Today we gather to remember the life and work of Professor Jody Esper in our community. It is with great sadness that we say goodbye to Jody, but it is with joy that we celebrate her life among us. I would like to share some personal reflections on Jody as a colleague, teacher, individual and friend.
I was chair of our department when we interviewed Jody 17 years ago. Jody and I "clicked" immediately – she shared our vision of the department, and students raved about her. I offered her the position and she accepted it before she left campus - we had already become fast friends. Jody was a perfect match for our needs - a cognitive psychologist specializing in social cognition - but her true passion, the psychology of gender, was a real bonus to our department, the University and our community.
Jody was a true advocate of gender equality and equity. She was a real champion of victims of social injustice of any kind, but she specialized in helping survivors of sexual assault. Jody talked the talk, and she walked the walk. Her contributions to campus and community in this area are her legacy. But more importantly, long before there was a SAAFE office on campus, when young women were hurting, Jody was the person to whom they turned. Jody was a listener, empathic and caring. Her nonjudgmental support, encouragement and sage advice made all the difference to these women. Jody also chaired the University's Gender Studies Program for many years. Not least of all, Jody was an outstanding role model and mentor to many female students and junior faculty.
Jody's contributions to our department are too numerous to detail here. Suffice it to say that our number of majors mushroomed after her arrival. Students flocked to her courses, which always had waiting lists. Jody was a master teacher. She had a laid-back style and related to students at a human level. I used to ask her how it was that her students hung on her every word, while all my students hung onto was wakefulness! Students simply adored her. They loved how she frequently asked them if they had seen where she put the glasses perched on top of her head! They loved her one-point pop "attendance quizzes" (e.g., What day is it: a. Monday, b. Tuesday, c. both of the above). And they loved her dog, Skippy, Jody's constant companion, Toto look-alike, and psych department mascot.
Yes, Jody was loveable, but students really learned important things from her. Though informal in style, her courses were rigorous, demanding and they challenged students' preconceptions. Students really learned to think critically in Jody's courses. Countless students have reported that her courses changed them in significant ways. Teaching was Jody's greatest strength, and ultimately was her greatest service to this university.
As a scholar, Jody had a keen intellect, commanding both the big picture and minute details. She was both intuitive and analytical. Jody was a collaborator – she and I coauthored several papers, and she worked with many other faculty and students in our department. Jody gave her heart and soul to the psychology department. She was a model departmental citizen, always carrying more than her fair share of work. Jody was an excellent department chair, professional, competent and collegial. She blended task-orientation with interpersonal skills. She was authoritative and egalitarian. For Jody, the top priority in all departmental matters was our students' welfare and their cognitive and social development. Jody wanted students to understand human behavior and to apply that knowledge in service to society. The loss of Jody leaves an immeasurable void in our department. We may be able to fill her position, but we will never be able to replace Jody.
Jody was, indeed, unique. She is on my list of "most unforgettable characters" (for those of you either too young or too cultured to know, that refers to a popular feature in Readers Digest). To be sure, Jody was a character! She loved to laugh – her sense of humor was one of her most endearing qualities. Jody was a person that people liked immediately. She was down-to-earth and unaffected in style. Her self-deprecating humor put others at ease. People bonded quickly and easily with Jody – and those bonds with students were long lasting, many keeping in touch with her years after graduation.
Yes, Jody loved to laugh, mostly at herself, but sometimes at me! By her example, she taught people not to take themselves (or life) to seriously. In that spirit, I'd like to share a now-legendary story among her friends and family that Jody used to tell. This story illustrates not only what a real character she was, but also what real strength of character she had.
Jody was writing on the black board in a large lecture hall filled with General Psychology students. Suddenly, she felt the worn elastic of her underwear give way as they fell to her feet, complete with an audible gasp from the students. Not missing a beat, Jody turned, pointed out something on the board, and gracefully kicked the offending garment under the podium! She continued her lecture as though nothing had happened. Many of us who are her colleagues have gotten through embarrassing classroom situations by thinking of that story!
This story also illustrates her grace and dignity under adversity. In much the same way as she handled that mini-crisis, for years she kicked her offending disease out of sight and continued on bravely with a smile on her face. Many of you may not be aware that Jody's liver began to fail six years ago. Those of us closest to her knew that she fretted about it, but she rarely showed that to us and certainly not to others. Jody was not going to let this disease interfere with her love of life and her work. She carried on without missing a beat to the very end.
As her condition worsened this past year, I was inspired by her courage and will to fight this, doing everything her doctors asked of her. In all this time, I never once saw Jody show fear. I was certainly fearful for her, but I gained strength from her strength and her dignity through this wrenching experience. She wasn't afraid of dying, but she was determined to do everything she could to survive. Even as she lay in the emergency room as the staff worked feverishly all night to stabilize her blood pressure, Jody's main concern during that time was that she had promised to look up something on the internet for her friend, Vicki, and she wanted to make sure that I would do it for her! During this past year, the only thing Jody ever expressed fear about was that she might not be able to return to teaching – this tells you a great deal about the character of Jody Esper.
In spite of everything Jody was as a colleague, I will remember Jody most as my friend. She was there for me in good times and bad. We were kindred spirits, we were confidantes, and we were pals. We often talked at length about grand concepts and important issues, but we just as often engaged in silly banter simply to amuse ourselves. Some of my fondest memories will be the little things we shared, such as enjoying a campfire, sunning on the beach and boogying through a Grateful Dead concert. I will never have another friend like the Jodester, and I will miss her. Like her idol Axyl Rose, Jody was "knock, knock, knocking at heaven's door," but now she is inside.
Jody suffered and died needlessly due to a critical shortage of organ offerings. Had more people thought to offer a part of themselves to save another, we would still have her wonderful spirit among us. In Jody's memory, I ask you to consider making an offer to save someone's life by signing your driver's license and notifying your family of your intentions. Please ask your friends and family to consider doing the same. Thank you for helping to make Jody's death mean a better chance of life for another person.
Dan Arkkelin, Acting Chair of Psychology
Jody Esper Memorial Service
Valparaiso University Chapel
June 1, 2002