, even if it’s just recording the early memories of your chapter before it’s too late.

The second example was written about the early days of our Georgia State University chapter and its predecessor local by Ron Hill (Eta Gamma #3).  Ron’s history, totaling 80 pages, takes a very different approach as outlined in his forward.

“Writing a history of any organization that has been in existence for 56 years faces problems. For Sigma Alpha Nu and Eta Gamma Chapter of Sigma Nu, there was no organized collection of fraternity information, photographs, awards or other documents. And there was no place to store what little information we did have. So this is not a literal history, but a personal narrative mostly about the early years, 1956-65, and mostly my own memories…”

Although based largely on his own memories, this history is no less fascinating and informative about the chapters early days and its members.

I cite these chapter histories as two excellent examples of what can be done to capture and preserve the early history of your own chapter.  While I know every Grand Historian before me, since Isaac P. Robinson in 1884, has preached a similar message, every day that passes means the further loss of memories and those who lived them.

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of either book, please send me an email at

Our Historical Collection – Collection, Preservation and Access

In addition to encouraging the collection and writing of chapter histories, I ask those of you who have Sigma Nu photographs, documents, composites and other memorabilia to help build our historical collection in Lexington by donating these items to the fraternity. Part of our long-term Heritage Initiative is to construct a facility that will house these items in a temperature and humidity controlled environment with easy access for our members and researchers.

Over the last six years, we have made a concerted effort to reach out to alumni and collegiate chapters to donate their historical

A collection of White Rose songs.

A collection of White Rose songs.

items related to Sigma Nu and their chapter to the Sigma Nu museum/archives.  I’ll share with you examples of items we’ve recently received that are wonderful additions to the collection.

The first is a series of magazines, The Dahlonega Transcript, that John Alexander Howard (first editor of The Delta) edited and published in the early 1900’s.  The magazines were produced for Georgia area alumni of Sigma Nu and focused on local chapters, happenings and alumni.  His great granddaughter, Gail Fishman, was kind enough to donate them to us.

James Hamilton, a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, donated the second item.  The book is an early minute book (1917- 1920) from our Beta Nu Chapter at Ohio State University.  John’s brother was a Sigma Nu at Northwestern and somehow ended up with the book in his possession at his death last year.  What a treasure to have for anyone interested in the early days of this chapter!


Recently, Gerry Likness (South Dakota State) asked about the history of the White Rose formals that many of our chapters host each year. Of course, I knew they were named for the official flower of Sigma Nu, but I wasn’t sure how or when the tradition actually began. After researching in The Delta, here’s what I found.

In 1934, Hugh V. Harlan of our Nebraska chapter wrote a song titled “The White Rose of Sigma Nu”.  It appears to have been first sung jointly by our chapters at UCLA and USC on October 6, 1934 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles.

In the May 1935 edition of The Delta, the University of Idaho chapter reported they held their first White Rose formal in December, 1934.  It was to be given yearly in December for the upperclassmen of the house.  The article indicates the entire theme was built around Sigma Nu’s new song, and a white rose was handed out to each member.  This is the first mention I can find of a chapter holding a White Rose formal dinner-dance.

Subsequent to that, many chapters started using the White Rose theme for their formals.  Early mentions are of the chapters at Kansas State, the University of Arizona and Texas.  Many of us have been to a White Rose formal and have fond memories of the evening. This is an example of one of the many Sigma Nu traditions that bind us together.

Ritual is also an important tradition.  Founder James Frank Hopkins wrote the first one.  Despite modifications over the years, our ritual today still contains most of his original work.  As an organization, we have many traditions including the values contained in The Creed – Love, Truth and Honor, the symbolism behind the badge worn by all of us and the history of our founding at VMI.

Traditions provide continuity from generation to generation and are important parts of the structure that holds organizations together.  Although traditions change and evolve over time, they bridge the past, the present and the future.


