‘Closing the loop’: Don Grady, longtime communications educator, set to retire

The associate dean and associate professor in the School of Communications lauded as a “fount of wisdom and integrity” as he concludes 35-plus years at Elon University.

Don Grady, associate dean and associate professor in the School of Communications, has been a visible and active member of the Elon University community since his arrival in 1985.

In 1985, two years before Elon University established a Communications Department and 15 years before the School of Communications was founded, Associate Dean Don Grady arrived on campus – the replacement for college friend Gerald Gibson.

It is an amusing anecdote told countless times by Gibson, which likely isn’t a surprise to those who know the talkative former communications professor. (Gibson would return to Elon three years later.)

During his career, Grady regularly taught broadcast courses and senior capstone classes.

In the 35-plus years since Grady’s arrival, his leadership, steady hand and baritone voice have become synonymous with Elon and excellence, helping build a nationally renowned communications school with more than 80 faculty and staff members who credit him for much of the school’s success.

This is not hyperbole, points out Paul Parsons, the school’s founding dean who retired last spring.

“Don Grady is one of the giants who helped transform Elon into what it is today,” Parsons said. “During the two decades I worked alongside him, he was central to making the School of Communications great through administrative leadership, national accreditation, his student-centeredness, and being a fount of wisdom and integrity.”

This month, Grady ends his service to Elon, retiring at the end of the fall semester and concluding a distinguished career that shaped the study of communications at Elon and elsewhere. It is a career that exemplified professionalism and a willingness to make time for relationships and, most importantly, people.

A consummate leader

After befriending Gibson at North Carolina State University’s student radio station in the early 1970s, Grady embarked on a career in radio and television, working for a decade in broadcast news before returning to his alma mater to teach. By 1985, his professional background and meticulous manner were influencing Elon’s academic endeavors in a multitude of ways. He regularly taught broadcast courses and senior capstone classes and, from 1987 to 1993, served as the first chair of the Communications Department. He served again as department chair from 2004 to 2009 and became associate dean in 2010.

In an administrative role, Grady thrived, working closely with faculty in writing the school’s scholarship statement, teaching enhancement plan, program policies statement and assessment plan. As many past and present colleagues will undoubtedly recall, Grady’s school-wide assessment presentations were often titled “Closing the loop.” (The inside joke was the loop seemed to just keep looping.) At times, Grady chaired the Academic Council as well as the faculty/staff fundraising campaign. He oversaw the creation of the school’s online undergraduate research journal, and helped guide the development of an undergraduate major in media analytics ­– the nation’s first such program.

He even served on the search committee that brought Connie Ledoux Book, now Elon’s president, to campus as an assistant professor in 1999. Book was one of several familiar faces to wish her colleague a happy retirement in this School of Communications video.

Grady’s fingerprints are seemingly everywhere.

Plus, his influence has not been limited to Elon’s campus. He has led workshops and presentations across the country, and regularly published articles on the assessment of student learning. He was editor of “The Golden Age of Data,” a book published last December that delves into legacy media analysis and social media analytics. He also twice served as an elected representative on the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, which evaluates professional journalism and mass communications programs in colleges and universities.

Grady was known around campus for his ability to connect and build relationships with colleagues and students.

Gibson called Grady’s contributions “essential” to Elon’s rise from a fledgling communications program to a nationally recognized institution. Grady’s value to the university didn’t just come from his knowledge, Gibson explained, but also his ability to work with others, especially across campus and other academic programs.

This collaborative nature stems from Grady’s ability to not only listen, but truly hear others.

“He has always been a supportive and caring friend and a terrific colleague, someone with whom I could always talk,” Gibson said. “Don’s a terrific listener who could help you shape and provide clarity to your ideas.”

Nagatha Tonkins, who retired last December after leading the school’s Internship Office for 11 years, said she appreciated that Grady’s main concern remained the same: the development of Elon students. “Every decision was based on what was best for them, and how it would impact their future,” said Tonkins of Grady’s leadership style.

“He is one of the most caring, compassionate and hardest working professors I’ve seen,” she added. “His wisdom, guidance and love for serendipity helped to make my job a joy. I will always be grateful to him for the support and opportunities to grow, develop new internship ideas, be creative and to work with an awesome team.”

Associate Dean Don Grady (left) and Gerald Gibson have been friends dating back to their days working at the student radio station at N.C. State University. As colleagues at Elon for more than three decades, they were regularly seen having lunch, coffee or casually chatting, much like they are in this 2003 photograph.

Leadership and respect were the two words that came to Assistant Professor Ray Johnson when asked to describe Grady, his longtime colleague.

“I have known him for almost 36 years and, in all those years, I have never heard anyone make a disparaging remark about Don,” Johnson said. “His leadership has been central to the remarkable success of communications at Elon.”

Gibson noted that what made Grady an outstanding administrator was his ability to analyze and evaluate, identifying possible hurdles before they arose.

“Don is someone who worries about the details, about how to operationalize an idea,” Gibson said. “He thinks about how things fit together academically and how they can provide a better experience for our students.”

Because he could fret over specifics, Grady could be typecast as a “worrywart,” but that assumption would be inaccurate, Gibson explained. “Don’s laugh is a mile wide, and I have come to cherish my memories of laughing together – after problems have been resolved,” Gibson quipped.

Brick by brick

As has become routine this year, leadership meetings – like most conversations – have moved online, including the school’s National Advisory Board gathering in December. It was the final get-together for Grady in his associate dean role and, via Zoom, several board members shared words of thanks, paying homage to the longtime educator’s impact.

During one such tribute, one board member recalled how years ago their child, then a student at Elon, was rushed to a Chapel Hill hospital after an injury. The situation was potentially dire. As the board member shared the details, he grew emotional noting how Grady showed up to the hospital on short notice – a testament that his care for students isn’t limited to the classroom.

At the same meeting, Associate Dean Kenn Gaither provided what is likely the most apt description of Grady and what he has meant to Elon University, to the students and to his colleagues. Gaither noted that Grady was the son of a brickmason contractor who used his hands to build something new – something that would last.

Like his dad, Grady is a builder. “He has used his humanity, work ethic and integrity to help build the School of Communications,” Gaither said.