By Elisabeth Schnebele
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 people die from a drug overdose every hour. That’s 264 deaths each day — 95,040 each year. But these aren’t merely numbers or statistics. These are people’s friends, spouses and relatives.
And in 2015, one of these people was Mary Hammons and Conrad Brown’s only child, Jessica.
Jessica had just gotten married to her long-time boyfriend and graduated from the University of Washington Bothell with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Whip smart, she frequently earned a 4.0 GPA in her classes and quickly landed her dream nursing job.
On paper, everything appeared to be going well which is why the news of her — and her husband’s — accidental overdose was so shocking for Hammons and Brown. “The two most important people in our lives died in one night. Our daughter and our daughter’s husband,” said Brown, Jessica’s stepfather. “We woke up on Saturday morning and they were gone. It felt like the floor just fell out from underneath us.”
‘Gazillions’ of grandchildren
Hammons and Brown always pictured their legacy being carried on by Jessica and their grandchildren, but her death left them with no living heirs. “We always thought Jessica might want to move into our house one day, that she would be the one to decide what to do with all of our things,” Hammons said. “Now that she’s gone, we had to make all of those decisions ourselves.
“But one thing we decided early on was that we didn’t want Jessica to be remembered as just another overdose.”
To honor her memory, Hammons and Brown established an endowed scholarship in 2019 for UW Bothell’s School of Nursing & Health Studies in their daughter’s name. “I was so proud Jessica had just graduated as a nurse, as we all know nurses are heroes,” Hammons said. “I am a social worker and Conrad worked in health care and I was so glad she went into the field.
“This scholarship is a celebration of that — and it will also give us ‘gazillions of grandchildren.’”
Because of their generosity and the impact their scholarship will make on future students, Hammons and Brown have been named recipients of UW Bothell’s 2022 Legacy Award. The annual award recognizes individuals or families who contribute their time, service and philanthropy — and who encourage others to similarly support the University.
Support for struggling students
The scholarship is intended to help students who are struggling financially, as Hammons herself was a struggling single mother when she pulled herself through college and graduate school in the 1980s.
“I raised Jessica myself before I met Conrad when she was 10 years old,” Hammons said. “There were times when I had to decide whether to pay rent or afford to eat. I can’t tell you how poor we were.
“Whenever we wanted a treat, we would go down to the local Pizza Hut,” she recalled. “I still remember the personal pan pizzas were $1.75, and we would split it. That was our big ‘splurge,’” she laughed, “but we loved it and we had a good time.”
She hopes that this scholarship will give other people more good memories, like the trips she had to Pizza Hut with her daughter.
“I don’t want it to just go to tuition,” she said. “I hope it helps pay a utility bill, puts gas in someone’s car or gives someone their own personal pan pizza when they need it.”
Mentors make an impact
Hammons and Brown are happy to support students at UW Bothell — a school with which they feel a deep connection. “Jessica didn’t just get a great education, she also got great mentors in professors,” Hammons said.
One in particular stands out in Hammons’ memory, Andrea Kovalesky, associate professor emeritus from the School of Nursing & Health Studies. “Jessica confided in her and told her things she didn’t even tell me,” Hammons said. “She told her that she was struggling with her sobriety, which I never knew.”
Kovalesky also had a relationship with Hammons. A former veteran, Kovalesky had always included a chapter about veteran health in her classes. When Jessica heard about this, she immediately thought of her mother who spent a significant portion of her career working at the Veterans Administration Hospital. “After Jessica told Andrea about my history, Andrea invited me to speak to two of her classes about my experience with veterans from a clinical standpoint,” Hammons said. “So after Jessica died, I felt comfortable reaching out to Andrea, and she helped me get her diploma.
“Inside the envelope that held the diploma,” she recalled, “was a handwritten letter from David Allen, the dean of NHS at the time. It just oozed compassion — it’s actually what first sparked the idea of the endowment.”
The scholarship has already helped one student and will continue to help many more. “We are so grateful to Mary and Conrad for their support of UW Bothell and our students,” said Rebecca Ehrlichman Blume, vice chancellor for Advancement. “They are an integral part of the School of Nursing & Health Studies community, and their gift will result in generations of future nurses and health care leaders.”