My two most recent columns in The Delta focused on three of our many Sigma Nu heroes. The summer 2013 edition spotlighted Ray Ewry (Purdue), arguably the greatest Olympian ever and a member of our Hall of Fame. The fall 2013 edition focused on the valor of our two Medal of Honor winners – Christian Schilt (Rose-Hulman) and Nathan Gordon (Arkansas).

We honor many of our heroes through their induction into our national Hall of Fame and Hall of Honor. In addition, many chapters have their own Hall to remember their outstanding initiates.

In the fall issue of The Delta, I discussed an effort currently underway to identify all initiates who served in the military during one of our wars and made the ultimate sacrifice by dying to protect our freedoms. Their names will be added to the Flag Pavilion at our headquarters in Lexington to appropriately honor and remember them for their courage and sacrifice.  To make sure they are all recognized, I asked our readers to send in the names of those they are aware of who died.

Listed below, are the names of those brothers we have identified who were killed in the Korean War. In future editions of The Delta, we will list the names of those who died in other wars.

Kenneth Albin Hedlund (Virginia)
Jack Baggett (Georgia)
Francis Singleton Norris, Jr. (Kansas)
Frank Burrus Reid (Louisiana State)
John Alan Sears (Indiana)
Robert E. Williamson (Indiana)
Herman Charles Short, Jr. (Auburn)
David Boardman Jennings (Vermont)
Curtice Hayden Rankin (Georgia Tech)
William Frederick Snoots (Georgia Tech)
Dale West Peterson (Oregon)
Laurie Fitzgibbon, Jr. (Cornell)
John Francis Bendyk (Wisconsin)
Robert William Cannon (Wisconsin)
Donald Duane Bartley (West Virginia)
Mont Francis Morgan (West Virginia)
William Wing Canada (Arkansas)
John Homer Byrd (Oklahoma)
Wayne Johnson Rabun (Oklahoma)
Robert Harris Adams (Washington State)
George Walter Goodman (Stetson)
William George Warnock, Jr. (Stetson)
Gardner Henry Peterson (Maine)
John Patterson, Jr. (Florida)
George Alexander McClung (Southern California)
Peter Paul Di Martino (Norwich)
James Robert Leech (Tulsa)

Please let us know if we’ve missed anyone who should be included on this list by sending an email to

Archives Weekend

We are currently cataloging, photographing and rehousing our historical collection in Lexington. There are thousands of documents, photographs, audio tapes and other memorabilia that need to be processed and digitized so they can be made available to our chapters and alumni.

To assist in this process, we will conduct our first annual volunteer weekend on June 6-8, 2014 in Lexington. The goal is to get a small number of volunteers to spend a full two days working in the archives on various projects. Due to budget constraints we are unable to pay the costs of transportation and housing for volunteers, but we will provide the meals. If you’re interested in helping out, please send me an email at indicating your interest. If successful, we hope this will become an annual event.

In Conclusion

All of this leads to a very important anniversary: Sigma Nu’s 150th Anniversary in five years – in 2019.  Plans are currently being discussed and put into motion for a spectacular series of events and projects that will take place as part of our sesquicentennial.  Our history, traditions and heroes will play a major role in this celebration.

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5 Questions with Division Commander of the Year Jamison Keller (Cal State San Bernardino)


Sigma Nu 65th Grand Chapter

Division Commander of the Year Jamison Keller reflects on his Sigma Nu story, what it takes to be a good alumni volunteer, and what his best practices are for advising and working with alumni

What is your Sigma Nu story?

When I came to Cal State San Bernardino, I initially avoided fraternities. My freshman year, I happened to walk by some of the different chapters tabling during recruitment. The first two fraternities I talked to were very stereotypical and turned me off. On my way out, I happened to walk by the Sigma Nu table and they were actually out in front and engaging. They didn’t talk about the fraternity and they asked questions about me. Sigma Nu was not what I thought about when I visualized fraternities.

