Letter to the Editor: Former student shares stories about Jeff Jeske

Everyone’s life is a story, and no one’s story stands on its own. Sometimes our stories briefly brush up against one another’s before continuing on. And sometimes, if we’re really blessed, they overlap completely and forever.

I thought about this in the days leading up to Thursday’s memorial at Dana Hall for longtime Guilford College professor Jeff Jeske, who died last month. I count myself as fortunate that my story and Jeff’s overlapped ever so briefly at Guilford.

Two things I’ll remember about Jeff:

First, is that he was easily distracted. Throw open a window to Duke Hall, let a spring breeze blow through the classroom and Jeff was quickly carried away by a student’s slightly off-point remark. That’s not me complaining. I was frequently that student.

One of my fondest memories of Jeff was sitting in his Melville capstone class analyzing an early chapter of Moby Dick. Ishmael has entered the dark and gloomy Spouter Inn with its low-slung ceiling and an oil painting of the sea so old and dirty it only made the canvas’ dark hues all the more foreboding and unnerving to Ishmael. That was enough for Jeff.

Within seconds the class was transported from a Nantucket inn to Jeff’s beloved hometown of Cleveland. He started describing the narrow, poorly lit streets of his youth, the front porch that moaned like a ghost, the neighborhood bar around the corner, dimly lit with booming laughter that might have beckoned adults walking outside but, to a small child, sounded terrifying.

Mind you there are no whales in Cleveland, but here’s the point: All of us in class started thinking about our own place where we felt, like Ishmael, a little misplaced, a little uncomfortable. Jeff had a gift of helping you make those personal connections.

Here’s what else I’ll remember about Jeff: He was Guilford College’s strongest advocate. If President Trump is to be believed — and in this space he is not — all that ails our country is a lack of manufacturing jobs. If only we could return to 1955.

Jeff believed strongly that today’s college graduates need skills that easily toggle between manufacturing and technology and everything in-between. Skills like communicating, team building and analyzing complex data. In other words, the critical thinking skills a liberal arts college like Guilford imparts on its students.

Jeff believed every Guilford graduate left school with more than a diploma. They left equipped to one day lead because of the deeply-rooted humane instincts uniquely taught at many liberal arts schools: compassion, introspection, curiosity, integrity and moral courage to name a few.

In wonderful Quaker fashion, students, faculty and friends packed Dana Hall this week to celebrate Jeff’s sweet spirit by sharing their own overlapping stories.

So many students, past and present, offered up different stories with the same ending: How Jeff instilled a sense of wonder and confidence in them they still possess today. Could you ask any more from a professor? A friend?

“The day I was introduced to Jeff was the day I was introduced to the world,” said one student.

That, I thought, was beautiful.