An entrepreneurial lawyer. The leader of a multimillion dollar research project. The head of the FBI. During Charter Day weekend in February 2014, these three individuals will each receive the Alumni Medallion, the William & Mary Alumni Association’s highest honor. Not only have these alumni demonstrated unparalleled success and leadership in their professions, but with their dedication to community service, sports facilities were built, a business school was transformed and kids without a home were given one. And their love for William & Mary? That’s a given.
You might know him as the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Or maybe as the guy that helped prosecute the Gambino crime family or led the Martha Stewart investigation. He is also the man that challenged the White House over constitutional concerns related to domestic wiretapping.
But what you might not know about James Comey ’82, LL.D. ’08 is that his public service extends beyond his accomplishments in law enforcement.
He’s also the guy that taught Sunday school each week at his local church. And someone who, along with his wife, Patrice ’82, became licensed foster care parents in Connecticut, caring for infants and toddlers in their home.
And he really loves William & Mary.
“When I consider the three distinct areas of consideration by which the Alumni Association rigorously reviews nominees for the Alumni Medallion, it is as though these criteria were written with Jim Comey in mind,” said Barbara Cole Joynes ’82, president of the Alumni Association Board of Directors. “While the College has many distinguished alumni, few embody outstanding professional achievement, community service, and commitment and service to our alma mater as distinctly as Jim.”
This past September Comey succeeded Robert Mueller as the director of the FBI. Previously, Comey was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, serving as deputy chief of the Criminal Division. When he moved on to the Richmond U.S. Attorney’s office, Comey spearheaded a program known as Project Exile. The goal of the project was to reduce Richmond’s record-high homicide rate by reducing gun-related crime and the gun-carry rate. In five years, this innovative program, which shifted prosecutions from state court to federal court where the sentences were tougher, dropped Richmond’s homicide rate to an all-time low. The program was adopted by other cities and was recognized by the Clinton Justice Department as an innovative private-public partnership, as well as for successful cross-jurisdictional problem solving.
As United States Deputy Attorney General serving in President George W. Bush’s administration from 2003-05, Comey was the second-highest ranking official in the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and ran the day-to-day operations of the department. He was in the national spotlight when he challenged the White House over constitutional concerns related to domestic wiretapping.
“Jim executed his duties in the most honorable way, taking on the most difficult issues, and demonstrating the courage to hold fast to his ideals in the face of great adversity to him and to the freedoms of all Americans,” said David Kelley ’81, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and current vice president of the William & Mary Alumni Association.
W&M Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies Hans O. Tiefel sees Comey as a rare individual who truly serves the common good. “I am convinced that he is dedicated to the domestic values of our nation’s past that insist we be a nation of laws, not men.”
When Comey left the DOJ, he became general counsel and senior vice president of Lockheed Martin, and in 2010 he became general counsel at Bridgewater Associates. Leaving Bridgewater in early 2013, he became senior research scholar and Hertog Fellow on National Security Law at Columbia Law School.
Now confirmed as FBI director, Comey has served at the will of two presidents of two different political parties.
Comey has remained closely connected to the College, speaking in 2003 and 2009 at Opening Convocation ceremonies and at the 2008 Charter Day ceremony, where he received an honorary doctor of laws degree. He also served on the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors from 2008-12, including serving as vice president from 2009-11.
Joynes recalled that when she first joined the Alumni Association board, Comey had drafted a piece about fostering a lifelong relationship among students, alumni and the College. Thus began the College’s embrace of a new attitude towards the way W&M talks to prospective and incoming students — one that is more welcoming and reflective of the lifelong relationship model.
In 2011, the W&M Law School named Comey the Carter O. Lowance Fellow. The fellowship is one of the highest honors conferred by the law school and the College in recognition of significant public service.
“Jim demonstrates an intellectual curiosity and lifelong commitment to learning and growth that is a great example for current students and alumni alike,” said Joynes. “He’s also one of the funniest people you will ever meet. And one of the tallest.”
"His love of the College is palpable and his ambition for W&M is striking,” said William & Mary President Taylor Reveley. “He has maintained close ties to the College even amid an extremely demanding career. His repeated willingness to forgo big bucks to return to public service falls in the grand tradition of service so prized at William & Mary over the centuries.”
