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Award honors father

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Mike Schelke recently surprised his wife, an assistant professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, with a unique gift -- a scholarship in memory of her father.

"I wanted to honor Jessica's father because he was the embodiment of the entire story of the Damian family," Schelke said. "I wanted to recognize what he had to do to build a better life for his family."

Antonio Damian was born in El Salvador to Lebanese parents who left Beirut in the 1920s and traveled to France and Cuba before settling in Central America. The eldest of seven, he spent his childhood traveling to and from Lebanon and raising his siblings during his father's prolonged business trips across the Atlantic to manage his olive grove and vineyard ventures.

His father's work ethic and interest in travel and languages inspired Damian to build his own career in international business, which took him to several nations across four continents.

When civil war erupted in El Salvador in 1980, Damian and family fled to the United States to seek political asylum. Damian continued to support family members in El Salvador until his death in 1999 from an aggressive form of lung and brain cancer.

A firm believer in education, Damian and his wife, Carmen, instilled an appreciation for lifelong learning and intellectual curiosity in all four of their children. The youngest, Jessica Damian, now works as an assistant professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College.

"I think it's impressive to achieve so much in a country and language that's not your own," Schelke said. "I also directed the scholarship to benefit students who may have similar challenges."

The Antonio Damian Scholarship Fund will support Georgia Gwinnett students majoring in English, with preference to those from historically underrepresented groups or who are first-generation college students and to those who demonstrate financial need. Recipients must be full-time students and maintain a specific minimum grade-point average. The scholarship may be renewed for up to four years.

The fund will be used to award scholarships beginning in the fall.

"The scholarship is the first established in GGC's School of Liberal Arts and the first created in the college by a faculty member's spouse," said Lois Richardson, dean of the School of Liberal Arts. "We deeply appreciate Mike's generosity. This scholarship will allow a special population of students to receive a 21st century -- and beyond -- liberal arts education that will prepare them for the global economy."

The scholarship endowment is worth $50,000.

"An endowment is a fund that provides a permanent source of support," said Gordon Harrison, president of the Georgia Gwinnett College Foundation. "Such a fund is the perfect way for a donor to make a lasting investment and is a very meaningful way to recognize a loved one."

Like Schelke, anyone who establishes a fund can make recommendations on how the fund will be used, said Lori Buckheister, development director for the college. Likewise, donors often have preferences regarding announcement of their gift.

"Some donors prefer anonymity, while some prefer a general announcement. Others want a memorable occasion," Buckheister said. "We are glad to work with donor requests, and in this case, it was a surprise."

Jessica Damian was invited to a small reception of college staff where she heard the news about what her husband had done.

"I had no idea Mike was planning this," Damian said. "I am so touched that he chose to honor my father this way, and to benefit students who need support to pursue their education. My father would have been so proud to be remembered in this way."