Two years ago, Jake Kelly received a humorous text from his friend and former University of Mary Washington roommate, Phil Smith. But, just a week later, Jake and friends Jonathan Wigginton and Jeremy Wood, all 2010 alums, were shocked to learn that Phil had taken his own life.
“It totally hit us out of the blue,” says Jake, who returned to UMW with Jonathan to speak to incoming freshmen during Orientation, right before September’s Suicide Prevention Month. “We asked ourselves questions we couldn’t answer. Why did he do it? What did we miss?”
What they did know is that they wanted to memorialize Phil at Mary Washington, where their friendship began during their first week of classes. And they wanted his death to help spark discussions about mental health and suicide prevention.
With the blessing of Phil’s family, they began working with UMW’s Office of Advancement to establish the Phil Smith ’10 Talley Center Endowment, which will provide more counseling services, education and training, and other resources for current and future Mary Washington students. The endowment is on the verge of being fully funded, thanks to many generous donors, including Betty Dobbins Talley ’68 – her significant gift gave the Talley Center for Counseling Services its name – who gave $5,000 on Giving Tuesday in 2021 as part of a dollar-for-dollar match.
UMW also announced this week the rollout of an after-hours and weekend service through ProtoCall. Students now can access critical counseling care through the Talley Center as well as outside licensed professionals, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We have already seen an unprecedented volume of students coming in to see us, certainly in response to Jake and Jonathan’s presentation to freshmen,” says Talley Center Director Tevya Zukor. “As a firm believer that proactive treatment and intervention are the best way to prevent crises, it has been gratifying to see so many Eagles attending to their mental health needs.”
Phil’s friends emphasized to the UMW freshmen the importance of seeking counseling, especially when navigating challenges all college students face, coupled with the lingering effects of isolation and trauma from the pandemic.
But they also encouraged them to check in on each other and their friends and family. “I had no idea Phil was fighting those battles,” Jake says.
He and Jonathan recalled Phil’s wit, his penchant for quoting his favorite movies, and how he always remembered details about his friends that others might have found insignificant. They admired his love for his wife and two children, and how he used his business and accounting degree from Mary Washington to start his own tax consulting firm.
But they also reflected on how Phil often struggled with overwhelming feelings. “There’s definitely cues we missed,” Jonathan says.
That’s why they’re glad their story is resonating with UMW students. Several came up to thank them after the presentation, give their condolences, or share that they too had lost friends to suicide.
The alums have already made plans to speak at next year’s Orientation, Jonathan says, and they look forward to reaching their goal of funding the endowment so the Talley Center can ramp up its services. “It’s nice to see that our hard work on Phil’s behalf is already making a difference at UMW.”
Make a gift to the Phil Smith ’10 Talley Center Endowment here. For information on endowments at the University of Mary Washington, please contact the Office of University Advancement at email@example.com or 540-654-2059.
– Article written by Assistant Director of Advancement Communications Jill Laiacona