The morning was almost done when Joseph “JoJo” Dodd got out of bed some 1,900 miles from home and thought, “who would notice if I never got up?”
He was 19 years old, a beaten-down standup comic, living alone on a boat with a motor as broken as his career. “I was literally adrift in L.A.,” he said.
But this awakening on the boat, this moment of truth, would eventually lead him back to his moorings in Mississippi.
“To explain who I am now,” he said, “I can draw a line back to Los Angeles, where my life imploded.”
In his ensuing 10-year journey of discovery, he found himself, and did so by exploring many other exotic ports of call – political campaign consultant, teacher/soccer coach, emergency medical technician student, eight-foot dog, etc. – and is prepared to sail into the berth that suits him now: medical doctor.
Dodd is one of more than 150 medical students who will graduate on May 27, the Medical Center’s Commencement Day, but is almost certainly one of a few with such a nimble resume.
By the way, he’s also a naval officer.
“JoJo is kind of a Renaissance man,” said Dr. Jerry Clark, student liaison for student affairs in the School of Medicine. “I enjoy spending time with him. He’s had so many different experiences; he always has a good story to tell.”
The story begins 29 years ago when Dodd was born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, about 600 miles from Picayune, the town where he would grow up. As their son matured, Sherman and Becky Dodd did not always love his decisions, “but they always supported me,” Dodd said.
One decision was to quit college after his freshman year and move to California to be a standup comedian/comedy writer.
“‘Saturday Night Live’ was my dream,” Dodd said. “I remember watching ‘SNL’ with my dad, listening to his easy laugh.
“Chicago, New York and Los Angeles are the main places to go to do standup, and L.A. has the best weather, so I went there.”
He packed his clothes and the $10,000 he had saved by waxing Dollar General Store floors and drove to California, where no job or housing waited for him. “Which my mom did not know,” he said.
Then he spent almost one-third of his savings– $3,200 – on a boat. “I figured I could buy a sailboat for about 3 ½ months’ rent and live on that.” So he did.
The 27-footer, with its unemployed motor, was “gross,” Dodd said. “But it was home.” The dock master let him live in the marina illegally.
Beyond his standup gigs, Dodd earned money “teaching YouTube” to small business owners. And the comedians and writers he met taught him something.
“Many of them were 10 or 15 years ahead of me, doing what I wanted to do, but those I got to know were miserable people,” he said. “Many were on their third marriages or drank too much. Every 19-year-old should have an existential crisis. I realized what made me go to Los Angeles was just my ego.”
After struggling at comedy a while, he abandoned the dream, but landed a position on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, having had similar experiences in Mississippi for a gubernatorial and a congressional candidate.
The job was in Boston. He accepted it, after the dock master said he could leave his car at the marina – in exchange for a signed photo of Romney.
For two nights, the ex-comedian slept in the Boston airport before finding living quarters where planes didn’t land. Then he went to work.
“Obviously, he [Romney] lost,” he said, “but the experience was awesome.” It led to work in U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker’s Washington, D.C., office in the spring of 2013.
Soon, though, Dodd left the nation’s capital for the capital of Oktibbeha County, enrolling at Mississippi State University in Starkville, where he donned the guise of a bulldog in a maroon football jersey.
“I’ve always loved Bully,” Dodd said of MSU’s mascot, a role he shared with four others.
“I miss a lot about Mississippi State, but what I miss most is being Bully. You can make a kid’s day just by paying attention to them. And it costs you nothing.”
One of his favorite places to be Bully was Children’s of Mississippi, where patients love a visiting dog, even one with a man inside. Despite the joy he made, and found, there, he wasn’t interested in a health care career. Until boredom intervened.
Dodd came out of retirement to become Bully for the patients at the hospital.
At MSU, he was an economics major set on being a Marine, like many a relative.
“I was a little bored at the time, so I took an EMT class at night,” he said. He hopped in an ambulance and shadowed some EMT’s.
“That’s when I fell in love with it – when I had my first real patient. An engaged couple had been in an accident and the woman was thrown from the car.
“While the EMT’s did their job, I took the woman’s hand and talked to her. It struck me that she didn’t care who I was: Were my teeth straight? Was my hair combed? And I had no time to judge her: Is she a good mom? She just needed care.
“I had never experienced this kind of genuine, authentic interaction with a stranger before. I thought, ‘If this is the type of experience I can have in a career, then that’s what I want.’
“But, without that experience in L.A., I don’t think that accident on the highway would have had the impact on me that it did.” The dream that had been crushed made way for a new one. He was going to be a doctor.
After graduating from MSU, Dodd earned a degree in biomedical sciences at UMMC, as many future physicians have. And then he became a teacher for a while. At Starkville Academy, he taught science courses and coached the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams.
“If I had never gotten into medical school, I would still be teaching,” he said. “It’s fun in the same way that medicine is fun – you’re connecting with people. But, unlike teaching, when you’re in medical school, it’s all about you.
“The most difficult thing was finding balance – being a medical student, but also continuing to be a son, a friend. Which is why I found so much satisfaction working with the Jackson Free Clinic.”
As chair and COO, he helped make it better, said Dr. Thais Walden, a retired UMMC professor of family medicine and the clinic’s medical director.
“JoJo has heart for doing good things for others. He sees the big picture. He helped make the JFC board more efficient. He worked with others to do outreach, and so the clinic has touched a lot more people than ever before.”
Dodd also became senior class president, impressing other students and faculty alike.
“He’s one of the best medical students I’ve had the pleasure of working with since joining the faculty,” said Dr. David Norris, professor of family medicine and assistant dean for academic affairs in the School of Medicine.
“JoJo has approached every challenge with good humor, hard work, determination, out-of-the-box thinking and compassion for his fellow students and patients.
“He is going to be an amazing emergency medicine physician.”
Dodd starts EM training June 1 at the Naval Medical Center San Diego in California. Instead of the Marines, he joined the Navy, in 2018, because that branch’s Medical Corps supports the Marines.
His EMT stint led him to this specialty, he said. That, and the fact that “emergency medicine is where you can see it all.”
After his residency, he will owe the Navy four years. “But my career will end in Mississippi,” he said.
“I don’t want to leave a legacy in, say, Indiana. If I’m going to be an important part of any community, I want to be here. This is home.”
By: Gary Pettus