The chapter brothers taught me a lot of things I needed to know. I learned how to tie a tie, how to sign up for financial aid — a lot of the things I couldn’t get anywhere else. I moved through the ranks and eventually became Commander. Being Commander unveiled what I could be — a leader and public speaker.  It catapulted me to pursuing other positions on campus and gave me the confidence to learn who I was and successfully navigate a career in higher education.

What has your experience been like as a Division Commander?

I’ve always approached advising chapters from both an undergraduate and alumni perspective. It’s a partnership and the fraternity can’t work without both. I have an advantage over most because I work in higher education. I work with this age range almost every day and so I get to educate the alumni on the culture. A lot of alumni think that it is the same as it was when they were collegians. In reality, it’s totally different. My approach with alumni is always to help them see what a typical collegian sees.

What makes a good alumnus volunteer?

Focus on the fact that first and foremost we’re here for the collegians. This is their time to learn about themselves through Sigma Nu and it’s how we build future volunteers for the fraternity. A lot of collegians still see the fraternity as four years. Alumni need to be good role models for them to see that this is a lifelong commitment.

What have been some of your most rewarding experiences as a Sigma Nu?

Leading a chapter through strategic planning and seeing members make the decisions that will help them achieve their goals is very rewarding. On the individual level, it is great to see Sigma Nu craft and define a young man who is a minority or first-generation student. That is the power of fraternity and our values are so needed today. Society needs ethical leaders more than ever and it is crucial that we remain focused on our mission.

What are some of the best practices you have used?

One of the best things to do is to diversify the chapter’s AAB. If possible, it’s good to have a collection of different chapters represented on an AAB. Ideally the AAB will be represented by multiple generations and multiple chapters. Lastly, with technology, it is no longer essential for advisors to be physically present at all advising meetings. With Skype or Google+ people can video chat and have a similar experience to being physically present.

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Back Down South

Mark Walsh2_crop

By John Bauernfeind (Indiana)

Even after four season-long shifts in Antarctica, Mark Walsh still enjoys freezing his hair.

“I’ll get out of the shower, walk outside—I’ll maybe be outside for a minute at most—and when I come back inside my hair is solid as a rock.”

To get in touch with him, Walsh gave me a Colorado number, which, when I called it, was sent to his computer. In the time of our conversation, the call was dropped only once.

Walsh is a weather observer for MacWeather, the weather office at McMurdo Station, which is also the largest base program for U.S. Antarctica Program (USAP). Walsh’s base duties include checking the balance of the weather reporting system so that airplanes can land and takeoff safely.

Walsh graduated with a degree in physics from the College of Charleston, where he joined the Iota Rho Chapter of Sigma Nu. Walsh’s road to Antarctica began here, where he worked for a professor by the name of Jim Neff, whose brother, Don, worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Don had ventured to the South Pole, and the program attracted Walsh’s interest. From there, he set on a five-year mission to make it to the “bottom of the world.”

For two years after he graduated, Walsh applied for entry-level jobs at Charleston’s Antarctica Program, only to be denied each time. Walsh eventually flew to Denver, CO, to meet with Raytheon Polar Services Corp, the primary support contractor at that time. Walsh was told that despite his background in science, he needed to gain experience relative to the USAP, and he was advised to become a weather observer. Thus, ten months later, Walsh became a certified weather observer.

For three years Walsh worked at the Mobile airport, gaining experience in the hopes of one day making it to Antarctica. He worked at the airport on weekends, and during the week he taught full-time at a high school while coaching soccer and bartending. When Walsh finally reached Antarctica, he embraced his new life in full swing.

Mark Walsh3

“It was more of a welcomed adjustment at first. When I finally came down here, life became much simpler,” he said. “It took me a while to slow down, but it’s a healthier situation.”

It takes an average five flights to reach Antarctica from the U.S. Four of the flights are spent getting to Christ Church, New Zealand. From there, Walsh and a crew of other workers take a C17 military plane bound for Antarctica.

