Life-altering experience stirs alumnus to return “home” to Stritch

by Laura Schreiner

No one can doubt Oliver “Ollie” Chambers’, '92, dedication to his alma mater. As an international student from England studying on campus in the late ’80s to early ’90s, he had to move some metaphorical mountains to complete his degree.

Chambers began pursuing his bachelor’s in communication arts degree in 1988. He quickly formed deep and lasting bonds with Cheri Frey-Hartel, chair and assistant professor in the communication arts department, and now professor emeritus David Oswald.

“The faculty at Stritch, and Cheri and David in particular, gave me every opportunity to explore my strengths and develop my weaknesses,” Chambers said. “They also helped me to adjust to the culture, which was quite different than what I was used to (in England).”

Well established on the path to his degree, Chambers encountered a problem that many college students face – he ran out of money. Unable to afford the costs of living and studying abroad, Chambers returned to England with the objective to work, save up and return to Stritch. After only 10 months, he had accomplished that goal and moved back to Wisconsin.

With funds still tight upon his return, Chambers did what anyone in his situation would do – he purchased a school bus for $600 from an Elvis impersonator, parked it in a friend’s backyard, and lived in the bus for a year.

“It wasn’t actually too bad,” Chambers said. “I had an electric hook-up, propane heater, solar shower, and I insulated the bus with straw bales during the winter. Best of all, it was rent free!”

Despite his unconventional living situation, Chambers was thrilled to be back on track at Stritch. He progressed steadily through his courses and fondly recalls the humor and mentorship of Frey-Hartel in courses such as Communication Theory. In 1992, Chambers received his bachelor’s degree in communication arts.

After graduation, he went to work for an enzyme supply company in Chicago that specialized in color-washing denim. In his research and development position, he tested new colors and washes of denim and traveled to nearly all 50 states.

Chambers then accepted a position with a chemical shipping company. Instrumental in the company’s decision to expand operations to Shanghai, Chambers was relocated to China to oversee business development.

“This was the biggest professional challenge that I’ve faced,” Chambers said. “I was charged with creating a joint venture with a Chinese trucking company to carry high-risk cargo.”

In addition to managing a highly stressful business expansion, Chambers admits that he had trouble adapting to the culture. “China was not as open then as it is now,” he said. “I lived in a hotel and was not really permitted to interact with the local community.”

After completing the project, Chambers was sent to the Philippines for seven months, and he eventually settled in New Jersey as the company’s deputy director of U.S. operations. However, years of travel made him feel homesick for his native England. Though successful in his career, he yearned for a more simple life.

Ever resourceful and a creative problem solver, Chambers decided to support himself while also doing something that he truly enjoyed: scuba diving. And so, he moved to Cornwall, England, a popular tourist destination located on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

“I dove a lot while living in Manila,” he said. “My decision to become a scuba instructor came from my love of diving, my desire to return to England, and my passion for the conservation of marine environments.”

His job as a diving instructor proved to be quite successful, though Chambers notes that his criteria for “success” had changed.

“I taught scuba for 10 years,” Chambers said. “During that time, I got to introduce people to the ocean for their first dives, organized several marine environment cleanups, and got to spend my days doing what I loved. That is success.”

To supplement his income, Chambers also taught introductory business courses at a local college. Though his curricula focused on business, he began to notice and examine issues concerning student literacy and soon transitioned to the role of literacy instructor/tutor, spending a total of eight years at the college.

In 2008, the timing was right for another move, and Chambers launched his own business which continues today. The dual service Fire & P.A.T. Testing Services Cornwall provides government-mandated testing and maintenance on commercial fire and electrical systems.

With local businesses booming, Chambers’ company did, too. He was managing a successful business, finding plenty of time to dive, and feeling deeply satisfied. Then, life as he knew it changed.

At 43 years old and “in the best shape of [his] life,” Chambers suffered a stroke. In only a few moments, the man who was used to diving daily and brokering detailed business deals lost the ability to walk and talk.

“In an instant, my life changed,” Chambers said. “I was on top of the world, and then I couldn’t even speak.”

Requiring 18 months of intense and often excruciatingly painful physical therapy, hydrotherapy, and speech therapy, Chambers regained considerable control of his speech and movement.

“I will be forever grateful to my therapists for their hours of work and patience,” Chambers said. “They were a great support to me.”

He said that he still experiences several frustrations in the stroke’s aftermath, such as difficulties with spatial reasoning and articulating his thoughts. But overall, his recovery has been nothing short of miraculous.

Three-and-a-half years after his stroke, Chambers enjoys a refreshed perspective on his life. In fact, he credits those life-changing events with solidifying his decision to return to Wisconsin to visit Stritch.

“It really makes you realize what you value,” Chambers said. “I wanted to see my friends and visit Stritch again.”

During his visit, Chambers was a guest at the home of Frey-Hartel, his longtime friend and mentor.

“I don’t think I realized at the time exactly why Stritch always felt like home to me; I just knew that it did,” Chambers reflected. “But it comes down to the Franciscan values that the University so closely embraces. I have experienced firsthand what it feels like to rely on the compassion of others, and it’s powerful.”