When Jim told people he was a middle school teacher, they usually responded with a combination of awe, condolences, and admiration. But there was nothing else he’d rather do. He loved his students and he loved social studies. The “human google” as a former student called him, he brought to his classes tremendous energy and creativity—and flags. He insisted on wearing a shirt and tie every day as a show of respect for his students—except of course on St. Patrick’s Day when he wore a full Irish kilt complete with the sash and bag and little flaps on the socks. Messages have poured in these past few weeks from current and former students and parents saying how much he meant to them. They thanked him for fostering a love of history, opening their worlds to new ideas, and inspiring them to work harder. They also spoke about how he cared for them, encouraged them—and gave them ice cream money when they forgot to bring it.
Teaching was Jim’s vocation, and not just in the classroom. He taught all of us so much through the example of his life.
One of my favorite lessons was to embrace adventure. Jim had incredibly fun ideas—like camping our way to and through the Pacific Northwest for a year after we graduated college even though we had no plan, no money, no job, and knew no one outside the Midwest. Before I met Jim I would never have thought to even imagine doing something like that—before he met me, he probably wouldn’t have pulled it off. That’s one of the reasons we were such a great pair. He had these amazing ideas and I made them happen. His dreams took us backpacking on a primitive island where he proposed to me and on an African safari where we—intentionally—slid head first down a massive Namibian sand dune, and so much more. He kindled a passion for exploration and the outdoors in our daughters, logging over 30,000 miles in our Toyota Sienna traversing this country, hiking endlessly in National Parks, having adventure after adventure. With his friends he cycled and kayaked and played Ultimate Frisbee, and he shared his adventurous spirit with St Ambrose students through his stories and summer camp Trip-A-Day.
Jim was always up for anything. He said YES to life.
In college in Ohio someone might ask: Do you want to go to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, to a college bowl game in Florida, or on a road trip to the Rockies? And Jim was in the car.
Do you want to taste a local delicacy while traveling? Yes!
Sit in the Dunk Tank for the St. Ambrose school picnic? Yes!
Go on a mission trip to El Salvador? Yes!
No matter how tired or busy he was, our daughters’ requests to play catch, or to be thrown in the pool or be chased by a monster on the playground were met every single time with a joyful YES!
When we lived in Oregon we visited Crater Lake, a beautiful rain produced lake in the cone of a volcano. We hiked to the edge of the most spectacular blue water-gorgeous and inviting. But it was also 50 degrees. Undeterred Jim leaped in and splashed around for a few minutes. Still new in his tutelage, I of course did NOT follow him into the frigid water, but I later regretted missing that experience. For over 20 years I have kept a framed photo of him in that water on my desk as a reminder and challenge to myself to say YES and seize the moment and take the risk—in the words of Mary Oliver, to make the most of my “one wild and precious life” like Jim did so well.
For the first two years after his brain cancer diagnosis in 2009, we were in survival mode. As that initial round of treatment ended and the cancer growth stalled we caught our breath, backed up from the edge of the cliff we had been teetering over and built our life there as we waited for the inevitable recurrence we were told to expect within 5-7 years. I suspect we have all mused about what we would do if we had six months to live, and fantasized about quitting our jobs in dramatic fashion, traveling the world, and eating artery clogging foods and decadent desserts with abandon. Jim taught me and all of us who were privileged to walk with him how to answer the much more challenging question: What would you do if you had five years to live, with responsibilities of children to raise, and bills to pay, and students to teach?
By Jim’s example, he taught us to live intentionally and meaningfully and fully every single day. He was a master at making each moment count. He didn’t take offense, hold a grudge, or gossip—there was no time for that. He was kind to everyone and did good wherever he could. He Smiled. Danced. Sang. Laughed. Worshiped. Worked. Played. He celebrated holidays—complete with his over the top Halloween graveyard and zombie army. He tried new things. After seeing a hurling match during our travels in Ireland (the field sport with the stick, not the ice one with the broom), he came home and joined the DC Gaels, and started hurling with them. Who does that?! He completed triathlons and mudraces. He was more excited to play in the snow and sled and build igloos than the kids. A long-time fan of Monty Python, he loved to wear a Spam-a-lot t-shirt that read across the front “I am not dead yet,” a whimsical reminder to get busy living.
Jim taught us that life doesn’t have to be free of challenge to choose joy and generosity and hope. With no cure (yet), we knew his earthly body would never be free of the cancer. So Jim set himself to the task of living with it--his unbridled positivity unabated. He showed us how to be happy in the mess. To find beauty in ugliness. To live in the present moment. Jim didn’t sweat the small stuff. Heck, he didn’t sweat the big stuff! Instead of feeling sorry for himself or anxious or depressed, he smiled and laughed and remained hopeful. He never in nine years lamented “Why me?” In his tremendous humility, his attitude was instead “Why not me?” In his last act of selfless generosity, Jim donated his brain to science in the hope that one day soon researchers will find a cure for this devastating disease so no one else will have to leave the ones they love because of it.
Although 48 years was not nearly as much time as he or we wanted, Jim lived a consequential life. We are better for the time we had with him. We will continue to learn and be inspired by the memory of his life so richly lived.