Saturday, July 23, 2022

Laurie L. Patton, President

There is no way around hardship and cruelty and grief of a sudden loss of someone in the prime of their life, in fullness of their imaginative energies. The blow is physical. It’s disorienting. We are all still in shock. Gail, Sophia, Elias and Allison, Gabe: You have lost a husband and father. Neal, Linda, Tim, Renee, Sydney, Graham, Chris, Karen, Molly, Ryan, Carly, Brian, Carrie, John, Stephanie, Jamie, Jack, Emily, Claire, and Ryan, you have lost a son, a brother, an uncle. Our hearts are with you as you move through these moments of sorrow.

My guess is, that to come to terms with this sudden loss, we’ve all been looking over emails, messages, texts to remember Jeff. The one from July 5 on my phone was archetypal Jeff. It was Jeff encouraging a former Midd and MIIS student who had just appeared on NPR as an expert.  Jeff: “Yes, this is great! I heard it when it aired, live—Alex, you were really impressive—you clearly drove that report! Congrats!!!!” Encouragement, excitement, engagement, and nurture—with a CC to 20 other faculty and staff across the institution who had mentored Alex. Jeff was always this way.

I wrote in his memorial minute that we had lost a great Middlebury soul. A great soul, called mahātma in India, is literally someone whose life force is great. This word is actually in the New England tradition of intellectuals of which Jeff, as provost of Middlebury, was a part. In their first encounter with texts from India, Emerson and Thoreau loved this term. Influenced by Plato’s Timaeus, and neo-Platonists as well as the Gita and other classical texts emerging from India in the 19th century, Emerson thought about this idea as the “world soul.” What a perfect and fitting description for Jeff Cason.

Let me describe to you more of what a world soul is and how they change us.

First, world souls are travelers—they are comfortable wherever they are, and they spread the joy wherever they go. Jeff loved traveling across Middlebury. To the schools abroad. To the Bread Loaf campus. He loved traveling to Monterey and walking by the ocean after he met with people. We had a shorthand—“Hey, where are you now?”  “I’m on the mountain—what’s up?” “What’s your day look like?” “Hillcrest then Old Chapel then a walking meeting with you. Can we go by the Knoll?”

And Jeff loved traveling the world. This past week, how many of you have shared the traveling stories! Singing with a car radio up full blast with Jeff, traveling down the road in Puerto Rico. Wandering down a piazza during a cold morning in Florence. Walking through a market in Hong Kong after an intense meeting about an environmental program. Jeff was always traveling for Middlebury.

Jeff also traveled because the people he met became immediate friends. He simply loved connecting with people and creating the world where those connections were constant. Of course, that made him a great provost, but it also goes deeper than that. It made him a world soul.

The second thing about world souls is that they understand place. Gandhi needed to be in his village, not in Mumbai. Martin Luther King marched for the particular forms of justice and change in each city he visited—Chicago, Montgomery. And yet MLK also knew unequivocally that Atlanta—and his particular street in Atlanta—was his home.

Jeff knew unequivocally that Middlebury was his home, his village, his people. He could tell Middlebury stories of his experiences in the 90s. Murray Dry, who hired him, reminds us that Jeff was as outstanding a teacher as he was an academic administrator. And he was a good and trustworthy friend. Ed Knox, whose name is on the endowed chair Jeff held, is here with us today and remembers the excellence in teaching and learning that earned Jeff the honor. Not only this, Jeff could tell the stories of how his experiences of the 90s had roots in the 70s and 80s. And he could also tell a story about the last five years at Midd, and what his hopes were for his village, in beautiful detail. His connection to his home, his village of Middlebury gave him the depths of imagination so that it could change and yet remain connected to its deepest roots.

I especially appreciated Jeff’s light touch when he shared his knowledge of Middlebury: no discourses about the way it used to be, no false sense of nostalgia or falsely optimistic future for Jeff. Just the light comment, “Oh yeah I remember how that started.” Or, always in get-together mode, “That’s a story for over a beer. Definitely need to buy you a beer.” Once many years ago when I first told him that I didn’t drink beer, he rattled off several different kinds of wine that he could buy instead. Of course, I wanted to hear the story by then!

I want to share the news with you now that Jeff’s village—the Middlebury community—has demonstrated the compassion, fellowship, and generosity of spirit that is Middlebury at its best. Jeff’s devotion to this community inspires us, and this past week, several trustees have expressed their commitment to work with me to memorialize Jeff’s life of service to Middlebury through the establishment of a scholarship in Jeff’s name. As the trustees and I work together, I will most certainly keep you—Jeff’s beloved colleagues, friends, and family—informed of this initiative and any other ways that we will honor Jeff’s memory. 

The third thing about world souls is that they seem familiar to everyone. Jeff was that way. An intriguing picture of Jeff has emerged as I have listened to your stories of how he influenced your lives. So many people depended on him. More, perhaps, than Jeff himself even realized. For advice and counsel. For ideas. For the historical view. So many people felt that he was their friend in a special way. As one colleague put it, “When you walked into his office, even if you were doing a ton of business, you still felt by his very presence that you were being wrapped by a warm blanket.” I don’t know of many provosts—in fact I know of none—about whom that could be said so readily. By their warmth and hospitality, world souls are truly universal friends—or world friends—to all.

This was not superficial charisma. It was a deep kind of personal welcome to all—a welcome he wore lightly. You could always disagree with Jeff and remain connected to him. Gandhi wrote, “Friendship that insists upon agreement on all matters is not worth the name. Friendship to be real must ever sustain the weight of honest differences, however sharp they be.” Jeff was the real deal. A true friend.

Finally, world souls are filled with laughter. Some of the greatest teachers in India today, or in China 2,000 years ago or in South America 200 years ago, are depicted after their passing as always laughing. Because they were always laughing in life. Earlier this week, as we gathered speechless and unable to process the news, someone said, “We need someone who can keep us laughing the way Jeff always did.” 

The memories we have shared are also filled with moments when a wisecrack from Jeff diffused the anxiety. Or gave people perspective. My last one—me to Jeff: “Hey I heard you were making wisecracks at the 2020 graduation.” Jeff to me: “Yes, I was very worried that the poem was too long, and it wasn’t going to just be in Ukrainian and English, but they were going to do it in Spanish, and then in Japanese, and then in Korean…” Of course, I laughed. It was a total Middlebury joke.

I wish more than anything at this moment that we could change this reality for this whole grieving community. I keep thinking that we need to talk to Jeff Cason about how to move forward in his absence. The only thing that I can think is for us to take all of it up with even more fervor and even more energy. The love of Middlebury. The love of the place. The love of travel. And history. And puzzles and figuring things out. And laughter. And most importantly, friendship.

Gandhi also said, “With every friendship we build more firmly the foundations upon which the peace of the whole world rests.” Jeff knew this. We need to honor the foundations our friend built—and build them even more strongly. Jeff is sitting on all our shoulders now, with that smile and laugh we all know. We can do our work with heart because our friend and our brother Jeff Cason would want nothing less. Jeff will continue to make us all stronger. World souls scatter their spirit around their village, bestowing all of its corners with vibrant life.

When it gets tough, remember Jeff, laughing. When you have an idea that you want to try out on someone, remember Jeff, laughing. And most importantly, when you are hopeful, remember Jeff, laughing.

Jeff Cason Celebration of Life