FROSTBURG - In his senior year at Frostburg State University, Jonathan Winter had to take calculus, a requirement of some of the medical schools he hoped to attend. He had not taken any math since high school trigonometry when "I wasn't very good at it," he recalls.
Returning to math after years away would put fear into the hearts and minds of the best students. But Winter had come a long way during his years in college. He got an A in calculus -the same grade he has earned in every course he has taken at Frostburg State.
When Winter graduated Saturday with a double major in biology and psychology - almost 180 credits compiled during his five years on this campus in western Maryland - he was one of 10 students in a class of 504 with a perfect 4.0 grade point average.
His story reads like something from the typewriter of a Hollywood scriptwriter - the small-town boy, inspired to discover his talents, makes good, but he never abandons the rock solid values that got him there.
Director Frank Capra used to make movies about such people - tall, good-looking men who were accomplished and admirable, yet soft-spoken and modest. They were always played by Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper in films such as "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town."
You can imagine a scene from Winter's future envisioned in Capra's style. A Model A Ford skids on a rain-slick, country road, crashing into a tree. A pregnant woman is trapped in the car, badly injured. A frantic knock in the middle of the night, and the town doctor heads out into the storm to deliver a healthy baby and save the woman's life. Back in his sparsely furnished office, a diploma from a prestigious medical school hangs on the wall. This could have been that doctor's ticket to anywhere in the world, but he wanted to work here.
This fall, Jonathan Winter, 22, will enter the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Frostburg State officials think he is their first graduate to go to Hopkins med school. He plans to be a primary care physician, a general practitioner in an area like the one where he spent his teen-age years - Accident, Md., population 350, that puts its quaint name on a bend in a Garrett County road on the way to Deep Creek Lake.
"It's such an awesome school," Winter says of Hopkins. "I would like to bring that level of medical care to a place that doesn't usually get to see it."
When Winter was in middle school in a small town near Albany, N.Y., he read Benjamin Carson's book "Gifted Hands" that told of Carson's trek from the mean streets of Detroit to the operating rooms of the country's best hospitals. Carson is probably the premier pediatric neurosurgeon in the world. It was that book that made Winter dream of becoming a doctor.
"I realized you didn't have to come from a privileged background," he says.
Winter's family moved to Accident when he was in the ninth grade. At Northern Garrett High School, he recalls, he was a good, but not exceptional, student. Through his junior year, he says, he had a B average. But something happened his senior year.
"I had some good teachers," he says. "I took an art course that really opened up that side of my creativity. I realized I could get A's."
His senior year average was 93. Though his grades and his SAT score - a combined 1,260 - could have gotten him into many schools, he applied only to Frostburg State, not far from his home and his two brothers, who would follow him there over the next two years.
"I liked the size, the small classes," he says. "There are a lot of opportunities here. They might not be as evident as at a big university, but if you look you can find them."
In the first semester of his freshman year, Winter got all A's. He put that report card in his wallet and carried it around for months, pulling it out to look at it now and then. It made him proud and confident. He now knew he could get A's, and they kept coming.
Something else happened during that year. He was walking on campus when he saw a sign for a lecture by Benjamin Carson. "I hadn't even heard about it," he says. "I did a U-turn right there."
He found Carson's talk as inspiring as the book he had read years before, and he rededicated himself to a medical career. "The gym was packed," he says. "There was a big line. I didn't have time to wait to get my book autographed, I had to study for a biology test."
In a few weeks, Winter will be at Hopkins, where Carson is on the faculty.
Winter certainly took advantage of the opportunities he found at Frostburg State. Two years ago, he traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, to deliver a paper to a joint meeting of the American and Russian nematode societies.
Winter had identified a new nematode - a type of worm - through a painstaking process that taught both the tedium and thrill of original scientific research.
He was working with biology professor Amy L. Harmon, who had found numerous nematodes in a miniature eco-system that develops in holes made by a beetle that bores into black locust trees. Harmon thought these nematodes were new species. In early 1999, Winter started to study one that was about a millimeter long.
It was months and months, first of trying to find the nematodes - they didn't appear until June, the end of the semester, but the beginning of a summer of work - then of trying to get good pictures of the tiny worms and their innards. That was followed by a detailed comparison to the latest literature on the genus and species of nematodes.
