Communication study: 37-year marriage the tale of a ‘pair o’ docs’

· 12 min read

Communication study: 37-year marriage the tale of a ‘pair o’ docs’

Love Academically
Dawn and Charles Braithwaite on their wedding day, April 1, 1984 (left), and celebrating their doctorates in 1989.

Welcome to Love Academically, a Nebraska Today series that snuggles up with the stories of Husker couples: how they met, how they wound up at Nebraska U, how they balance relationships with careers or studies at the university. Because love may be patient, kind and blind, but at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, it’s also academic.

Two years before they met and three before they became the Braithwaites, he was just “that guy,” and she just another face in the crowd.

It was February 1981. Dawn, a newly minted master’s graduate of California State University, Long Beach, had flown to Denver for the annual meeting of the Western States Communication Association.

“I just happened to see a doctoral student from the University of Washington present a paper,” said Dawn, now a Willa Cather Professor of communication studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “I didn’t think much of it. I thought he was real smart. But I never expected to meet him or see him again.”

The courses of the passing ships nearly crossed again in the spring of 1983, when, as a first-year doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, Dawn was asked to serve on the search committee for a visiting lecturer.

“And that guy applied,” she said. “And I said, ‘Oh, I know that guy! I’ve seen him before.’”

That guy was Charles Braithwaite — Chuck, as Dawn would come to know him. He barely missed out on the job, but a few months later, another lecturer position came open. Two weeks after getting a call, Chuck found himself surrounded by 10,000 lakes.

“I always tell him that I got him the job,” Dawn said.

“If she hadn’t seen me at a conference, shared my papers, talked to the faculty, avoided telling the department chair — who was an ex-Marine — that I had a long ponytail down my back, then I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job,” he said.

Even so, the benefactor and beneficiary still hadn’t actually met. That was about to change: Chuck would be attending a welcome party for new faculty. Without a car, though, he needed a ride. The department had arranged one.

“But there was no way to contact me,” Chuck said. “So I hitchhiked or something to get to the party. I get there, and this beautiful woman comes running up to me, saying, ‘I was supposed to pick you up!’

“We started talking, and I think she did give me a ride back home. I couldn’t see not staying in touch.”

Within weeks, they were dating. Within six months, the meeting of the Western States Communication Association was rolling around again. This time, the couple would attend together. Chuck, wanting extra time to meet with his dissertation adviser, headed out to Seattle early. When Dawn arrived for the meeting, she noticed him acting “so weird, so goofy.”

The mystery of that goofiness only deepened when he invited her to go for a walk in the sodden cold of a Seattle winter, slogging through the muck and mire of a nearby park. But what was a little mud to a man whose feet had barely touched ground since they’d met? And where better to go for broke than at the event that had latently introduced two penny-pinching scholars-in-the-making?

“I didn’t think she’d say yes, but I asked anyway,” Chuck said. “I was so sure she’d say ‘No’ that I didn’t even bring a ring.”

So why ask?

“I don’t know,” he said, wearing a T-shirt with “Western States Communication Association” emblazoned across the chest. “You’re kind of swept up in this feeling that this is just the right thing. But at the same time, you don’t know how well the other person has been swept up.”

“It’s like, ‘Whoa!’ That was a big surprise,” said Dawn, admitting that she needed a moment or two before deciding that, yes, she was pretty swept up, too.

Dawn was 29, Chuck, 30. They knew what they wanted, so they wasted little time settling on a wedding date — or waiting for it to arrive. Dawn handwrote the invitations announcing that date: April 1, less than two months away.

“One of the senior professors thought this was an elaborate April Fools’ joke,” Dawn said. “He just kept laughing (about it).”

“And he didn’t show up,” Chuck said.

“He didn’t show up. And then he got mad at us,” Dawn said, herself laughing. “It took us awhile to kind of convince everybody that it really was serious.”

“I think, by now, that most have accepted it,” Chuck said. “After 37 years.”

The wedding itself was no joke, but the couple still remembers one that preceded it. During their brief engagement, the two doctoral students met the minister who would marry them.

“He did one of these counseling sessions, and he told us that marriage is a paradox. And then he started laughing,” Dawn said, “because he knew we were going to be a pair o’ docs.”

‘It’s really, truly a different kind of place’

The couple remained in Minnesota until 1989, when they headed for the Southwest, first to New Mexico State, then Arizona State. At each stop, Dawn and Chuck worked in the same department, both conducting qualitative research in communication. Dawn was busy studying communication among people with disabilities: “I started thinking about disability as its own communicative culture,” she said. Chuck, meanwhile, would spend more than a year doing ethnographic research at a Navajo community college, living in the dorms and interviewing students to better understand their experiences.

But by the late-1990s, Dawn was itching for a place that both housed a doctoral program and valued teaching, leadership and outreach as much as it did scholarship. In 1998, she found it at Nebraska, where the Department of Communication Studies offered her an associate professor position and, shortly after, a chance to direct its graduate program. For the first time, though, that department had room for only one Braithwaite.

Chuck could have taken tenure-track positions at other institutions. Still, none were offering the sorts of research and outreach opportunities he was seeking. With an eye toward eventually joining Dawn in Lincoln, Chuck accepted a short-term position at the University of Montana, where he could continue working with Native tribes. For more than a year, the Braithwaites saw each other only over breaks, at the occasional conference and “sometimes running through airports,” Dawn said.

“It was hard to be separated after being married for (that long),” she said. “It was really hard.”

“I would have to go find a payphone with a bucketful of quarters,” he said, “and treat it like a slot machine to call Dawn for a short period of time when I was in other parts of the country.”

