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Relentless spirit binds two Mountaineers

John Gay would've loved to meet a student like Chloe Simpson.

Students setting in caps and gowns during graduation with a gold person in the middle.

John Gay, EdD, loved students with drive. He could recognize those who had potential and ambition, and then poured encouragement into them to help them believe that they could achieve and do more. He was the kind of professor, dean, scholar and man whom a student would stop in an airport years later to thank him for the nudge he gave them to be better.

He would have loved Chloe Simpson.

He would have admired her drive and determination to make a difference. He would have recognized her intelligence and ambition. She is the kind of student that would later stop him at an airport to thank him for the encouragement.

Gay did not get the chance to meet Simpson. Shortly after committing to full-time retirement, he was diagnosed with cancer. He lost his battle with the disease in January of 2020.

Despite the two never having met, Simpson carried a piece of Gay and his legacy of scholarship and determination with her during West Virginia University’s commencement ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022.

Head shots of Chloe Simpson and John Gay

A tale of two mantras

Gay’s impact at WVU is significant. After earning his doctoral degree in health education from WVU in 1974, he had a long and distinguished career in academia that was underscored with awards and took him to numerable parts of the world. His recognition of the value of research and collaboration led him, along with his wife Kacey, to help fund research initiatives for students. Their passion for scholarship is commemorated with the John and Kacey Gay Research Wall on WVU’s campus.

His mantra was simple and effective: “Pursue excellence in everything you do.”

Simpson, meanwhile, is just getting started.

Originally from Sacramento, she attended Sacramento State University and received her degree in kinesiology. While there, she worked at an autism center that introduced her to the field of adapted physical activity and physical education Concurrently, her father experienced a stroke that impacted his motor abilities. She was heavily involved in her father’s physical therapy and rebuffed the limits that the kinesiology professionals put on his recovery. She became focused on helping him live the life he wanted to have again.

Those events, along with her own experience as a child missing out on general education classroom time due to being pulled out for special education programming, helped fuel her desire to make an impact. She earned her master’s degree in kinesiology, with an emphasis in adapted physical education, at Oregon State. There, she taught graduate classes and helped supervise a program that trained physical education students how to teach those with disabilities.

Her final step in her education led her to WVU to complete her doctoral degree. In addition to receiving grant funding to pursue her doctorate, Simpson helped secure a pair of grants for WVU, one that included securing wheelchairs used for basic instruction programs for wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis.

She will soon head back west with her partner, Lucy, and their dogs Raymond and Rusty, as she begins her career as an assistant professor of adapted physical education at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Her mantra is simple and effective and has echoes of Gay’s: “Be diligent in your work.”

Dr. John and Kacey Gay plack in the CAHS lobby
The Dr. John and Kacey Gay Research Wall located in the Applied Human Sciences building on the WVU Evansdale campus.

A 'full circle moment'

CAHS Dean Autumn Cyprès wanted to connect with Mrs. Gay on her initial return to Morgantown since her husband’s passing. It was her first opportunity to see the Research Wall in their honor and attend a Mountaineer football game.

As part of her visit, Cyprès invited Mrs. Gay to dinner and asked Simpson to join them. Simpson had been a member of the selection committee for Cyprès and impressed Cyprès with her enthusiasm and sense of purpose.

It did not take long for Simpson, on the verge of completing her own doctoral degree at WVU in coaching and teaching studies, to impress Mrs. Gay.

“I was interested in hearing about the project that she was working on and how she was doing her doctorate. I thought of other doctoral students that my husband had when he was in higher education,” Mrs. Gay recalled. “I just saw this desire in her to do well and her desire to make a difference. And I related that to something my husband always said, which was ‘pursue excellence in anything you do.’”

“I watched a lot of different students and faculty over the years,” she said. “I saw some who were closed in the world of academics and never get out of it, but I saw others who were going to go out in the real world. I saw that Chloe was going to be one of the ones that went out and make a difference.”

