Perhaps Brenau's most visible face in the past two years, 2013 graduate Erik Nemecek connected the dots between Marine, cop, fireman, EMT, carpenter, welder, husband, father, matchmaker and motorbike wanderer to a degree in nursing and a future doing what he's always done best: helping other people.

Semper Fi

Three years before that winter’s night on the mean streets of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1998, police officer Erik Nemecek, fresh out of training, squeezed all the slack off the trigger with the hammer cocked half-way back. At the last minute, however, he quickly holstered his weapon and body tackled the suspect who had been refusing to show his hands to Nemecek and his partner. Jimmy Washington – a name Nemecek says he will never forget – quite literally dodged a bullet because a quick-thinking, quick-acting young cop simply did not want to kill anybody that day.

Maybe Nemecek thought about a previous incident when he rolled his patrol car into that same BP service station to accost a suspect who had been the subject of erratic radio traffic from a neighboring police jurisdiction all through those “witching hours” before dawn that cops hate so much. Or, maybe after three years’ experience and still full of that 10-feet-tall-and-bullet-proof feeling of youth, Nemecek simply “got lackadaisical” and let his guard down. No matter, though. He arrested the man – or “stuffed him and cuffed him,” as Nemecek put it – then radioed the police from the other jurisdiction to come get their guy.

Jeff Dixon. Another name Nemecek will never forget. Later he learned that he’d missed the radio traffic about how Dixon had opened fire on a citizen who had merely irritated him earlier that night. Nemecek did not know when he first confronted Dixon at the service station that the man had his pistol cocked at his leg. Dixon told investigators later that he was “going to kill that young cop.” Instead, for unexplained reasons, Dixon merely let the gun slide to the ground. Other officers found the pistol 10 or 15 feet from where Nemecek arrested the man.

Nemecek stayed on the job for six years after that. Although he says he never let his guard down again, that incident “really screwed me up for a while.” He firmly believes what his supervisor told him later: “‘Man, you really got lucky.’”

For the past two years or more, the first thing you were likely to see when you opened the www.brenau.edu home page or picked up a brochure promoting Brenau to prospective students was Erik Nemecek’s infectious boyish smile and wholesome face. That photograph, however, belies the resume of a guy who has experienced enough adrenaline-fueled danger, wild adventures, crazy jobs and steadfast commitments to fill a dozen lifetimes.

Nemecek represents the epitome of a nontraditional student at Brenau. Too restless for college as an 18-year-old, Nemecek enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school. His father, Dr. Jack Nemecek, a Centers for Disease Control public health advisor, was – to say the least – a bit dismayed.

“I didn’t tell my old man until I brought the Marine recruiter home to meet with us,” Erik says. “It did not go over well. For one thing, dad is a career Navy man,” and apparently the elder Nemecek takes seriously that age-old heated rivalry between sailors and Marines.

“But I just had zero interest in college,” Erik says, “and I was not emotionally mature enough to know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Nemecek has now traded handcuffs and badges from his days as a big-city police officer and fire department EMT for a stethoscope in his new role as an emergency room nurse at one of the top children's hospitals in the United StatesShowing off some of the tools of his trades, Nemecek has now traded handcuffs and badges from his days as a big-city police officer and fire department EMT for a stethoscope in his new role as an emergency room nurse at one of the top children's hospitals in the United States

Showing off some of the tools of his trades, Nemecek has now traded handcuffs and badges from his days as a big-city police officer and fire department EMT for a stethoscope in his new role as an emergency room nurse at one of the top children’s hospitals in the United States

His career trajectory took him through the military, motorcycling across the country like a latter-day Jack Kerouac, firefighter, cop, emergency medical technician jobs (all three of those jobs simultaneously in Cleveland, when he grabbed multiple shifts in the firehouse and police department), marriage and fatherhood. Now, at age 38, he is confident in the choice of nursing as a career.

As an undergraduate nursing student, the Hoschton, Ga., resident became the “poster child” for the College of Health Sciences and a prominent personality on the Gainesville campus. He worked full time on the university facilities team while going to school evenings, weekends and online. Consequently, when he picked up his diploma at the commencement exercise on May 4, it was a moment shared with many members of the Brenau family. Three days later, some of those same people cheered again when President Ed Schrader presented Nemecek with a certificate commemorating his five years of service as a Brenau employee at the annual faculty/staff appreciation day ceremony in Pearce Auditorium.

Before he graduated, however, Nemecek already had three job offers from top hospitals in the Atlanta area – two separate offers from his first choice institution, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta – one in the intensive care unit and the other in the emergency room. He selected the latter and, after completing the state nursing license examination, began working there in early June.