When I talked with Mark by phone the current temperature in Antarctica was -25 degrees Fahrenheit. With the wind chill, though, it felt like -55. Walsh says that it’s not so much the cold weather but the wind that breaks people. “The wind is not normal,” he says.

This is Walsh’s fourth stint in Antarctica, but his first in the winter. Walsh explains that his summer shifts have typically lasted about six months, but he will be on the continent for seven this time around.

Walsh lives in a two-person dormitory, but he has the dorm to himself because the base is virtually empty in the winter. Walsh says that McMurdo can hold up to 1,200 people, but right now only 139 people are there.

On the base, Walsh works five to six days a week, at 12-hour shifts. Walsh describes McMurdo as a “cross of summer camp and freshman year of college.” The station is an old navy base built in the 1950s. McMurdo is actually forty miles off the coast of Antarctica, but is attached to the continent most of the year by ice. McMurdo, Walsh says, is “the closest thing to a city on the entire continent.”

Average temperatures in the winter range from -20 to -40 degrees, compared to 10 to 30 degrees in the summer. In the winter there is no sunlight, whereas the summer is lit 24 hours a day.

Mark Walsh1_crop

When he takes a look outside of his dorm room window, Walsh says he sees “nothing but brown rock and dirt.” Walsh describes McMurdo as “an old coal-mining town.” In the summer much of the sea ice melts and they actually have open water, attracting penguins, seals and whales. “Pristine and pretty,” is how he describes the view, which overlooks the Ross Sea. Walsh describes this and other things Antarctica in his blog, The Frozen Toe.

Walsh’s time in Antarctica may be coming to an end, however. After this, he’ll have spent over two years on the continent.

“Now it’s a matter of ‘why are you doing it?’ My Antarctic seasons are wrapping up. I’ve done this for four years now. It’s been a good run.”

Walsh said he’s accomplished many things on his bucket list throughout his time spent in Antarctica, referencing a visit to the South Pole last year. Though his Antarctic experience is wrapping up, Walsh’s next adventure is already in the works.

Walsh’s company—which can be found at—sells adventure travel wallets. Originally Walsh made the wallets himself, lugging his fifty-five pound industrial sewing machine with him to Antarctica. Now, he and his partner are building a support system of experienced contract workers back in the U.S.

In addition, Walsh has also written a book, or a “guidebook” as he describes it. Titled “How to Get a Job in Antarctica,” he chronicles how to do just that. Walsh is an expert in the field, and has five years worth of experience to prove it.

“When you hear of anyone going to a place like Antarctica, it’s surprising,” said Mike Mills, Walsh’s Sigma Nu chapter brother from College of Charleston. “The fact that it’s Mark in Antarctica, it really isn’t all that surprising.”

Both Mills and Walsh served time on the executive board during their time as collegians. Walsh was the recruitment chairman for two years, and Mills rotated among Recorder, Treasurer, Lieutenant Commander and Commander.

Walsh said that his active participation in Sigma Nu has helped him as a weather observer in Antarctica.

“The fraternity gives you responsibilities to other people than just yourself,” Walsh said. “Your actions reflect on each other and you are accountable for others.”

Discussing his involvement with Iota Rho chapter, Walsh connected his tenure as a collegian to his duties in Antarctica.

“Fraternity life and life here are pretty similar, now that I think about it,” Walsh said. “Being a part of a brotherhood, you have to pull your weight and be responsible. The same thing applies here. Everyone really depends on you to do your work.”

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Letting His Lights Shine

Every year, in Plymouth, Minnesota, Brother Mike Justak (Ball State) invests more than 500 hours in programming, assembling, and testing a six-house, sequenced, 60-minute Christmas light show. Just as every shimmer of light in the show is perfectly timed to the music played over FM radio, those 500 hours are coordinated to match Mike’s peak hours of performance on his Parkinson’s meds.

