Marquette President Michael Lovell is Opening Up About His Childhood Trauma

Michael and Amy Lovell are opening up about their past trauma in hopes of getting the city to deal with its own.

Michael runs for his life. A year-round athlete since youth, he spent primary school cycling between seasonal team sports: football, basketball, volleyball, baseball. By grad school he had abandoned them all for running. Now 51 and the president of Marquette University, Lovell runs an average of 50 miles a week, a pace needed to keep him on goal of two marathons a year, with the odd triathlon in the mix to keep things fresh.

It was through running that Lovell introduced himself to the Marquette community. As part of the rollout to his inauguration in 2014, the school released a video of him jogging along Lincoln Memorial Drive suited in Marquette’s signature navy and gold, weaving past Downtown landmarks until he pauses in front of the twin steeples of the Church of the Gesu. The goal, in part, was to humanize the first non-ordained leader of the Jesuit institution, while subtly telegraphing that he would be an active and hardworking presence in the president’s office.

What the video doesn’t consider is how Lovell came to use running as a powerful therapeutic tool to cope with the horrors he experienced during childhood. The plush president’s office is not a role he’s been groomed for since birth, nor one arrived at without overcoming significant personal demons. “I’ve experienced significant mental illness in my family,” Lovell says. “My grandfather committed suicide. We’ve had some violence in my family. And alcoholism.”

Lovell was 5 when his grandfather killed himself. He lost his other grandfather the year before. It wasn’t until a few years later that he was told that one took his own life. “When I did find out, it was very traumatic.”

By all accounts, Lovell is a warm and open man, unfailingly down to earth with an approachable Duchenne smile and warm, dark eyes. But until this March he never spoke publicly about his difficult upbringing – reversing that reticence for a public purpose entwined with his past. 

Lovell revealed he scored a 5 on the Adverse Childhood Experience, or ACE quiz. ACE is a diagnostic tool that measures the amount of negativity and disruption experienced in childhood. The standard test is only 10 questions, so Lovell’s score suggests he grew up in a fairly toxic household. Someone with a “perfect” score of 10 would have been subjected to verbal, physical and sexual abuse, felt unloved and inadequately cared for by their guardians, lost a biological parent and witnessed domestic violence while living with persons who were mentally ill, addicted and sent to prison. Lovell hasn’t explicitly said which questions match with his experience, but take away even half of any of those situations and what remains is a partial picture of the worst parts of his childhood.

“Sometimes you need to be vulnerable if you want to lead something.”

Michael Lovell

Personal trauma is not often a topic of conversation at cocktail parties and dinners, particularly among the city’s well-heeled power players. And Lovell is not naturally inclined to wear his past on his sleeve. He regards himself as an introvert, and would much rather discuss besting obstacles instead of dwelling on them. “I score very high on resiliency. I felt so much better when I exercised. Not that I ever suffered from severe depression or anything, but there are times of year, particularly November, when the days get darker, I’d get a little down,” he says.

Now he’s willing to shed some light into the dark parts of his life because he believes that’s what the city itself must do. Lovell is one of many in Milwaukee who believe that unaddressed trauma has devastated numerous individuals and diminished the community at large. From his pulpit as head of Marquette, he is part of a coalition working to advance Milwaukee as a nationwide leader on trauma-informed care. For that to happen, Lovell believes he needs to lead by example. That means sharing personal stories of how overwhelming stress can impact a life – but also providing a living example of how the worst experiences can be overcome.

“Sometimes you need to be vulnerable if you want to lead something,” he says. “If you lead on trauma, as horrible as it is to talk about my ACE score and the trauma I experienced, I think it lends credibility to what I’m trying to do.”

TRAUMA is shorthand for a concept that encompasses all of life’s major negative experiences. It’s the baggage that people carry around from events of overwhelming stress. The worst trauma can erode people’s ability to trust others or care for themselves, resulting in an unstable and isolated life.

“There’s a ton of research, including my own, that demonstrates the more ACEs you experience, the greater your risk for depression, anxiety, PTSD and substance use disorder,” says local trauma researcher Joshua P. Mersky, a professor at UW-Milwaukee’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare. “Basically, you pick a bad outcome and there is research that can link those bad outcomes to trauma.”

