Throughout the history of Ashland University, many students have discovered their life’s purpose through the influence of the University’s Ashbrook Center.
You can probably count on one hand, however, the total number of students whose lives and careers were directly influenced by a conversation on the sidelines of a high school football field in Licking County, Ohio, with the Center’s namesake, Senator John Ashbrook himself.
Don Jakeway ’70 experienced just such an interaction as a student at Johnstown-Monroe High School.
“We went 21-0 over my junior and senior football seasons,” Don recounts. “And because it was John Ashbrook’s hometown, he was rooting us on. One night, he asked me where I was going to college, and I told him I’d been considering a few schools. He asked if I’d looked at Ashland College, where he was on the Board of Directors. When I said ‘no,’ he gave me this look and told me: ‘Tomorrow, at 9 a.m., you’re going to get a phone call from the head of admissions. Answer it.'”
As promised, the call came the following morning. And just minutes into his first campus visit weeks later, he realized he was home.
Don’s connections to national leaders began with this conversation. But they certainly didn’t end there. After studying history and political science and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education, Don’s career would bring him into close working proximity with national and state leaders at the highest levels.
In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan tapped him for the role of President of the Ohio and Florida chapters of Citizens for America, a non-governmental organization tasked with carrying out the President’s initiatives. Soon after, Don worked closely with President George H.W. Bush before serving in the cabinet of Governor George Voinovich as Director of Development for the State of Ohio, a role he held from 1991 to 1998. Later, stints as President & CEO of the Regional Growth Partnership in Toledo and the Michigan Economic Development Organization also allowed him to work with political and business leaders.
Don sums up a long and successful career succinctly: “I was really lucky to be in position to meet and work closely with a lot of people who were instrumental in making policy and leading the way on important things.”
He’s quick to point out, however, none of his success would have happened without his time at Ashland. In fact, he says, if you trace his life along a circle, every radius connects to the opportunities he experienced at Ashland.
From day one on campus, Don threw himself into everything Ashland had to offer. In addition to his involvement with Greek life, he participated in student government, serving as Student Senate President senior year.
“I probably didn’t get as much out of my classes as I could have,” he laughs, “but only because I was doing so much other fun stuff!”
Along with meeting his future wife during a fraternity service project and building friendships that, for him, still ascend to the level of family, Don can speak for hours about his time booking campus entertainment.
“When I arrived at Ashland,” he says, “the entertainment wasn’t the greatest. So, I went to Dr. Clayton”–a man Don still considers a second father because of the college president’s influence on his own life– “and I said, we’re having these concerts, but I don’t think you’re making any money. He said, ‘What do you propose?’ And I said, ‘Do you trust me?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ So I said, “Okay, let me do this: we have a budget. Would you allow me to book the right entertainment for us and keep booking them as long as we continue making money from the preceding one?” I told him: ‘The first day we don’t make money, I’ll quit bugging you.'”
With Dr. Clayton’s blessing, Don got to work. With the help of a friend in the music business in New York, Don studied upcoming tour schedules and began reverse-engineering how to bring in artists he and his fellow students wanted to see.
“I would look for bands who were playing in, say, Youngstown on a Friday night,” he says. “If their next tour stop was Toledo or Detroit a day or two later, I knew we could make it happen.” For Don, Ashland had a lot to recommend it: its proximity to large cities across the region, its direct access to I-71, and a gymnasium large enough to handle the inevitable crowds. Combine these advantages with his willingness to handle all the logistics, and his pitch was difficult for booking agents to ignore. “They got another show at a venue literally on the way to where they were already going,” Don says. “We even got some great discounts.”
The list of artists Don managed to bring to campus now reads like a who’s-who of late 60s royalty. On his first attempt, he landed Diana Ross and The Supremes. From there, he brought in Dion Warwick, The Temptations, Jose Feliciano and Spanky and Our Gang–to name just a few.
But for all his success in this role, his last booking still occupies a bittersweet corner of his memory. On the one hand, it was his highest achievement as a fledgling concert promoter, something of a booking holy grail at the time. On the other hand, the circumstances around what would’ve been his final show still serve as a painful reminder of the ugly side of what was happening in America at the time. What started as something approaching unabashed joy for him turned quickly–and decidedly–dark.
Don recalls a moment near the end of his senior year: “I told Dr. Clayton I’d signed the May Day entertainment. But I had to spend more money to get him. He said, ‘Who’d you get?’ When I told him, he thought I was kidding. He said, ‘No, no, no, who’d you really get?’ I said, “No, really: Bob Hope.'”
The show was scheduled for May 7, 1970. But on May 4, in response to protests on the Kent State campus against the country’s continued participation in the Vietnam War, the Ohio National Guard shot into crowds of students, killing four and wounding seven. In response, as the country looked on in shock and horror, further violence erupted, and even the smallest corners of academia were not immune. Homemade bombs were found across Ashland’s campus, including one in Don’s Student Senate office. When classes and celebrations were canceled, Don put all his energy into helping Dr. Clayton and school personnel evacuate students from campus.
“So many students weren’t able to get home. We kept getting calls from people in the community offering places to stay for those who had nowhere else to go. I was with Dr. Clayton–it was two in the morning–when he called Bob Hope and told him we had to cancel. Bob said he was still willing to come, that he wasn’t afraid. But Dr. Clayton, being the great man he was, said no, no, you can keep the deposit, but these kids are my family, and I won’t do anything to put them in danger.”
“Bob Hope, by the way,” Don adds, “returned every penny of the deposit. I remember watching him years later on Johnny Carson talking about this show being the only one ever to get canceled due to the threat of violence. It wasn’t uncommon, he told Johnny, to hear battles raging, bombs and gunfire, during USO shows in Europe during World War II. But a show at a small Ohio college in 1970 was the only one he could remember that was called off.”
The violence of those days left an indelible mark on his life. He recalls watching television with his fraternity brothers, draft cards in hand, as they waited to hear their numbers called. He grew up listening to stories of his paratrooper father’s brushes with death during the Battle of the Bulge and on the banks of Normandy during the horror of D-Day. Don was not drafted for Vietnam –” I would’ve gone,” he says, “if they’d called my name”–but these experiences carved out a special place in his heart for military personnel, veterans and their families.
This desire to help service members, in fact, is what brought him back to Ashland in recent years.
Currently, Don is putting his time, energy and resources into providing whatever support he can behind the military student initiative at Ashland University. With The Jack W. Liebert Military & Veteran Resource Center at its core, this initiative seeks to increase opportunities and create more dedicated facilities for the military-connected and veteran student community on campus. Working closely with Dr. Campo, his team and Debbie Karl–who provided the initial funding for the center, named in honor of her late father–Don views Ashland’s support for veterans and their families as a benefit to the entire community.
“To create an environment where military members, veterans, and their families can feel welcome and experience what Accent On the Individual really looks like.” Don says. “I’m committed to making it happen. There are a lot of us who are committed to making it happen. Recognizing, identifying, seeking out these students and providing them with the same opportunities I had during my time here–it’s one of the single greatest potentials for growth at this university.”
Throughout his life, from an otherwise casual conversation with a senator beneath the halogen glow of a high school football field until now, Ashland has always been crucial to who he is and what his life is all about.
“I can draw lines,” he says, “through every circle I’ve encountered in my life. And every one of them, every line, converges at the center, at Ashland.”
Now, he says, it’s his time to help however he can to ensure this same geometry of opportunities is available to the next generation.
“I was blessed,” he says, “to have had exactly eight successful careers. I’m blessed now to be able to do something good with what I have.”