Love of dance helps Mississippian honor late Marine father, overcome depression

Published 7:45 am Saturday, March 25, 2023

When her soul ached from depression and despair, Allison Riehl leaned on an inherent passion for dancing to sidestep the recurring anguish. In the process, she took an extraordinary leap – from pessimist to optimist.

Allison, a sophomore at The University of Southern Mississippi, (USM) is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance degree while also working part-time at the University’s Center for Military Veterans, Service Members and Families. The second eldest of seven children in a military family, Allison moved around quite a bit during her childhood. She graduated from Lewisburg High School in Olive Branch, Miss., in 2021.

To understand the enlightenment Allison, 19, has gained over the past few years, one must realize what she lost. The man she adored; the man who gave her immeasurable comfort and security; the man she called “Dad” lost a fierce battle with cancer when she was 13 years old.

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Her father, Jerome Patrick Riehl, built a distinguished career as a United States Marine, serving proudly on bases as far away as Okinawa, Japan. Allison described her childhood as a “whirlwind of love.”

“Although the Marine Corps had our family moving every few years, everywhere we went we found family, specifically when we moved across the world to Japan,” she said. “Being so far from family is difficult and Skype could only do so much. On Camp Lester, we found several loving families that introduced themselves to us and loved us as their own. Our community was so tight that I now call many of those families my own.”

Confusion, uncertainty

When her father was initially diagnosed with leukemia, Allison explains that she could not fully comprehend the severity of the situation. She recalls being alarmed by the fear apparent in her mother’s eyes. The steady stream of phone calls a worried wife made to relatives, sharing the somber news, only heightened the little girl’s bewilderment.

Her father, the ever-stoic Marine, tried desperately to shield Allison and her siblings from the brutality of cancer’s effects.

“I remember it was odd for me having to cover my shoes with slip-ons, put on a mask, and wash my hands and arms vigorously just to see him,” she said. “His hospital room was covered with our drawings and letters from loved ones. When we entered the room, he was all smiles so as to prevent us from seeing how much pain he was actually in.”

A period of remission was followed by her father’s retirement to North Mississippi. Within a few years the cancer returned with a vengeance. Now significantly older, Allison recognized the severity of the illness. A trip to the renowned M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas for chemotherapy and radiation treatment could not slow the disease’s progression.

“I do have a lot of memory loss from trauma, so the years my father battled cancer are a bit blurry to me,” said Allison. “The clearest part of his journey that I remember was hospice. I remember hours of silence in his room as he slept. This was the first time I had ever seen my father without any strength.”

Weak and exhausted, Jerome Riehl refused to let cancer crush his spirit.

“He was hopeful for Heaven and had trust in the Lord,” said Allison. “He knew he wasn’t leaving our family forever, and that we would be taken care of.”

Always the dancer

Since the age of 3 Allison has immersed herself in all things dance. Within the technique, she has studied and performed in ballet, pointe, tap, jazz, modern and the occasional hip-hop. 

“Ever since I began, I never wanted to stop,” said emphasized.

Rather than pursue a professional career as a dancer, Allison sought the opportunity to teach others. When the time came to consider college applications, she knew dancing had to play a large role in any academic pursuit.

“I realized that I did not want to quit dancing, which I did every day of the week and even some weekends,” she said. “Dance was too big a part of me to just stop. “It is my form of self-expression, my therapy, and a way I choose to worship. I decided to attend Southern Miss and pursue a BFA in Dance as a way to combine my passion for dancing and teaching.”

Upon her enrollment, Allison became aware of benefits provided by USM’s Veterans Center to children of service members. She credits the center staff for helping make the transition to college life much smoother than expected.

“While searching for a job in Hattiesburg, I learned of the Veterans Center and the work-study program,” she said. “Since working at the center, the staff has been nothing but kind and generous to me. With a schedule as busy and ever-changing as mine, they have been extremely flexible and forgiving. In addition to this kindness, I have been presented with many opportunities for scholarships and financial aid. The staff there never wish to see any members of the military struggle to receive an education.”

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Jeff Hammond serves as Director of the Center for Military Veterans, Service Members and Families at USM. He beams when describing Allison’s work ethic and character.

“Allison Riehl is an exceptional young lady, student, and Veterans Center employee,” said Hammond. “She is a spiritual woman of remarkable character who always demonstrates the moral courage to ‘do the right thing.’ You can always tell when Allison is in the building simply due to an uplifting atmosphere created by her smile and willingness to help others. She was raised in a caring Marine Corps family and like most, if not all, military kids, she is resilient and treats others with dignity and respect.”

The journey continues

The enthusiastic dance major will be kicking up her heels this summer while participating in the University’s Study Abroad program. Allison will spend several weeks in London as part of the British Studies program for dance. A life-long affinity for seeing new places and encountering new cultures has her giddy with anticipation.

“I have never been to Europe, and I am so excited for the experience, especially to be studying dance abroad as well,” she said. “We will be studying in London for about four weeks, and then I will be traveling solo to Malawi to visit my aunt and uncle who work as doctors there. I am very blessed to have this opportunity, and I am looking forward to it very much.”

No so long ago, looking forward to anything seemed almost inconceivable to Allison. She fought through some dark times to overcome an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.

“Following my father’s death, I battled with depression. Being the eldest daughter, second eldest of seven children, I felt I needed to be strong for my younger siblings. I did not let the emptiness I felt inside show,” she said. “It was only through my religion, dance, and my family that I was able to overcome that depression. I worry not for any part of my future now because I know God’s will is the only direction I want to go.”

Spoken like a true optimist.