Not long ago, trauma was almost exclusively associated with certain veterans who are unable to put their wartime experiences behind them once they return to civilian life. Eventually, the same symptoms were recognized in sexual assault survivors. What’s now coming into focus is the threshold for a potentially indelible traumatic event is considerably broader. Trauma can form out of a life of grinding poverty, or structural discrimination, or from surviving a natural disaster.

The ACE survey is perhaps the most salient clinical aid currently used in trauma research and trauma-informed care – a perspective of social work that looks at a person’s life history before developing the right treatment.

However, it’s not a cipher that can be used to determine destiny. The ACE survey doesn’t say anything about whether a person is equipped to deal with that stress, as Lovell seems to be able to.

“Someone who has experienced five ACEs has almost by definition defied the odds. Someone who has experienced five ACEs is not supposed to be the president of a major university,” Mersky says. “But the more important thing his story points out is the importance of pairing our conversations about trauma with conversations about resilience.”

MICHAEL Lovell’s family tragedies may be freshly unearthed secrets in Milwaukee, but they were known around his hometown of Meadsville, Pennsylvania, as he grew up. When he was around 10, Lovell remembers a social worker visiting his home to check on his sister and him. “She was just making sure we were OK, and would talk to us about things.” To this day, he’s unsure how the social worker was tipped off to what was happening inside his home.

Lovell also remembers authority figures in his life taking time to offer support. “I was fortunate to have several caring adults that weren’t in my immediate family that helped me. Coaches, people I met through my church, some teachers that I had,” he says. “Even having my friends’ parents looking after me and nurturing me as well, I knew I was cared for.”

Forging connections with caring individuals who can be trusted is crucial to building the resilience needed to overcome trauma. The positive relationships Lovell developed as he went through the worst experiences of life were fundamental to his ability to cope.

As was the comfort provided by an intense religious faith. A deeply spiritual man, Lovell grew up in the Catholic Church and was devout by adolescence. Following his parents’ divorce, he attended his mother’s Protestant church while living with her, but returned to Catholicism as soon as he was able to make his own worship decisions. As a University of Pittsburgh undergrad, he first asked out his future wife, Amy, by offering to go to Mass with her. She declined initially, demurring to a friend who previously expressed interest in the athletic engineering student.

Mike and Amy Lovell; Photo by Max Thomsen

A pharmacy major from Le Roy, New York, Amy was no stranger to trauma herself. When she was 10, she found her mother in the midst of a stroke. Amy’s mom survived, but faced years of grueling rehabilitation while Amy was saddled with grown-up household obligations. “You had to do your part, and there wasn’t time for anyone to think about what that was like for me,” she says.

The pair married in November 1993. Even with so much else in common – university life, spirituality, small-town upbringings – their shared challenges during childhood caused problems in their relationship in ways they didn’t initially recognize. “In our relationship as a husband and wife, sometimes this stuff got in the way. We just didn’t know what it was,” Amy says. “I feel like we have a really strong marriage. But our fights were always the same, and they were usually based on emotions and our reactive tendencies. Recognizing that has been powerful.”

“When it comes to this issue [trauma], you can’t separate Mike Lovell from Amy Lovell,” says Frank Cumberbatch, a friend of the couple. “Amy deserves as much, or even more credit than Mike in staying with this and really fighting for it. They’re two amazing human beings.”

Ultimately, their love for one another was stronger than any tension. And there was another shared trait that kept them united, according to their friend Frank Cumberbatch, vice president of engagement at Bader Philanthropies.

“I’ve never seen two people in such big places who are so humble,” he says. “I think their moral compass drove those people to find each other.”

TRAUMA-informed care is a hot topic in public health policy right now, believed by many to hold the promise of addressing the root causes of personal and social dysfunction. Programs that focus on job training can’t heal the pain of a traumatized childhood, or teach people how to trust their would-be co-workers.

SaintA, a longstanding social welfare agency on the city’s Northwest Side, was an early adopter. It first leaned into trauma-informed care a decade ago following the death of a child who was being held at a different facility in Wisconsin. “We got involved dealing with the grief of her tragic loss, and had to ask ourselves some hard questions,” says Tim Grove, SaintA’s chief clinical officer. Spurred to improve their own processes, SaintA staff found Dr. Bruce Perry, one the world’s leading experts on children’s mental health.

Working alongside Perry, SaintA debuted a trauma-centric model of understanding and correcting negative behavior in children. The new approach eschewed the “what’s wrong?” approach to children’s social work – figuring out why a child failed to bond with peers, performed poorly in school or rebelled against all authority. Instead it approached cases with a “what happened?” mindset that asks when and where in a child’s life did something occur that could explain what is going on today.

“When schools were asking, ‘Why can’t Johnny or Jane learn?’ the direction went to: Is there a deficiency we need to address and correct?” Grove says. “The post-trauma care school outcome is: How do we change the environment? How do we change the classroom? How do we change how we offer education in a way that addresses the broad context of what happened and provides a richer environment for learning?”

SaintA has since become a nationally recognized leader in the field of trauma-informed social care. The center has spent the past 10 years spreading that approach to 50,000 other people in and around Milwaukee, including teachers, judges and health care workers.

This change in thinking is now manifested in the aims of some local organizations. Milwaukee Succeeds, a collaborative focused on improving city schools, this year unveiled a social and emotional learning goal that prioritizes emotions, reactions and relationships inside classrooms

UWM’s Mersky is part of a team that is bringing trauma-informed care to the realm of workforce development, with a pilot program called Healthy Workers, Healthy Wisconsin that screens job applicants for unresolved trauma and refers affected individuals to social workers. “We’ve introduced a trauma-informed protocol to increase the likelihood that those individuals will not only get jobs, but keep their jobs,” Mersky says.

THE year SaintA began to look to trauma-informed care as a path to better outcomes for the children it serves was also the year the Lovells arrived in Milwaukee. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in 1994, Lovell spent a few years working at an engineering software company before returning to academia. He returned to his alma mater after a stint at the University of Kentucky, before being lured away in 2008 by the prospect of becoming dean of UW-Milwaukee’s College of Engineering & Applied Science. There, he earned a reputation for strong recruiting and fundraising, which led to his becoming UWM’s eighth chancellor in 2011.

When Lovell accepted the Marquette job in 2014, he cited his desire to openly embrace his faith as a primary reason for joining the Jesuit school.

“We did want someone who could support the Jesuit mission of education, and he clearly demonstrated that,” says Patricia Cervenka, a retired Marquette law professor who was on the search committee that helped select Lovell. “His sincerity and eagerness to really do good in his position with the university and get a lot of input from various people, that’s what I remember.”

He has largely delivered on the ebullient promise suggested by his introductory video. Lovell’s penchant for partnerships was another reason he was tapped for the Marquette presidency, and his bridge-building has become a hallmark of his leadership. He raised $4 million during his first year at Marquette for a Strategic Innovation Fund, which has been used to seed ideas across campus. He’s not slick so much as studied, making the wonk’s argument for why it’s in everyone’s advantage to partner with Marquette.

“Mike is intuitively a very collaborative individual. When he was at the school of engineering at UWM, one of the first things he did was [meet with] the Marquette dean of engineering to work together,” says Greater Milwaukee Committee President Julia Taylor, a friend and former neighbor of the Lovells since they arrived in Milwaukee from Pittsburgh 10 years ago.

Four years in, the whole family has embraced Marquette. The oldest of their four children, Marissa, just graduated this past May with a degree in social welfare and justice. Two of her younger siblings, 19-year-old Matthew and 18-year-old Anna, are currently enrolled at the university, with the youngest, 15-year-old Kevin, still in high school.

Marquette has benefitted from Amy’s presence too, as Marquette’s previously priestly leaders meant the school was devoid of the sort of two-in-one advocacy that the Lovells provide. While technically not a university employee, Amy frequently collaborates with the university to drive action toward causes she works on in the nonprofit world. Since 2013, she’s helped lead REDGen, a mental health advocacy agency that was formed following several youth suicides, including that of 13-year-old Abby Goldberg, a close friend of Anna Lovell.

SLOWLY, the idea of trauma-informed care has grown outside of education and foster care and taken off in the city at large. In 2017, it entered the public dialogue when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published its series “A Time to Heal,” detailing the wide-reaching effects of trauma in the region. The series caught the attention of producers of 60 Minutes, who then sent Milwaukee native Oprah Winfrey to SaintA for a report on breakthrough therapies in childhood trauma that aired in March.

Around the same time, Lovell issued what he called the President’s Grand Challenge. The first-of-its-kind initiative challenges community organizations to team up with an interdisciplinary mix of Marquette staff and compete for a $250,000 grant. Proposals are due at the end of September, with Lovell heading the selection committee. The challenge was not limited specifically to addressing trauma, but given the scope of the problem in Milwaukee, Lovell believes that the winning grant will likely involve trauma-informed solutions.

By the time the challenge was announced, Marquette had already hosted a series of community meetings centering around trauma under the banner of a new hybrid group led by Michael and Amy Lovell called Scaling Wellness in Milwaukee, or SWIM. The seeds of SWIM were planted last November at a Marquette forum on poverty and health disparities. Each of the eight experts that participated ended up talking about how trauma affects their work and the people they deal with.

Cumberbatch was on the panel that night. He recalls feeling the need to inject the abstract discussion with a sense of urgency, punctuated with a visceral recent example: the aftermath of the police shooting of Sylville Smith in Sherman Park in 2016. “I looked into the eyes of those children,” he recalls telling the crowd. “What I saw scared me to no end. There was emptiness. If the bullets started to ring out again, I don’t know if they would flinch.

“I told that story, and it neutralized every other part of the presentation. You can talk about the physiological impact, the neuroscience. But when you see it, it’s [more] compelling. And I saw it. We’ve got to get our act together.”

SWIM above all else works to bring together existing groups dealing with trauma outcomes into a more efficient, more powerful, more cohesive organization. “We can all be an expert in our different areas, but unless we connect the resources together we’re not going to be able to move the needle in terms of trauma in Milwaukee,” Michael Lovell says.

While SWIM has captured the attention of many social organizations in the city, it has also induced the buy-in of a growing chunk of the community at large, especially people on the front lines of trauma. People like those Cumberbatch saw during the Sherman Park unrest, or who know those people, are showing up to meetings in greater numbers, adding their wisdom and experiences to the discussion. It’s exactly what the Lovells have said needs to happen. It’s also one of the chief reasons many think SWIM could be stitching together a transformative movement.

Since January, SWIM has met monthly at Marquette to talk about ways to come together and help recognize and treat trauma. Months before Oprah’s piece on 60 Minutes, the group was charging forward with ways to bring together researchers and survivors as part of a network.

“When it comes to this issue, you can’t separate Mike Lovell from Amy Lovell,” Cumberbatch says. “Amy deserves as much, or even more, credit than Mike in staying with this and really fighting for it. They’re two amazing human beings. I’ve just come to have the highest respect for those two. They’re a Milwaukee gem.”

To date, the highest aspiration of SWIM is to spread the awareness of trauma and trauma-informed care. To that end, they’ve partnered with SaintA to host the Healing Trauma, Healthy Communities Conference in late September – a regional gathering of social welfare agencies from around the Midwest that’s noticeably larger than any previous iteration, due in no small part to the involvement of the Lovells.

“They’re just remarkable human beings. Vulnerable, smart, big-hearted, compassionate, frankly all the right ingredients to promote healing and recovery,” Grove says.

The conference will kick off at the Fiserv Forum on Sept. 26, and Grove expects as many as 1,500 people in attendance. Perry, who kick-started Milwaukee’s interest in trauma with SaintA a decade ago, is slated to return to Milwaukee as a keynote speaker. The big-picture goal of the event is to kick off a lasting awareness of trauma in Milwaukee that trickles down to teachers, coaches, doctors and other public-facing professionals, who, when dealing with difficult or self-destructive individuals, can ask, with sympathy: what happened?

MICHAEL Lovell is a living, breathing example that people can overcome their past experiences and thrive. The whole point of focusing on trauma is so efforts can be mounted to address and mitigate its effects.

The same researchers who have drawn attention to the impact of trauma have also charted a path to recovery. It’s called resilience, and it’s fostered through self-care and nurturing relationships. If traumatized people understand they have someone to reach out to who they can trust implicitly, who they understand will have their best interests at heart, they can recover to lead healthy, normal and perhaps even exceptional lives.

It was the adults in Lovell’s life who were able to shepherd him through the disastrous events of his youth. Later on, in grad school, he started running as a way to cope with the stress of academic demands. He found it to also be a great way to vanquish the tragedies of his youth.

As he matured, first into a professor, then to a dean, and then to university president, he and Amy have been able to forge their own lifeline to others in need. And that leadership has come to define him far more than a troubled childhood.

“Hidden Hurt” appears in the September 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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