By Merritt Onsa

Lights_web version

Considered “Young Onset,” Mike was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD) in 2004 at the age of 47. “By the time you’re diagnosed, up to 80% of your dopamine cells are already gone,” says Mike. He’s referring to the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine. Once there are visible symptoms, there is little hope of reversing the loss.

Those symptoms might include rigidity, slowing of movement, loss of balance, dysfunction in fine motor skills and speech, or—as the American public observed when Michael J. Fox revealed his diagnosis in 1999—tremors.

Justak has the least common form of PD, without tremors. “I’ve started to call it a ‘movement disorder.’ Most people with PD can’t get their bodies to stop moving. I can’t get my body to move,” he says. He specifically has trouble with repetitive motion on his right side. He’ll start to move his hand or foot normally, but without medication, his movements get smaller and smaller until they halt altogether.

That makes those 500 hours of multi-tasking as a computer programmer, electrical engineer, webmaster, DJ, and designer of a homegrown Christmas light show a bit more challenging than they would be for the ordinary person who doesn’t have training in any of those fields.

That’s right; Mike is an analyst by trade. He graduated with an accounting degree, but he says his Parkinson’s has helped him develop a creative side. What he knows about sequenced light shows he’s learned from others or by trial and error.

3 sequencing

The same goes for managing his meds around his activities, especially the detailed preparations for the show, which take nearly half the year. “I’m either on or off. When people see me they say, ‘You look great,’” says Mike. What those people don’t realize is the synchronization of his meds necessary to ensure he doesn’t “shut off” in the middle of a conversation, event, or light show.

PD Shimmers – You Will Be Amazed!

Mike’s annual Christmas light show, now in its fourth year, is called “PD Shimmers”—a tongue-in-cheek reference to the tremors commonly associated with the disease. Created by a man undeterred by Parkinson’s disease, Mike’s goal is to create awareness for Parkinson’s. His tagline for this year’s show: “You will be amazed!”

The amazing will begin on November 29th, when 58,000 lights will shimmer and dance, recognizing the number of PD diagnoses in 2013. Video and voiceovers will remind viewers of the purpose of the production. “My lights shimmer and dance to remind the world that 1.25 million Americans are waiting for a cure. We will shimmer as long as people tremor,” he says. As has become the tradition, Plymouth Mayor Kelli Slavik will flip the switch this year to commence season four of PD Shimmers.

New to the show in 2013 is “Sparkle.” Mike’s recent invention was inspired by a new feature at Disneyland’s “World of Color” show—lighted Mickey Mouse ears that glow green and red on cue with the music.

9 Mayor Slavik

Plymouth Mayor Kelli Slavik flipping the switch to commence Mike’s annual PD Shimmers lights show.

“Sparkle” will allow audience participation in PD Shimmers. To pull it off, Mike wired a four-foot transparent plastic hollow wand to a battery pack with strings of battery-operated lights stuffed inside. He’s built seven wands, each with a different color and timing to match the show, and all are designed to sit at the base of a car windshield.

“This is Minnesota in December. No one will be standing in front of the house to watch.” Instead, volunteers will approach each car asking if they want to participate in the show with a Sparkle wand on their windshield. “I’m hoping the kids will like it,” says Mike.

Caring for the Parkinson’s Community

Mike is also the founder of the Mike Justak Foundation for Parkinson’s Disease (MJFPD), created in 2009 to promote awareness and provide resources to the community about the disease.

To date, there is no cure for Parkinson’s. In fact, the “best” PD drug was invented 50 years ago, and it still has some of the same pitfalls it had then. Today, care for patients is focused on easing the symptoms, and one of the best ways to do that is through movement.

Enter the MJFPD’s Wii-Initiative, which gets PD patients moving again in the comfort of their own home using the popular Nintendo Wii Fit. “It’s ‘move it or lose it’ with Parkinson’s,” says Mike. His foundation provides funding for new or repurposed Wii kits to eligible applicants including, most recently, a 40-year-old single mom. She was the perfect candidate; as a result, she is now able to move and play with her two-year-old daughter.