Shortly after the dinner, Mrs. Gay remembered that her husband had talked to previous deans about donating his regalia. She knew that buying regalia is another expense for a newly minted doctoral candidate. And, after meeting Simpson and recognizing that Gay would have appreciated her boldness and relentlessness, Mrs. Gay offered to pass along the regalia to Simpson.

She eagerly accepted.

“I was a little bit in shock and incredibly honored,” she said. “I felt honored because I know how much Kacey values her husband’s work and how much they value helping doctoral students. For me to have the ability to help carry forward his academic legacy and track record of giving really meant a lot to me.”

At that point, Simpson had not yet defended her dissertation – the final hurdle to earning her degree. On Nov. 17, though, she withstood more than as hour of presenting and defending her dissertation, titled “Examining Physical Educators' Socialization and Self-Efficacy Toward Behavior Management of Students with Disabilities.” After a grueling, 15-minute waiting period, she was notified that she had, indeed, successfully defended her dissertation.

Following the moments of relief and excitement, Cyprès took the opportunity to congratulate Simpson and present her with Gay’s regalia.

Cyprès had collected the regalia and purchased a garment bag with Simpson’s initials embroidered on it, enveloping the old with the new. She took a few moments to explain doctoral regalia and its significance as the uniform of an academic.

“Given that regalia is considered some of the most sacred possessions that an academic owns, and given Dr. Gay's rich, exemplary legacy as a leader in his profession and to the communities he served, I find Kacey’s gesture to pass along these items particularly touching,” Cyprès noted.

Chole Simpson adjusts her tam
Chloe Simpson adjusts her tam shortly after defending her dissertation

She explained that the tam, or headwear, and the hood that are awarded to doctoral candidates were historically used to hold writing implements and money. In homage to that tradition, Cyprès included two quarters with Gay’s regalia: one marking the year in which she earned her doctoral degree and the other being a West Virginia state quarter.

With the room full of family, friends, professors and student colleagues, Simpson donned the regalia.

Of course, it fit perfectly.

“It was all a blur,” Simpson admitted. “I was overwhelmed with gratitude for everything that brought me to that spot. It was surreal. The honor on top of it all was to receive the robe.

“After the rush of it all, I had a moment to reflect and think about the moments that John had in that robe,” she said. “I thought about the pride that he had for the moments he worked so hard for and all the students he graduated. I thought about how I will have those exact same moments in that same robe. I think that’s incredibly special.”

Upon seeing photos of Simpson in the regalia, Mrs. Gay became emotional.

“I cried happy tears,” she admitted, with a tear in her eye and a smile on her face. “Seeing the regalia on Chloe brought back a lot of memories. I was happy to reflect.”

“All of the responsibilities and honor that comes with the academic achievement of receiving your doctoral degree stays within the fabric of those robes,” Cyprès added. “I think that there is charm in knowing that for the rest of Chloe’s career, she has someone covering her who has her back, at least metaphorically, as she continues through the cycle of continuing thought to better humanity.”

For Simpson, it is an honor to be bound to someone she never had the opportunity to meet.

“I adopted my mantra, ‘Be diligent in your work,’ because I feel like if I’m going to sign up for something, I need to do my best in it and committed to it with integrity,” she said. “I think John was the same way. So, from that standpoint, I think it’s fitting I get to wear that robe moving forward.”

“It’s nice to have a full circle moment,” Mrs. Gay said. “I’m just glad that she’ll be able to use the regalia and continue his legacy. And the legacy isn’t about their lines of study, which are close, but it’s about relentlessness.”

Simpson will exemplify that legacy in her everyday work as a scholar and practitioner. Gay’s legacy will be celebrated and remembered each time those robes are donned for commencement.

Starting with, and especially, her first commencement ceremony officially as Dr. Chloe Simpson.

Kacey and John Kay pose outside for a photo
John and Kacey Gay
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