Danni Maddox Gleave: Going from Average to Extraordinary

By Hank McIntire

Danni MaddoxDanni Maddox Gleave, Wood Research Assistant for the Quill Project at Utah Valley University.

As a six-year-old girl, Danni Maddox Gleave knew where she was headed in life. She wanted to be a mom and a lawyer.

“I’m going to Stanford Law School and be like Uncle John,” she confidently told her parents at the time.

Through elementary school and junior high, Danni held onto that dream. Then some struggles took over her life as a student at American Fork High School.

“It got really bad,” she recalled. “I began to experience anxiety, stress, and depression, and I saw mental illness as standing in my way.”

The emotional setbacks took their toll on Danni’s academic performance. “I didn’t think I was smart enough,” she said. “And I gave up on my dream of being a lawyer and focused on my second ambition—hair school.”

“So I made a deal with my mom,” Danni explained. “Since I was only 17, she would support my going to hair school only if later on I went to college.”

After graduating from high school Danni trained as  cosmetologist and began her career at 18, specializing in children’s hair.

Things went well for nearly a year until other health problems set in. Frequent fainting spells from a nervous-system disorder kept her from standing for long periods, an unavoidable job requirement for hair stylists.

“I decided to go back to school,” she said. Danni had been a concurrent-enrollment student at Utah Valley University while in high school, taking a French class. With a UVU connection already in place, she enrolled in classes in Spring 2015.

“I found my place at UVU,” she said. As a freshman Danni was hired as a graphics designer, making flyers for the Center for Constitutional Studies (CCS). “The Center helped pull me out of my depression. It gave me a purpose.”

The following year Danni was selected as a Wood Research Assistant and started on the Quill Project, an Oxford University constitutional-research effort that partners with CCS to digitize and model the U.S. and state constitutional conventions. She was assigned to work on documenting the Utah constitutional convention of 1895.

Early on, there were no established processes in the Quill–UVU partnership, neither for the research nor how to visualize it for others. “Here’s what needs to be done—figure it out,” Nicholas Cole, the Oxford-based director of the Quill Project, told student-researchers.

“We started at the old Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City,” Danni said, where many of Utah’s constitutional-convention archives were kept. The team reviewed thousands of printed pages and electronic scans to retrace how the Utah convention unfolded.

“The documents needed to be digitized, and many were written in cursive,” said Danni, noting that most of her colleagues had never mastered that form of writing. “But I practiced it for hours as a little girl and learned it in school. I love cursive, and being able to read and write it helped me transcribe.”

Danni’s background in researching her own family’s history also made her adept at navigating old newspaper archives, which contained a rich record of day-by-day proceedings of the Utah convention.

“We found documents, sketches, bios, and meeting minutes in the Salt Lake Herald and Deseret Evening News. It was fascinating, and I got good at summarizing in-depth texts,” she said.

She quickly became a go-to and a team lead for Quill. Student-researchers took their questions to Danni, who gave her answers, and then they would ask director Cole for his opinion.

“Nicholas would often say, ‘Danni’s right. Do it the way she says,’” she remembered. “I found something I was good at, and they came to appreciate my hard work. We figured out how to model and created a process that Quill researchers still use today.”

Working on the Quill Project helped give Danni a confidence she felt she lacked. She even took 18 months away from school to serve a mission in France for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Upon her return from France, Danni continued with CCS as a Quill researcher and recently got married. Her winding journey has broadened her perspective, and she credits her mother for the example she gave Danni from the time she was little. “Mom always said her secret was that she worked hard and had grit,” she said.

Danni has used that same grit, realizing “you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room,” she said. “I’m still not at Oxford level, which forces me to get rid of a lot of assumptions. There are so many different ways to succeed, and one of them is to rely on the mercy of others.”

“There are a lot of generous people who make our work possible,” she continued. “I’m so grateful for them. They care about the Constitution and seeing people reach their dreams. I’m still a Wood Research Assistant—one of the beneficiaries of the Woods’ generosity.”

To acknowledge that support, she is finishing up her degree in Integrated Studies (English Writing and Constitutional Studies) at UVU, and “as a senior I apply principles I learned in Quill to pass Biology.” And Danni has even revived her original dream to become a lawyer and added a third ambition to earn a Ph.D.

“Before, I was proud of my Quill research” she observed. ”Then I learned that it didn’t mean anything if there was no one to learn from it. So I want to help other people and educate them about the Constitution.”

With all of these steps forward, Danni still has her health and emotional challenges. “It’s still hard, but I don’t have to give up hope,” she reflected. “When you hit a wall—which I have done a time or two—it’s time to learn new skills. You just don’t give up; you try a different way. A lot of average things put together make extraordinary work.”