While sending her Christmas cards in early December, Becky Davis (’01, ’03) came across her mentor’s name and address. He was one of her college professors, an advisor, an inspiration and a close friend.
She crossed Steven Guerrier’s name off the list.
At the time, Guerrier was in the burn unit at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia. He was airlifted there from Augusta County on Nov. 28 due to life-threatening injuries from a fire, according to the Daily News-Record.
Warrior died on the evening of December 13. His daughter Jacqueline (’14, ’18) died in the same fire that caused Guerrier’s injuries. They are survived by Guerrier’s wife, Nancy (Bentkowski); Jacqueline’s husband, Evan Norris of Arlington, Virginia; Warrior’s brother, Scott of North Carolina; his sister-in-law Tami (Prignitz) of North Carolina; his brother-in-law Thomas Bentkowski of Michigan; his sister-in-law Ann Marie Karsama and her husband Chris Karsama of Michigan; his niece Hannah from North Carolina, his nephew Jonathon and his wife Stéphanie Guerrier and their twin granddaughters Nora Lynn and Merritt June.
Since Warrior’s death, Davis said she’s had to deal with waves of grief. She is happy that she was able to visit him in the burn unit before his death, where she read him a book and reflected on their memories together while he was unconscious.
“I would like to know if he knew I was there,” Davis said, choking. “He was a really special guy.”
Guerrier taught history at the Virginia Military Institute in 1984 before teaching at JMU in 1988, where he remained until his death. Davis first met Guerrier during his freshman year as an undergraduate in a history class focusing on the 1960s. Davis said that when Guerrier walked into the classroom, he was wearing jeans, boots motorcycle jacket and a leather vest, and her hair was tied back in a ponytail.
“I was like, what could be more quaint than a professor teaching about the 60s than this guy who looked like he came out of Easy Rider?” Davis said.
From then on, Davis took almost every course offered by Guerrier at the time. While pursuing her master’s degree, she became one of Guerrier’s teaching assistants (TA). She said she could listen to him for hours because of his storytelling skills.
“It’s just kind of amazing to see it go from two seemingly unrelated topics, but then to tie them together so well and make it just perfect, so it just flowed,” Davis said. “I remember when I was a teaching assistant, we didn’t have any student complaints because there was nothing to complain about.”
Warrior was also Davis’ master’s advisor, so they spent a lot of time together in his office discussing his thesis, comprehensive exams, and anything else that came to mind. She described her office — which was in Darcus-Johnson Hall, formerly known as Jackson Hall — fondly, noting the range of books Guerrier had on display and the comfortably enclosed feeling of the space.
On her last day as a TA, Davis was delivering final graded exams to Warrior when a thought struck her – she was sitting in her office for the last time. They joked that the chair she was sitting in was “her chair” because of the amount of time she spent in it over the years. What could have been a quick chat turned into four hours of discussion between Davis and Guerrier. She said whenever there was a lull in the conversation, they would grab one more thing to talk about so the moment wouldn’t end.
“He and I were sitting there crying,” Davis said. “I would do anything to sit in that office again. Just anything.
After graduating, Davis stayed in touch with Warrior as she pursued her doctorate. at the University of South Carolina. She stayed in touch with him after graduating and began working at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) as an associate professor of history in 2012.
During a visit with Warrior to Harrisonburg three years ago, Davis mentioned “her chair,” saying she should be able to have it because it was so special to her. Warrior had kept the chair in his office despite the building being remodeled and suggested they go get it, so they drove to campus, put the chair in his car, and Davis drove it back to Kansas City. She said the 70s-style yellow chair sits in her office at UMKC to this day.
“I will never part with this chair, like never in my life,” Davis said.
Guerrier’s dedication to his students and his teaching has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the JMU community. In 2016, he was named best teacher at JMU. Kathleen Brett, a double major in history and political science, took a Cold War history course taught by Guerrier in the spring of 2020. She said she enjoyed his teaching style and enthusiasm, and she said that his flexibility during the pandemic was admirable.
“He was so good,” Brett said. “I love taking notes, and honestly, I would walk away with three pages of notes. It was just story time for an hour.
Raymond “Skip” Hyser, a history teacher, has worked with Warrior for more than 30 years since 1987. Hyser said some of his favorite memories are of Warrior’s tests, where he asked students to write as much as they knew.
“He loved teaching,” Hyser said. “Whether it was in a lecture hall or a seminar or in his office, where he mentored many thesis authors and students who were simply interested in talking about history, he really enjoyed teaching.
Hyser said Guerrier’s death was “a tragedy upon a tragedy”.
Matt Wasniewski (’91, ’94), the current historian of the United States House of Representatives, had Warrior as a teacher and master’s advisor. Wasniewski said Guerrier was not only a great storyteller, but also an attentive audience.
“It’s funny because when he gave talks, Steve was one of the best lecture storytellers I’ve ever seen,” Wasniewski said. “But when you met him one-on-one, he was a great listener.”
Wasniewski said that in his role, he mimics Warrior’s emphasis on storytelling whenever he speaks publicly. In 2012, Wasniewski was inducted into JMU’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, where he said he had a chance to speak to the promotion.
“At the end, Steve came over and he gave me the biggest compliment he could have ever given me, in his own way, which was to say he had this very dry sense of humor “Wasniewski said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Have you done this before?’ So it meant a lot coming from him because I just never saw someone like him in a classroom.
Wasniewski said the JMU community should not focus on the tragedy that Guerrier and his family experienced, but rather on how Guerrier inspired everyone he met.
“He turned [people] about history and showed them its importance, its relevance to our lives and helped them connect with it, and I think that’s so valuable,” Wasniewski said. “He did this for generations of students… This is for me, in the end, what matters. He loved what he did, and he did it superbly.
Mary Anne Walker (’00), who had Guerrier as her teacher and master’s advisor, recalled her unwavering support for her students and her love for her family and her profession. She said teaching kept him going even in the face of other challenges. Walker said she has stayed in touch with Warrior over the years and considers him a mentor. When she heard the news of his death, she said she was “absolutely disgusted”.
“There are deaths that are natural, unexpected, and you have time to say goodbye, and something like that, with all the circumstances surrounding it, was really devastating,” Walker said. “The thought of the amount of pain that accompanies all of this, for all the people who love it, is also very difficult.”
Brett said she was one of the first students to hear about the fire that caused Warrior’s injuries because she is the co-president of the Phi Alpha Theta history honor fraternity. During a practice for the Marching Royal Dukes, Brett and the rest of the marching band played the song “Salvation is Created” in dedication to Guerrier and his daughter while he was in hospital.
Davis said the way she would like to honor Warrior’s memory is to have the same impact on her students that he had on her.
Sometimes Davis gets up from his seat in his office and sits down in the yellow chair across from his desk, wishing that Warrior was sitting on the other side.
“I wouldn’t have a doctorate,” Davis said. “I would not supervise students. I wouldn’t do what I do if it wasn’t for him. So go find yourself a Steve Warrior.
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