Exercise is such a crucial aspect of a PD patient’s treatment because it can increase dopamine production and potentially slow the progression of the disease. In addition, exercise has been tremendously helpful in reducing depression symptoms, a common side effect of PD.

Helping People to Help Themselves

When Mike became acquainted with David Zid, creator of ‘Delay the Disease,’ a PD-specific exercise program, he invited David to a symposium in Plymouth. During the symposium, David gave a quick lesson instructing PD patients how to rise from a chair unassisted.

As the lesson ended, Mike heard a woman in the back of the room saying, “It worked! I’m standing!” and saw her begin to cry. This was her first time to stand unassisted in six months. “My question of why I got Parkinson’s was answered that day. I am convinced I have PD to lead people to solutions to help themselves,” says Mike.

In September, Mike’s foundation was invited to participate in The Victory Summit® sponsored by the Davis Phinney Foundation for Parkinson’s, a charity named for the former professional cyclist and Olympic medalist who was diagnosed in 2000. The event is designed to help people living with Parkinson’s focus on improving their quality of life. As part of that mission, Mike donated a Wii to one lucky attendee who visited his booth during the Victory Summit and even got his picture taken with the famous cyclist.

Full of ideas for investing in the local Parkinson’s community, Mike is chartering two buses this year to take PD patients and caregivers out to see Christmas lights. One of the tours is designated for advanced patients who don’t often have the chance to get out socially.

14 wii gift

Exercise is a crucial aspect of a PD patient’s treatment because it can increase dopamine production and potentially slow the progression of the disease. Mike’s foundation provides funding for new or repurposed Wii kits to encourage and facilitate movement in PD patients.

Two other pet-projects include creating a depository for first-generation Wii systems after families decide to upgrade and a video project called the “Faces of Parkinson’s” designed to bring awareness to the fact that Parkinson’s is not just a disease of the elderly. The latter is an effort Mike hopes will influence federal funding. Compared to cancer or heart disease, funding for Parkinson’s research is lagging by thousands of dollars per incident. “I’m trying to put a face to Parkinson’s. The squeaky wheel gets the grease; people need to know it’s not just the elderly who are diagnosed with PD,” he says.

Passing Down His Legacy

Mike and his wife, Karen, have four kids including two Sigma Nu legacies, Ryan and Greg, who currently attend North Dakota State University. Mike didn’t know there was a Sigma Nu chapter on campus until his eldest, Ryan, came home and announced he was a Sigma Nu candidate. A few years later Greg joined the chapter; he currently lives in the chapter house and serves as Treasurer, the same position his father held in the Theta Nu Chapter at Ball State.

A philanthropist like his father, Ryan is currently philanthropy chairman for the chapter and, this year, he instituted their first-ever haunted house. With great media coverage and a line around the block to get in, the chapter raised $5,000 for the American Heart Association.

Mike is thrilled his sons decided to pursue membership in Sigma Nu. “It helps you grow and gives you opportunities. Without a doubt, it was a valuable experience; I think it helps me to this day,” says Mike.

Though it’s been decades since his college days, one of his chapter brothers was recently reminiscing about a Halloween party in which Mike dressed up as a Christmas tree. “I had an electric cord running down my pant leg with 10 feet of slack so I could plug into a wall. The brothers all sang ‘O Christmas Tree’ as I stood in the corner. It was a story I’d long forgotten, but here I am, 40 years later, running my own Christmas light show.”

Although the show itself means hundreds of hours of painstaking work, not to mention the sacrifice of time with his family during one of the most family-centered times of the year, Mike says it’s worth it. “I have found something I can be passionate about. By doing this, I hope to inspire people who have problems in their lives to look for ways to contribute and help pay it forward.”

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