When Comey came back to speak at Charter Day, he spoke about that tradition of service. “It would be an awful thing to get to the end of this short life and realize you have accumulated the smoke of success, but nothing of real value,” he said. “Service offers rewards that can’t be banked but that sure make you feel rich at the end of every long day.”
If William & Mary’s football team didn’t run the option in the 1970s, Gary LeClair ’77 probably wouldn’t have gone to college.
LeClair was an option quarterback who played high school ball in northern New Jersey. On the surface, a football offense might seem like a frivolous reason to choose a particular school. In fact, LeClair had never been south of New Jersey before he came to visit the College his senior year of high school. But coming from a family of very modest means, the football scholarship the College offered him was probably the only way he could further his education.
“Without that football scholarship, my parents couldn’t afford to pay for me to go,” said LeClair. “My relatives didn’t go to college. My dad didn’t go to college and my mom never finished high school. Sometimes opportunities come your way and you need to embrace them.”
Embracing that opportunity ended up being one of the best decisions LeClair made. “I made many lifelong friends. It was a terrific experience. Without W&M, I probably wouldn’t have gotten a college education; I could never repay them for that. And I met my wife, which I consider the greatest gift.”
During LeClair’s freshman year, the football team beat Virginia Tech, a huge victory. As a reward, the cheerleaders served the team a steak dinner the following Monday night. When one of the cheerleaders served LeClair, he leaned over and said to his roommate, “I’m going to marry her.”
That cheerleader was April Wells ’77 and the two were married right after graduation. But when he was 32, LeClair and his wife went through what he calls a “life challenge.” Their first child, daughter Collins, had developed a tumor on her liver at the age of 2. Collins weighed 25 pounds and the tumor was 6 of those. April was pregnant with their second child, so LeClair spent a lot of time in the hospital with Collins.
“There were nights in the hospital when they would come stick my daughter, and I had to sing ‘Old MacDonald’ to get her back to sleep. … There was a lot of time to reflect. I knew I wanted to do something great in life — the opportunity to make a difference. My father always wanted to start a business and never did. I decided I would rather try and fail than not try at all.”
A year later in 1988, LeClair and Dennis Ryan started LeClairRyan, a securities and venture capital legal boutique firm to address the special needs of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Since its founding, LeClairRyan has grown from two attorneys in one office in Richmond, Va., to 350 full-time attorneys (plus more than 300 contract attorneys) in 17 cities stretching from Boston to Virginia on the East Coast to San Francisco and Los Angeles on the West Coast. Although he started LeClairRyan 25 years ago, LeClair claimed that it is still a work in progress. “It still challenges me. I’m not ready to declare a victory yet; probably not until after I retire and reflect. I take pride in the cases we’ve won and the deals we’ve closed and we do a lot of good in the community. But we still have a lot ahead of us.”
LeClair keeps busy outside the office, investing in what he said is an integral part of life: relationships. He has kept up his relationship with the College, serving on the Board of Visitors and as a chair for the William & Mary Athletic Foundation. A firm believer in community involvement, he has also established relationships in his community, serving on the board of directors and advisors of many nonprofit organizations, such as the Steward School Foundation and the Tuckahoe Sports Foundation. LeClair was instrumental in getting the baseball field, dugouts and parking lot handicap accessible for the disabilities-friendly field at the Tuckahoe Sports Park. Sports has always been a big part of LeClair’s life and he wants to make sure all kids have the opportunity to experience that.
LeClair has also served as a youth coach for soccer, basketball, baseball and football. “I look at sports as a tool in raising children and teaching life lessons,” said LeClair. “It’s extraordinarily rewarding when a kid walks up to me 10 years later and calls me coach. Being a coach has allowed me to reflect on the life lessons I learned in sports and impart that. Passing that on to my daughters, son and their friends is among the most rewarding things I’ve done in my life.”
Besides sports, LeClair’s other passion is his family. He and April have raised five children, including Collins ’07, M.Acc. ’08.
“I told my children when they went to college, don’t accept the notion that the college years are the best. They’re good, but life gets better. It gets better each year when you take that education and build upon that. That’s the proviso: you have to keep learning. Learn a new language, learn about art and classical music. Read, read, read. Invest in wellness. Invest in your relationships. Invest in continuing to develop.”
Whether it’s through his job, community involvement, life challenges, sports or relationships, LeClair has continued his personal development and has no plans on stopping anytime soon.
