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James Rothrock with his wife Jane at a Richmond Squirrels baseball games. [View Image] James Rothrock with his wife Jane at a Richmond Squirrels baseball games. (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services)

Faculty and staff work to create new scholarship honoring alum James Rothrock

The former commissioner of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services spent his life advocating for people with disabilities.

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It was only a week after James Rothrock’s death when Christine Reid began pursuing the idea of starting a scholarship at Virginia Commonwealth University in his name.

Rothrock, who earned his master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from the VCU College of Health Professions, served as commissioner of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services from 2002 until his retirement in 2018. He also was an adjunct instructor for VCU’s Department of Rehabilitation Counseling, bringing his expertise and lived experience with disability to the classroom. He died in March at age 72 after a cancer diagnosis. 

“He was a strong supporter of our department and the profession of rehabilitation counseling,” said Reid, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling. “He helped empower people with disabilities and removed barriers so they can live the lives they want to live.” 

Rothrock, who used a wheelchair after a sledding accident in his teens resulted in paraplegia, had a “great sense of humor and was extremely caring,” Reid said.

“He was a wonderful model for people to follow of how to advocate for people with disabilities. He was somebody that made sure things happened by providing support to make them happen.” Jim Rothrock with Rodney the Ram at a VCU basketball game. [View Image]Rothrock with Rodney the Ram at a VCU basketball game. (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services)

Reid knew immediately that it was going to be important to honor Rothrock by starting a scholarship in his name, recognizing his role as an advocate.

“This would be a way he would approve of us honoring him,” Reid said. “His wife, Jane, approved. She said she thought it would be great.” 

Reid contacted colleagues in VCU’s Office of Development and Alumni Relations, including Corey Humphrey, a university gift officer who also had served with Rothrock on the board of Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia.

“Jim was loved by so many, and I admired and looked up to him as a community leader. I was humbled personally and professionally to take part in honoring Jim in such a meaningful way,” Humphrey said.

Fundraising for the scholarship is in its early stages. Once fully endowed, the Jim Rothrock Legacy Scholarship will be awarded annually to VCU students based on their financial need with preference given to students who intend to work with people with disabilities.

Mary Nunnally, a two-time graduate of VCU with a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s in rehabilitation counseling, works as a program manager for deaf and hard of hearing services at the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. She met Rothrock prior to starting with the department 35 years ago.

“He took so much joy in the success of our clients. Maybe that was because he was a former client too, and attended Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center (now Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center located in Fishersville, Virginia) as a teenager. That made him so authentic. He was a great guy,” she said. 

“He helped empower people with disabilities and removed barriers so they can live the lives they want to live.”Christine Reid, Ph.D.

Just before his death, Rothrock penned his own obituary, leaving a lasting memory for his family.

“Jim got to work for five governors (L. Douglas Wilder, Mark Warner, Tim Kaine,  Bob McDonnell and Terry McAuliffe) helping Virginians with disabilities exceed others' expectations of them and vintage Virginians gain independence and dignity,” he wrote.

In the obituary, Rothrock talked about meeting his wife when he was a graduate assistant in a VCU program for new counselors.

“Back again at WWRC in the fall of 1977, Jim went to serve as a grad assistant at a VCU program for new counselors in the mid-Atlantic,” he wrote. “He was a go-fer, substitute lecturer and grader and dorm resident. Jane Noonan, newly hired in CT, came to the program located in the middle of nowhere. After summoning all the southern charm he could, he invited Jane to join him … to go to the Wagon Wheel for darts, beer and the best french fries in the valley — a romance began. Whirlwind indeed, as January brought an engagement, February a meeting of the families and an August wedding.” 

“Jim figured out what he wanted to say to his family members with humor and compassion,” Reid said, noting that Rothrock’s son, Sam, also graduated with a master’s from the VCU Department of Rehabilitation Counseling. “I think a lot of us would have a hard time writing our own obituary after finding out that you don’t have a lot of time to live, and holding things together in such a way.”

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