"It's like putting pieces of a puzzle together," Harmon says.
Winter was working against a deadline. Harmon was so sure that this was an unknown nematode, she had already submitted a proposal to the conference in Russia scheduled for August.
"Knowing Jonathan's work ethic, and knowing mine, I thought we could probably go ahead and buy the plane tickets," Harmon says. "We made it."
Winter went overseas for the first time. "I might have been on an airplane before as a baby, but I don't remember," he says. "It was incredible. Maybe next time I'll complain about having to squeeze my legs into that small space for all those hours, but not this time."
The paper on the new species - myctolaimellus robiniae - was the only one delivered by an undergraduate at the conference held at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Winter had another major research project at Frostburg State, looking at frogs and toads that had been exposed in the laboratory to specific amounts of herbicides and insecticides, sectioning their bodies and searching their organs for the effects of that exposure. It is part of an ongoing project at Frostburg State studying the impact of chemicals used on golf courses.
"I enjoy the research," he says. "I hope to continue with it, at least while I am in medical school."
He spent last summer in a program that allowed him to shadow doctors in West Virginia. He was in emergency rooms and on hospital rounds. But it confirmed for him that what he likes best is the primary care delivered by doctors in rural areas.
"I really like the physicians who develop a long-term relationship with their patients," he says.
All in the family
Jonathan shares a dormitory room with his brothers. The three - they are from a family of eight children - say they are "financially independent" from their parents. That's all they will say about that relationship. Scholarships and jobs have paid for college.
Whatever the situation back in Accident, it is evident in their crowded dorm room - two bunk beds and a third that seems too small for Jonathan's six-foot frame - that these three brothers have formed their own family.
Julian, 21, will also graduate Saturday and is another academic star of the class. A computer science major, he has compiled a 3.85 GPA while holding down a full-time job at a graphics firm in Cumberland.
"He's the one who can do math," Jonathan says of his brother, listing the higher and higher levels of calculus Julian has aced.
Julian managed the equivalent of a double major by fulfilling requirements for both concentrations in computer science - computer systems and information systems. Interested in software development, he will attend graduate school at Penn State in the fall.
The third brother, Arthur, is a junior majoring in chemistry, carrying a 3.5 GPA.
Jonathan was scheduled to graduate a year ago. He had taken the medical school entrance exam - the MCAT - and scored a combined 33, tied for the highest in the history of Frostburg State. He says he stayed for a fifth year to pursue some additional research.
"And I got to take some fun courses," he says. "I took basketball. I finally learned how to play. Everyone always assumed I played because I'm so tall."
There was another reason. While Jonathan might be cramped on the small bed in his dorm room, he wanted to stay with his family. On Sundays, the brothers drive back to Accident to attend Church of the Brethren. "We like the pastor there," Jonathan says.
In the fall, with Jonathan and Julian gone, Arthur, 19, will take a single room. He, too, plans on graduate school. "I'd like to go to Hopkins because Jonathan will be down there in Baltimore," he says.
One of the "fun" courses Jonathan took during his fifth year was a poetry workshop taught by English professor Barbara H. Hurd.
"He has a superb mind and great integrity," she says of Jonathan, adding that he was one of the strongest poets in the class. "He is someone with universal respect of his classmates."
Hurd says one of her favorites among Winter's poems is about three boys racing through a tunnel, finally emerging into a swampy land.
"He knew I am nuts about swamps," she says. "He described his in such gorgeous detail. The poem showed that the way one gets to a place affects the way one sees it."
She pauses, thinking about that insight. "To have that kind of understanding at his age is profound," she says. "For somebody going into medicine to have that kind of poetic sensibility means he has a great gift for all his patients."
Winter says that on a visit to Hopkins for prospective students a few weeks ago he heard some Ivy League-types kidding an applicant from Northwestern, the prestigious private university near Chicago.
"They were saying to him, 'What is Northwestern? Some kind of state school?' " Winter says. He stayed quiet about Frostburg State.
But his smile as he tells the story speaks volumes: He is not intimidated by such people, but rather is excited that these will be his peers.
At once, it was a smile of amazement and confidence that lets you know the A's should keep on coming. And it makes you hope that if you ever slide your car off a country road on a rainy night, that it is near the town where Jonathan Winter has hung up his Johns Hopkins diploma.