May 12, 2011 — David Denning, graduating with a degree in economics from the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, soon will have another title; to "husband" and "father," he will add "ensign."
Denning, 22, has been the lone married midshipman in U.Va.'s Naval ROTC program for three years, while being a father to Evelynn, now 2, and husband to Reta, who is completing her degree in divinity studies at Liberty University.
"I've been here since 2007 and he is the only married midshipman we have had," said Marine Maj. John Prather, a leadership and history instructor with the battalion. "It is unusual." (U.Va.'s Air Force ROTC has a 60-cadet detachment at Liberty University, where there is one married cadet. There are 70 Air Force cadets at the University. U.Va.'s Army ROTC has at least 10 married cadets out of about 140 cadets at Liberty and one, a transfer student, starting at U.Va. in the fall. There are about 80 Army cadets at U.Va.)
Denning said because of his outside responsibilities, some people initially did not know how he fit into the program. "I was not just a single guy riding on the seat of his pants," he said.
But over the years, relationships have blossomed.
"I'm glad we could all share this experience," he said. "Now we have all of these guys, 50 or 60 people, that we trust as much as any family member, and that is not easy to find. I feel fortunate to work with the best-quality people I have ever had in my life."
Prather said Denning has been one of the top midshipmen in the program, balancing academic, family and ROTC responsibilities. Denning has received good marks from the other midshipmen when he served in leadership capacities, and they voted for him to receive the Perkins Peer Leadership Award, given annually to the midshipman who best exemplifies excellence and inspirational leadership.
Capt. Timothy Watkins, commander of the Naval ROTC detachment, said, "Denning's performance and dedication, with all his other responsibilities on top of that, really make him stand out in my mind."
Juggling his responsibilities has been stressful at times for Denning.
"Time management is one of the biggest issues," he said. "I didn't have as much time to study as my peers. I would have to take Evelynn to the playground while I was studying, but it became extremely rewarding."
Prather praised Denning and his wife for their maturity and ability to balance his roles.
"He will make a great officer," Prather said. "He is good at balancing his professional and family lives. He and his wife are very mature, and that is what it takes for a marriage to survive a military lifestyle."
David and Reta Denning met while they were students in their native Michigan, where they attended Oakland Community College. David Denning was looking for a different school and, after looking at some closer to home, chose to transfer to U.Va. He said he was drawn to the University by its appreciation of the past and its ability to use that as a lens through which to look at the future.
"If I could go to any school in the world, it would be U.Va.," he said. Reta chose Liberty.
When the Dennings came to Virginia, they had scholarships from Michigan, but Denning said many of them were wiped out as the automobile industry foundered. He said he and his wife were working different jobs to cover expenses.
"When we first came here, we were scholarship superstars, with money for the long-term," he said. "Then the world turned upside down. We were from north of Detroit and the scholarships were tied to the automobile industry. In one week, we got four or five letters that this or that program was no longer being continued."
An ROTC scholarship helped them in their time of need. Denning had wanted to serve in the military, inspired by his grandfathers, one of whom was in the Navy.
"I've always been impressed with the Navy's ability to adapt to new technology and to push the envelope," he said.
While he appreciates the Navy's technological prowess, Denning is not technically inclined himself and he concentrated on his own field of studies – economics – which he said helped him solve problems and think critically.
"I grew up financially humble," he said. "And with limited resources, I had to make the most of what I had. I like to figure out how to be the most productive. There is an assumption that everyone acts in their own rational self-interest and that way we get a bigger pie."
In the long term, Denning is thinking about attending law school. In the short term, he will report for duty to the Mayport Naval Station at Jacksonville, Fla., shortly after graduation.
"I'm looking at the Navy for at least the next six years," he said. "I love what I am doing and learning new skills. I am learning something new all the time and that is exciting and I can stay motivated working for an organization that I know cares about me."
"He embodies everything we try to teach them here," Prather said.