In 2000 — the same year Dawn became president of the Western States Communication Association — their patience and sacrifice paid off. Chuck accepted an appointment as a lecturer of communication studies at Nebraska. He also agreed to help direct the international (now global) studies major and take on a half-time role with the Center for Great Plains Studies, becoming editor of Great Plains Quarterly.

“Chuck had to have some vision and some courage to take a position that was very different,” she said. “We had to put some faith in Nebraska. I loved it here. I thought it was a great place.

“I thought from the second I stepped on campus: I never saw a research institution where faculty cared about students so much. And that was just something Chuck and I both always valued, having a more balanced career of research and teaching and service.”

Chuck continued calibrating that balance in 2004, when he began regularly traveling to the Middle East and Eurasia. There he established relationships and videoconferencing technology at other universities, ultimately allowing Husker students to virtually connect with international counterparts long before Zoom became a proper noun. He used the same technology to stay in touch with Dawn during his trips, before arriving home with Russian nesting dolls or tea from Yemen.

The Braithwaites taking in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field in 2016 (left) and enjoying dinner with a view of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2009.

By 2011, Dawn had earned numerous awards for her leadership and research, especially her study of stepfamilies and what she called voluntary families — the non-legal, non-biological kin people choose to invest their time and trust in. She had just finished a term as president of the National Communication Association when she was named chair of the Department of Communication Studies, effectively rendering her Chuck’s boss. To avoid conflicts of interest, the department enlisted another faculty member to serve as his supervisor.

“There were things I couldn’t come home and talk to Chuck about,” she said. “You might go home and complain to your spouse, but I couldn’t really do that. We had to learn to set some boundaries of privacy — things that I knew, or things that he might know about people that I really would not want to know as chair.”

Those who got to know them came to realize that their relationship had hardly subsumed their independence or identities, anyway. At every academic stop, they requested that their offices not be next door to one another. At conferences, they spent far more time touching base with old friends than standing at each other’s side. And as for the stereotype of academic couples acting or voting as a bloc? “We probably disagree with each more than we do with other colleagues,” Chuck said.

“We always operated as separately as we could,” Dawn said. “Chuck needs some downtime, so he would go off and have lunch by himself. I think, in all the years we were faculty members, we probably ate lunch together five times. I always went out to lunch with the gang.

“We’re very close. But we’ve also just had our own lives.”

The Braithwaites said they buck another expectation: that, as veteran instructors of communication studies, they apply every last textbook principle of their discipline to their own relationship.

“I think people do think that if Dawn (wanted to say), ‘Pass the salt,’ she would say, ‘If it’s OK with you, and it depends on how you’re feeling, and if it’s not going to be a problem for you, would you be willing to give me this?’ That’s not what would happen,” Chuck said.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t marital advantages to having a partner who wrote a master’s thesis titled “Cultural Uses and Interpretations of Silence.” The relationship benefits from their shared understanding that communication is “irreversible and non-repeatable,” that nothing spoken and heard can really be taken back. They know the importance of timing — that the last three minutes of a car ride isn’t the ideal window in which to launch a debate that can’t possibly be landed so cleanly. And they said that agreeing to shelve a topic — to no longer discuss an issue whose progress is permanently stuck in neutral — can occasionally prove the best way forward.

When they do fail to practice the lessons they’ve spent so many years impressing on their students, the couple said those lessons at least have a way of helping them recognize their mistakes.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, geez, I know better than that. This is what I teach in interpersonal communication,’” Dawn said. “(But) I know how to go back and fix it. We have squabbles and do everything that everybody else does, even when we know better. But I think we’re pretty able to dig out of it, or sometimes anticipate, ‘I’d better not say that. This wouldn’t be the right thing to do.’”

Chuck said he’s not sure whether it’s even possible to analyze the communication of a relationship while also being part of it — to get the 10,000-foot view from the ground. He does his best to get that necessary distance when he can, though.

“I find myself sometimes talking in a way that I then take a step back, and I say, ‘You know, I’m just being defensive there,’ or, ‘What I’m saying doesn’t really reflect the behavior that I’m concerned with,’” he said. “Neither one of us would ever say something like, ‘You make me so mad,’ because nobody makes you mad. That’s a choice you have. But we do say things like, ‘When you do X, I feel Y’ — you know, the kind of things that we teach in our classes.

“You know, we hear problems that people have, and so often it comes from not understanding context, not understanding the difference between how you feel and what the other person does.”

Just as the Braithwaites found themselves upending certain well-worn perceptions of academic couples, Dawn conceded that the city of Lincoln did the same when she arrived more than 20 years ago. She recalled the surprise of seeing Mexican, Asian and Middle Eastern grocery stores as her then-department chair drove her around the city for the first time, glimpsing a hint of the diversity that she would come to love about Lincoln.

“Neither one of us would ever have thought we were going to live in Lincoln, Nebraska,” said Dawn, a Chicago native. “I didn’t even really know exactly where it was. It was just such a surprise.”

Though Dawn had a year-and-a-half head start on living in the city and learning the university, Chuck said it didn’t take him long to understand why it had captured her heart the way he did back in 1983.

“I was here probably a year before I met somebody I didn’t like. It’s really, truly a different kind of place,” said Chuck, who will retire in June. “We’ve had opportunities to move. I’m not even sure we ever got serious about (that). And it wasn’t because they didn’t offer enough money. It wasn’t because it wasn’t as good of a university for us.

“When you find a place that fits — like when you find a person who fits — why would you change?”

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