That is not surprising, says Gale Hansen Starich, dean of the Brenau University College of Health Sciences.

“Erik is a workhorse. He’s my go-to guy to get stuff done quickly and well,” says Starich. “It’s been wonderful to watch him morph into a premier nurse. I would trust him to care for anyone in my family.”

She says she will miss his attitude, expressed whenever she asks him to do anything, in “those crisp Marine responses, like ‘Yes, ma’am, Dr. Starich!’”

Nemecek says his getting the degree for that career would be impossible without the way Brenau accommodates nontraditional students with night classes and other scheduling flexibility. That doesn’t mean he isn’t handling duties that still make him sound super human. In addition to his full-time job at Brenau, classes and clinical work with patients, he still finds time to work as a volunteer firefighter in Jackson County, Ga. He and his wife, Becky, a first grade teacher at Jackson Primary School, have a 15-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and a 10-year-old son, Joey.

Nemecek also is a bit of the romantic with at least one success as a matchmaker.

Nemecek would serve as matchmaker for facilities maintenance team co-worker Scott Miller.
Nemecek would serve as matchmaker for facilities maintenance team co-worker Scott Miller.

“Erik is my brother from another mother,” says Danielle Miller, multimedia programs manager in the Office of Communications & Publications at Brenau. “Our very first conversation was an exhausting interrogation. Little did I know he was also an undercover matchmaker inquiring for my then-future husband,” Scott Miller, one of Nemecek’s co-workers on the facilities maintenance team.

“But he is a natural servant-leader,” Danielle Miller says. “He has this independent, restless energy and he is always ready for the next project. He speaks the truth, sometimes harshly without reserve, but with a heart of gold. He always finds time to be a good friend.”

Both the bluntness and the sweetness emerge when Nemecek discusses his own life. His older brother, Nick, is a Los Angeles policeman. Younger brother, Aaron, serves in the U.S. Air Force.

When Erik left the Marines, he still was not ready to settle into a profession – or anything else, for that matter. He sold all his belongings except some clothes and his motorcycle. And he planned to travel the country in search of fun – eventually winding up in Florida, according to the scheme, “to find a sugar mama, maybe try gigolo-ing,” he quips.

He never made it past Cleveland, where Nick was a policeman at the time. Friends introduced him to a woman named Becky and the gigolo fantasy evaporated.

Cleveland’s fire and police departments offered Erik a job, plus EMT training. Incredibly, he worked all three jobs almost full time, going from the police force night shift to his day job as an EMT and a shift of firefighting. All three jobs demanded alertness and provided a constant adrenaline flow, which may be why he can’t remember being exhausted.

“When you’re young, you think you’re invincible,” he says. “I don’t remember being tired. It was like I got a second, third and fourth wind moving between the shifts.”

With economic forces ravaging industrial Ohio and putting both Erik and Becky’s jobs at risk, they moved south where they had family. Erik worked for a time in a police officer’s job in the Atlanta area, but says he never got comfortable with Georgia’s law enforcement culture. A good friend urged him to apply for a Brenau maintenance job. Erik had carpentry, electrician and welding skills, so he was a natural fit.

Also, Brenau’s eclectic university setting actually helped him focus.

Erik’s father, Dr. Jack Nemecek, is not a physician, but after retiring from beloved Navy with a Ph.D. in public health, Dr. Nemecek became an advisor in the CDC’s respiratory and immunization programs. However, the elder Nemecek has a gift for seeing the elegant structural beauty in anatomy. In fact, Dr. Nemecek recently presented the opening lecture for Brenau’s fascinating gallery exhibition of photography of medical museum artifacts.

Nemecek graduated in May not only as a Brenau student but also as an always cheerful and always helpful member of the university maintenance staff. Says one dean at Brenau, he is the "go-to-guy" for getting things done.
Nemecek graduated in May not only as a Brenau student but also as an always cheerful and always helpful member of the university maintenance staff. Says one dean at Brenau, he is the “go-to-guy” for getting things done.

When Erik was a child, his dad’s medical books were always around the home. The books, with their detailed, engaging illustrations, inspired Erik as a school boy to create intricate and beautifully presented science projects. At Brenau, he connected more of the dots from all he had done in his life and all he inherited. It became clear to him that his role in life is to help people through health care.

Marine or not, this apple would not fall far from the tree.

Four days after his Brenau graduation, Nemecek walked into the ER at Children’s Healthcare, which is one of the leading pediatric hospitals in the United States and the pediatric physician teaching site for both Emory University School of Medicine and Morehouse School of Medicine. He was shadowing his future co-workers, getting ready to hit the ground running when he passed his nursing examination.

“It felt good,” he said. “It felt natural.”

 

– Additional reporting and writing by David Morrison

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