Mike Donehey ‘99 may be one of Fredericksburg Christian School’s most well-known alumni. As the frontman for the powerhouse band Tenth Avenue North, he’s been making headlines since college. Tenth Ave has won three Dove Awards, and been nominated for twice as many. Since the year 2000, they’ve been drawing hearts toward Jesus Christ through their beautiful lyrics and unmatched sound. But Mike’s journey toward musical success began long before that. In fact, he first picked up a guitar during his senior year at FCS.
Mike spent his entire academic career at FCS, starting in kindergarten. As such, he’s been a part of the FCS story for a very long time.
“I guess you could say I felt like FCS and I grew up together. Highlights for me include the waffle gym floor and the interesting scars they left when you dove for a loose ball. Building theatre sets with Dave Schlee. Getting hugged by Jerry Gideon. Honing in my acting skills with Chris Barham, and getting sent to Randy Brunk’s office forty two times in seventh grade.”
Mike played sports, participated in the arts, and made life-long friendships during his time at FCS. “Graduating with over 60 friends who’ve you known since you were five was a pretty incredible experience too when I think about it. Not a lot of people can say that. I would say I probably felt more grounded than most going into college.”
Perhaps the most important thing about Mike’s time at FCS was the opportunity to be saturated in a culture that loved Jesus. “I like to think of my encounter with Jesus in three stages. Some people meet God like Paul. All at once. Blinding light. From murderer to evangelist in the blink of an eye. Others come to faith like Peter. Bumbling forward again and again. I empathize with the latter. I knew Jesus as Savior when I was five because I got spanked a lot. I was a pretty unruly child, so when it was explained to me Jesus would take my spanking for me, I said “Sign me up!” But I don’t think I wanted Jesus as my Lord until the summer of my junior year. I went to a Magnet program called Governor’s School at the University of Richmond. God used that month in my life to open my eyes to see He would be better at running my life than I was.” When Mike went away to college in West Palm Beach, Florida, that’s when his relationship with the Lord truly sweetened. “I began to see Jesus as my treasure when I went away to college. I suppose this is true for most, as it’s the time you really have to decide whether you want to follow your faith or not. The first week of college I met some kids who were seriously enjoying God of their own accord.
I would say that’s when I really encountered the presence of God in a tangible way.” His time at FCS set a Biblical foundation for him that has remained unshaken until this day. “It’s amazing how much of the Bible you don’t realize a lot of people don’t know. I got to college and I would start spouting things I was taught in second grade, and other people had no idea what I was talking about. It was then I went ‘Wow, FCS gave me a lot of knowledge I didn’t even have to try for!’” But with an important caveat.
“As beautiful as Biblical knowledge is, it can be a dangerous thing to equate following Jesus with a good test score. I’ve thanked God often for certain teachers I had along the way that helped me understand the difference.”
High school can be a challenge for anyone, but Mike faced some intense trials beyond what most teenagers could imagine. At the beginning of his senior year, a time most students are excitedly preparing for the bright futures before them, Mike nearly died. On the way to school one morning, Mike and two friends suffered a horrific car accident. “We flipped off of Mine Road after overcorrecting from catching the edge of the pavement. I flatlined five times on the way to the hospital. Broke my back in two places. Broke my skull. Ripped my ear off. I had to lay on my back for six weeks, and even though I was miraculously alive, I was pretty mad at God about it. Typical angsty teenage questions you know? ‘How could He let this happen! Why am I missing my Senior year!’ You’d think I’d be happy to be alive, but I was furious.” But as is the case when Jesus runs the show, beauty came out of the ashes. When I asked Mike when he first got into music, he responded,“The accident was the beginning actually. Waiting for my back to heal, I asked my parents for a guitar. So the worst thing I ever had to go through was the beginning of my future career. I think I would have been a lot less angry at God had I trusted He was up to something.” Tenth Avenue North got its start shortly after Mike started college.
“The band started just sitting around in the grass of Palm Beach Atlantic University. We’d sit around at night singing songs to God like a bunch of barefooted, surfer-hippies. I began to meet other musicians and we started messing around with music in our dorm rooms. By the end of my freshman year, the band had formed.”
Since then, Tenth Avenue North has been gifted with tremendous success. But more than a musician, Mike is a husband and father. He and his wife Kelly have been together since college, (they actually met on the way to a SCUBA class), and at the time of this interview, they had just had their 4th daughter. “I just had my fourth daughter yesterday! It’s amazing. It just means someone is always crying in my house, and it’s usually me! Eisley is 8, Nora is 6, June is 4, and Margot is brand new.” While balancing a music career and touring with having a large family can’t be easy, it seems like Mike and Kelly have created a great balance for their family. “It’s a constant conversation. Every six months, we address how we’re doing and what needs to change. How many shows do we do? How many days in a row can I be away? Right now, it looks like putting a cap on how many shows we do each year, even if it means we don’t make enough money to eat. I know a lot of people probably hear that and think I’m being ridiculous, but touring isn’t nearly as swanky and lucrative as some might think. I firmly believe my wife has to be just as called to it as I am. And I think I have to be ready to walk away from it whenever
that time comes.”
No doubt, many FCS students look up to Mike and his success. I asked him, what advice would you give to young FCS students who dream of being musicians someday? “Frederich Bueuchner. That’s what I’d say. He said “your calling is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep needs.” It’s imperative we ask both questions when we think of what we want to do. “What makes me come alive? What fills my heart with excitement and joy?” Ask that and do that. But that’s not enough. We then have to ask “Now how can I meet the world’s deep needs?” If we only ask what makes us feel good, we will more than likely end up a narcissist. But if we only ask what the world needs, we may look very Christian, but we’ll probably end up burning out. The important thing is to do what you love and figure out how to do it in a capacity that actually helps serve people.”