Dr. Chris Dula was an East Tennessee State University psychology professor, author, community advocate — and a bit of a rock star.
As a way to inspire students, he publicly spoke about his up-and-down movement along the socio-economic ladder due to alcohol and drug abuse. His influence inspired the Dula Day of Service in partnership with the Johnson City Sesquicentennial Celebration.
“I know that we had between 150 and 200-plus volunteers at 12 to 14 different sites all around Johnson City and this area,” said Brianna McCoy, event coordinator.
The event had ETSU sending volunteers with different non-profit organizations like the Appalachia Service Project, Salvation Army and Habitat ReStore. One group helped clean up the historic “Tree Streets” area of Johnson City. And two big projects involved work at the South Side and ETSU Community Gardens.
“Today was our inaugural Dula Day of Service,” said Joy Fulkerson, the director of the Leadership and Civic Engagement office. “It was sort of a great collaboration with a number of folks on campus supported by Dr. (Brian) Noland, individual students and student groups, the Dula family and others who have been touched by Dr. Dula and his presence. We had more than 200 students, faculty/staff, alumni and community members serving across the city both on campus and off.”
The Office of Leadership and Civic Engagement organized the Dula Day of Service as a tribute to Dula’s dedication to the university and his commitment to community service. McCoy and Seth Jewett, Roan Scholars Leadership Program students, were the event coordinators.
According to McCoy and Jewett, the goal was not only to commemorate Dula’s life, but to help foster and grow the rapport among all those involved. McCoy said fostering good relationships is something she remembers about Dula.
He was not only involved on campus, but also in the community, and wanted to grow the connection between the two.
“We can be a liaison between both the community and ETSU,” McCoy said. “We have student groups from Volunteer ETSU, the Roan Scholars are here, we have fraternity and sorority life, a lot of the Psychology Club, members of that major, along with some more individuals. My hope is that they volunteer here or somewhere else in the Johnson City area and they think that this place aligns with my values. Maybe they continue that conversation, that mentorship and volunteering past today.”
Dula was a regular at music venues and festivals as the front man of “Kriss Dula and Friends.” He was often asked to speak at events as a guest or keynote speaker. But despite all of his involvement, he was perhaps best known for his compassion, as expressed by former student Garrett McGaffee.
“Dr. Dula meant a lot to me,” said McGaffee, “and kind of the only reason I passed psychology, really. He came to all his students, and especially came to me when I didn’t understand something. I was in a class of 400 and he made me feel like I was the only student in the room. He singled me out and helped me out.”
Many within the community may remember Dula as a charismatic man with a passion for passing along knowledge. Some may not have known him at all. Many will remember his death as a result of a rare form of brain cancer.
McGaffee took a moment to share a memory of a time he turned to Dula for solace.
“(Dula) said to me, ‘man, I am fighting brain cancer, but I have a positive attitude. It is all about your attitude when you are going through something. Either you have a negative attitude and just lay down and let it hurt you, or you are going to take a positive attitude and fight through it and eventually beat it.’”
This stuck with McGaffee, and he says that he has been forever changed by his relationship with Dula. The sentiment is one that continually surfaced in conversations about the event and Dula. Some volunteers drove hundreds of miles to commemorate the positive influence the professor had on them.
“I got a call yesterday from an alum who drove in from Atlanta, he and his wife,” Fulkerson said. “They have kept in contact with Dr. Dula and Mrs. Dula. He says, ‘I wouldn’t be who I am without him.’ That really just reminds us all that we can really make a difference in someone’s life, and not to take that for granted.”
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