"My mom worked as a florist in a grocery store until she was 73. My goal is to exceed her record. I will be 74 before I retire. It’s about staying in the game and continuing to learn. I can’t imagine getting out of the game."
When Joyce House Shields ’64 was growing up in Newport News, Va., she and her identical twin sister, Gay House Manning ’64, were a common sight around town. People would tell their mother, “We’d love to see the twins when they aren’t collecting for something.”
Whether it was collecting for the Red Cross or selling Girl Scout cookies, the House twins were always helping out. “It’s just the way we were brought up,” said Shields. This was the beginning of her passion for philanthropy and her commitment to the College and her community.
Growing up close to Williamsburg, Shields and her family would take drives on Sundays to visit the town and the College. “We said, ‘We definitely don’t want to go here! It’s too close to home,’” Shields said. “But then we looked at other colleges and changed our minds. We loved William & Mary then and we do now! Our closest friends then are our closest friends to this day — although it got off to a rocky start as they laughed at us our whole freshman year for dressing alike.”
The twins lived in Jefferson, the same dorm where their father, Rufus House Jr. ’29, had lived. As a basketball player for the school, Shields has “wonderful memories of great fun” playing in the basement of Jefferson and confusing competitors as she and her twin roamed the court. She became a member of Pi Beta Phi fraternity for women and worked as a research assistant in the Psychology Department running experiments and coauthoring articles.
After graduating from William & Mary with a degree in psychology, Shields att-ended grad school at Delaware and went on to work for the U.S. Army. Earning a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland along the way, she became director of manpower and personnel research for the Army and one of the few women to become a member of the Senior Executive Service. “Working for the Army as the ‘All Volunteer Force’ was just beginning provided a rich source of opportunities for psychologists to contribute,” she said. Shields’ research spanned the introduction of self-paced training to the design of recruiting strategies for the “Be All You Can Be” Army. She is proudest of her role in the initiation and management of a multi-year, multimillion dollar research program to modernize the Army’s selection and classification of enlisted personnel. In recognition of her contributions, she received the Arthur S. Fleming Award for administrative excellence in the federal government and the Medal for Exceptional Civilian Service.
Following her 19-year career with the Army she went on to work 23 years for Hay Group, a worldwide management consulting firm. As a senior leader and owner, she shifted her focus from research to meeting the needs of Fortune 500 companies and governments in organizational change, executive development and human resource planning. In this role she received awards as a Distinguished Psychologist in Management and for Excellence in Consulting Psychology.
With a successful career, Shields did not forget the school that started it. She became involved with the College’s Lord Botetourt Auction, served as a trustee on the William & Mary Foundation Board, co-chaired her 45th Class Reunion and is currently co-chairing her 50th Class Reunion. But it was Jim Ukrop ’60, L.H.D. ’99 who told Shields she really should be on the board of the Mason School of Business. Now Shields has served for over 10 years.
Shields has been very involved with Mason’s Leadership Development program from its launch in 2004. Most recently, Shields co-led a major research effort to redefine the critical leadership competencies for the College’s M.B.A. students. “We confirmed that employers want employees who have the interpersonal skills to work with and influence others as well as the ability to think creatively, embrace ambiguity and solve complex problems — not just technical skills,” Shields said.
“I have never asked Joyce to do something on behalf of the Mason School of Business, our faculty or our students that she has not willingly agreed to do and that she has not accomplished beyond my ever-accelerating expectations of her,” said Lawrence Pulley ’74, dean of the business school. “She is a pleasure to work with and her contributions have been, literally, transformational.”
Shields has been active outside the College as well. She serves as a trustee of her church in Alexandria, Va., and on the Homeless and Outreach committees and still finds time to visit older members of the church not able to attend services. As a board member of the American Red Cross in the National Capital Area, she heads the Philanthropy Committee and received the top award for superior volunteer service. She is also a member of the board of trustees for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.
Shields has been successful in many areas of her life, but she gives the credit to those she has met along the way, many of whom she met at William & Mary. “Take advantage of every opportunity provided – not just the intellectual part of the College. My friends from William & Mary have become my ‘chosen family.’ The most important gift from W&M are these lifelong friends. Faith, family and friends are the most important things in my life. You can be successful in many different ways, but without those it is not meaningful.”
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2013 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine.