High-spirited ‘Dr. Deb’ sets minds at ease
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
As Dr. Deb Wade sat on a bench along the Promenade at Grand Canyon University on a sun-kissed day last January, taking in the buzz of the busy campus during a break from a long day of job interviews, she knew this was the right place for her.
“The Holy Spirit is here. I can feel it. I know it,” she said to herself.
Students and staff at GCU Arena undoubtedly learned Monday morning when Wade was the Chapel speaker that the University’s first vice president for counseling and psychological services knows it when she feels it. Her passion for students is exceeded only by her passion for her faith and her family.
“She has a spirit about her that just makes you feel good,” said Vice President of Athletics Mike Vaught, the connection who helped bring Wade to GCU after previously hiring her to work with athletes at Southern Methodist University. “She’s got a big heart. Yet she’s direct and will tell you what she thinks, but in a tone that you accept it. All the student-athletes say it’s like talking to Mom.”
That much was obvious after Wade earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Tulsa, where she also was a cheerleader, and fulfilled her dream of becoming a classroom teacher. She was an English and journalism instructor for seniors at Bixby (Okla.) High School, and right away she started teaching life lessons, too.
“A lot of the kids started gravitating toward my class and wanting to hang out after school. I got to worrying about some of those kids and why they weren’t going home,” she said. “That’s, I think, where my heart started getting stirred about loving the kids more than loving whether they could conjugate a verb.”
The new offensive coordinator for the Bixby football team was Mike Wade, and students made no secret of their idea that the coach and the English teacher would make a lovely pair.
“What they didn’t know was that we already were dating,” Deb said with a hint of mischief.
Sports psychology was right fit
They soon were married, and when Mike was hired as an assistant football coach at the University of Missouri, Deb followed her husband there and got the bug to go back to school. Before long she had earned three degrees — a master’s in education with an emphasis in psychology, an Ed.S. (Specialist in Education) and a Ph.D. in Educational and Counseling Psychology.
Now she was Dr. Deb, the moniker she still prefers today. She also was an adjunct professor at Missouri and had a lot of athletes in her classes. She also was a football coach’s wife. She also was a mother of two athletic boys, Kenny, who went on to become a National Merit Scholarship recipient with a full ride at the University of Oklahoma, and Tim, who later became a pitcher on the baseball team at Texas State University.
Clearly, circumstances and a good game plan equaled success.
“I just love sports and love the parallel of sports and life,” she said. “I got my doctorate because I loved doing marriage counseling and working with couples but I also loved sports. I thought, ‘One day they’re going to recognize the need for a sports psychologist, and I’m going to be ready.’”
But this is not just any sports fan — this is someone who calls herself a “baseball freak.” You think you love ball as much as this diehard Texas Rangers follower? See if you can hit these home runs:
● One of her stipulations for moving to the Valley was that she had to have access to the Major League Baseball network. “I watch as many baseball games as I can. If the Rangers aren’t on, I watch another game,” she said.
● The family’s two dogs are a black golden retriever named Millee (in honor of Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton) and a chocolate Labrador they call Koufax (for Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax).
● She has her own “baseball room” filled with bobbleheads and autographed bats. One year, she told her husband the only thing she wanted was one of Hamilton’s special-edition Most Valuable Player bats. “Most women want perfume. You want a bat. Wonderful!’” he said. The next year, she wanted a bat used by third baseman Adrian Beltre in a game. He got her both. Smart man.
● When Vaught was showing her around the GCU campus, he made sure he took her to the baseball field. Smart man.
● And her passion for Dallas-area teams isn’t limited to baseball. She got a life-size cutout of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo when a store was done with it, and when her husband came home that day there was Deb, her arm around her hero for a good laugh — being funny goes hand-in-hand with their strong faith.
“We’ve always said we want to have that marriage that will make people say, ‘What is it about you guys?’ And we can say, ‘It’s about Christ. It is because we have tried to model our marriage after His name, as He is the author of marriage,’” she said of her 36-year union with Mike.
Vaught was drawn to that spirit when he was an assistant coach at the University of Arkansas and met Mike on a recruiting trip to Kansas City, Mo. The pair had dinner and became friends. Wade went on to become an assistant coach at SMU, where Vaught later was the deputy director of athletics.
By this time Deb had founded LifeWorks Counseling Center, a faith-based clinic in Carrollton, Texas, that she had grown from a “single shingle” to a busy center with 20 specialists doing cutting-edge work. When Vaught wanted to experiment with having a sports psychologist, he asked Deb for recommendations, not thinking she would be available. She was, and her SMU appointment book soon was filled even though she was working there only a day and a half a week.
Spin forward to last year, when Vaught was interviewing at GCU and President/CEO Brian Mueller asked if he had done anything unique at SMU. When he mentioned Wade’s work, Mueller’s interest was piqued and soon Vaught was on the phone with Deb, saying, “You want to try this again?”
“It’s important from a recruiting standpoint because a lot of schools don’t have that person in place,” Vaught said. “Parents ask that question sometimes, about student-athlete welfare. So it’s a recruiting advantage for us.”
Deb said, “I think that’s always been a necessary component that’s been kind of pushed to the side, but now it’s finally being brought to the forefront. A lot of NFL coaches are talking a lot about sports psychology and the importance of being mentally strong and the mental game, muscle memory, of all that. Because it’s getting the spotlight, the potential of the growth there is limitless.”
While working with athletes, coaches and teams is a big part of her job, Deb also works for GCU Provost Dr. Hank Radda and Dean of Students Pastor Tim Griffin, serving as a liaison to the campus counseling center.
Mental health awareness is a top priority on campus this school year, thanks largely to the courage of ASGCU President Cody Dumas. He gets reports from other universities about issues they are tackling and was so struck by the frequent references to mental health, it made him realize he needed to see a counselor to talk about his own anxiety and depression. He since has shared his story publicly at GCU events — and has gotten positive feedback from fellow students. A mission was born.
“Having Deb Wade here and hearing from all these students and all the staff members, just knowing that we have a huge team of support that actually wants to see this happen, that gets me really excited,” said Dumas, who is organizing a Mental Health Awareness Week in January. “Definitely, there’s a sense of empowerment with that, not just for me but I feel like for our entire student government as well.”
“Wonderful. So proud of him,” Deb said. “I told him, ‘You opened the door for a lot of people right there to say, ‘Me, too. I need help, too.’”
Deb started work July 1 and was introduced to GCU employees later that month when she gave the talk at a summer Chapel session that can be viewed here. Her style in counseling sessions is simple, engaging — and direct.
“My role is to make them feel safe and comfortable and not feel like we’re going to do psycho-babble,” she said. “It’s real, it’s helpful, we get to the point and we leave. It’s not, ‘I dread going there because it’s going to be a 50-minute ordeal of ‘How do you feel?’”
Feeling right at home
She quickly has settled into a routine in her new home, a routine that includes a run of 5-6 miles most mornings (“It is my prayer time as well as my exercise time,”) and a commute to Glendale that is “just enough to get out of work mode and get in home mode.”
Mike has a job that he can do from anywhere — sales vice president for AdvoCare, a health and wellness company in Plano, Texas.
“We both really, really prayed about this,” she said. “We didn’t line up finances — that was not part of it. What we lined up with is, ‘Are we in God’s will and can we do work there that will be honoring and glorifying to Him?’ If it’s not that, it should not even be on the table.”
Leaving SMU wasn’t easy — for her or the athletes. After she left at the end of the school year, the track and field team sent her a group photo with the inscription, “We miss you.”
“She’s got that ‘it’ factor to connect with kids,” Vaught said.
And as GCU students and staff already are learning, her work is what “it” is all about.
Contact Rick Vacek at 602-639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.