Thomas Wolfe once titled a novel “You Can’t Go Home Again,” but U.S. Marine Capt. Michael Southall Downing may have come close.
Downing, soft-spoken and appearing to have aged little since his student days, has returned to the University of Virginia after graduating in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in history and a second lieutenant’s commission in the Marine Corps. Now a captain, he is on the other side of the teaching desk, as a UVA Naval ROTC instructor.
“I feel like I’m back in the same house, but not in the same home,” Downing said. “My time as a midshipman was shaped by the instructors I had and the peers that I worked with. I have never been closer to a group of friends than I am with those I made in the program. All the familiar settings, while pleasant, cannot replace that.”
He sees this as an opportunity to forge new mentoring relationships and memories.
“Fortunately, I have an exceptional group of students who are hungry for the challenges that are part of their training,” he said. “I am sustained by their energy and drive and I think I will leave this tour with a second sense of Virginia being my home.”
Downing is in the second year of a three-year assignment as an ROTC instructor. As a Marine, his duty stations have included Twentynine Palms, California, where he was in charge of 28 Marines and a Navy corpsman; and Okinawa, Japan, from which he deployed on Navy ships for exercises and operations around that region. There, he was second-in-command for a company, overseeing 25 light armored vehicles and more than 150 Marines and sailors. The experiences furnished him the knowledge he brings to the classroom.
“Those perspectives gave me a lot of detail to provide to the students about what it means to be an officer, what it means to be a servant leader,” he said.
Downing sees his return to the classroom as a way to honor those who first taught him.
“I have a very fond sense toward those teachers throughout my life who have shaped me, either by their passion for the subject or their mentorship that they provided, in addition to whatever instruction they were providing,” he said. “Part of it is from a sense of wanting to give back.”
Downing’s love of history started with his middle school social studies teacher, Paul McDonald, whom he said was “a fantastic storyteller.” Among his inspirations at UVA are Will Hitchcock, James Madison Professor of History, who served as Downing’s major adviser; Manuela Achilles, associate professor of history and German, who taught him to look at historical events from the perspectives of those living through them; Paul Kershaw, associate professor of history; Kelsey Johnson, astronomy professor; and Allen Lynch, politics professor.
“Professor Kershaw could scarcely contain his enthusiasm, while professor Johnson brought a reserved sense of wonder and amazement to her lectures,” Downing said. “Professor Lynch had a flair for the dramatic and always found a way to tie centuries of history into a concise, memorable lesson. I would like to think that my research and teaching styles are reflections, even in a small way, of the styles of those professors.”
Downing dabbled in theater in high school and understands a good teacher should show a little hambone.
“To really capture a student’s attention, you have to have evident passion for the subject,” he said, “and I don’t think that comes through unless you have some kind of theatrical air to you. The best teachers I’ve had in my life could really tell a story or paint a picture, just from the way that they’re talking about a subject.”
It is not difficult, he said, to bring theatricality to courses such as “Evolution of War.”
“I have the fortune of teaching the most significant battles and military developments in human history, and I stand on the shoulders of outstanding historians, fiction and non-fiction authors,” he said. “I find myself just letting those individuals and the individuals who lived through those events, when I have access to their writings, speak through me.”
He is also the lead instructor for courses on small-unit tactics, land navigation, military orders and leadership skills. He is the Naval ROTC unit’s operations officer, responsible for working with the midshipmen to develop and execute training plans covering professional military education and physical training.
“Michael is a consummate professional who inspires the UVA midshipmen with his calm demeanor and resolute dedication to officer development,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Michael Rovenolt, commanding officer of UVA’s Naval ROTC program.
There are 72 Naval ROTC units across the country, so being selected to teach in one is somewhat rare, Rovenolt said. Rarer still is for that assignment to be at the instructor’s alma mater.
“Timing in an officer’s career plays a large part in providing a graduate this opportunity, along with an excellent reputation, which was earned in the fleet prior to being assigned as an NROTC instructor and assistant professor at UVA,” Rovenolt said.
Downing said he gets satisfaction from helping people understand things. And as he grew in his desire to teach, he made an effort to return to UVA.
“I knew that the highest level of satisfaction that I could get would be from students who wanted to learn as much as I wanted to teach, and also with students from whom I could learn something,” he said, noting Marine Gen. John Lejeune’s direction to his officers that their relationship with enlisted Marines should be that of a teacher with a scholar. “The best sorts of mentorship relationships are ones from which the mentor is also learning from the person that he or she is mentoring, from someone who is trying to put themselves so deeply into the subject, that they are also able to provide something new to the instructor. That was something I was looking for here. And it’s something that I’ve found.”
In returning to Charlottesville, Downing has been exploring the Blue Ridge, visiting vineyards and breweries, taking up jiu-jitsu and exploring a Charlotteville he recognizes as different from the one he left in 2017.
“Coming back here has been great,” Downing said. “It’s been nice to see some things change and some things stay the same. I joke with the students that buildings they’re finishing now were seemingly under construction when I was a student here.”
Downing has seen a few of his former professors since he has been back and he says he likes seeing familiar faces on Grounds, including Kathy McGruder, affectionally known as “Ms. Kathy,” who works at Newcomb Hall Dining.
“She and I had a fun relationship when I was a student here, and she was always just so welcoming and so kind to everyone, particularly to the ROTC students,” Downing said. “I think she had a soft spot for us.”
And Downing also enjoys the perks of having an academic schedule that allows him time to return to his family in New Orleans.
“Family is all still there, so I get to go back and visit everyone,” he said. “And that’s been a very satisfying part of the job. Before I came here, I was overseas in Japan over Christmas and everything else that was happening, holiday-wise. So this has been a nice, nice return to that routine of being able to go home a lot.”
University News Associate Office of University Communications
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June 5, 2023