Celebrating Jimma’s 65th birthday – 1991

The message arrived late last Thursday afternoon. I could no longer work once I read it.

The man whom I and hundreds of other Wheaton alumni called Jimma was gone. I lost a father once before, and in the fresh grief that clouds my vision I know that pain again.

In the May edition of Good Housekeeping, author Anne Lamott writes movingly of her “other mothers” – the women who nurtured her, raised her, believed in her. I had not thought of Dr. M. James Young, “Jimma” to his theater students, as my other father, but then what was he?  Teacher, coach, director?

If you want to impact a life, become a teacher. Yet not all teachers’ influence extends so far beyond the classroom.

I met the remarkable man we called Jimma in the fall of 1972 when he arrived on Wheaton College’s campus as an adjunct professor of theater.  40 years later when the news of his passing washed up against the scattered shores of his former students, tributes flooded the internet.

But even a tsunami of words cannot capture the spirit of an old soul like Jim whose life was a metaphor for his surname. His body aged; never his spirit. My classmate Bonnie, writing on the web last week in a manner reminiscent of the famed Charlotte, declared Jimma to be  ‘singular’ and ‘peerless’ . That he was.

What is it about the death of this educator that has caused waves of grief to rock the internet? Classmates who have not been in touch for years have reached for each other’s hearts across the miles, offering personal memories as gifts like siblings remembering a shared father. What can those of us who long to outlive our own lives learn from Jimma’s example?

1). He knew us. He loved us. He named us.

Jimma gave all of us a unique nickname. Mine was ‘Mahdia’ – some derivation of my childhood name Marji. I found a Facebook thread with nearly 50 comments from classmates reminding one another of the names they were given.

“And I will give to each one a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name

that no one understands except the one who receives it.” Rev. 2:7

In 1991, I returned to Wheaton from Cape Cod for a surprise 65th birthday party given in Jimma’s honor by alumni. I had been gone 16 years by then and hundreds of other students had filled his drama workout circles.  As former students waited their turn to greet him, I was astonished to hear Jimma inquire about their spouses and children by name. When it was my turn for a hug, he didn’t miss a beat. “How is Mike?” he inquired eagerly. “And Adam, Amber and Jordan?”

Later in their home, I asked Jim’s wife June how her husband could possibly remember not only hundreds of his former students but also their families.

June looked surprised.  “He prays for you all,” she said simply.

(2)  He discussed us with God.

Jim and June lived a mile and a half from Wheaton’s campus. Fair or foul, he walked to school, and as he did he talked to God about his kids: Steve and Mitch and their families as well as his tribe of students, past and present. He never stopped reminding his Father of our needs.

“God knows how often I pray for you. Day and night I bring you and your needs in prayer to God.” Romans 1:9

In 1989, our youngest son Jordan – a tiny toddler of two – was admitted to Boston Children’s Hospital for life-saving surgery.  Those were pre- cell phone days. It was nearly impossible for anyone to reach us where Mike and I were anxiously waiting. But someone did.

A beckoning hand from a nurse. A call to the payphone on the wall. A familiar voice.

“June and I are praying for Jordan and we couldn’t wait to hear…how is he?”

(3) He believed in us when we didn’t believe in ourselves.

I auditioned for the drama Workout Group – a prerequisite for being cast in productions at Wheaton – and was thrilled and terrified when I was accepted into the group.

But Jimma knew of my fears.  I didn’t feel I had what it took to be an actor. I was too introverted, too conventional. My classmates were colorful and my personality paled in comparison. They were chocolate, pistachio, tutti-frutti. I was vanilla.

Somehow he never expected me to be anything other than who I was, yet he pushed me to become more than I ever thought I could be. Years after graduation, when I was doing summer stock, Jimma came to New England to direct a musical in which I had already been cast.  He made me work harder at finding the truth in my character than I ever had in college. He rebuked me when I deserved it. He accepted me for exactly who I was.

“Therefore, my dear children, stay true to the Lord. I love you and long to see you… for you are my joy and the crown I receive for my work.” Philippians 4:1

As I pen this late-night post I am wearing a silver St. Genesius medal he gave me when I graduated. Each senior received one, and Jim’s parting gifts have gone all over the world. Photos are popping up on Facebook of medals around the necks of kids who are now nearly 60.

St. Genesius – the patron saint of actors. A sacred symbol of the integration of an actor’s faith and craft.

One of Jimma’s kids spoke for all of us when he posted: “How lucky we are that someone so holy, human, and loving, so disciplining, real, and truthful, so candid and supportive was a part of our lives. We were all special to him. That love changed the trajectory of our lives.”

Do you want to outlive your life as he has?

You don’t have to be a parent, teacher or coach.

Find younger people and get to know them. Love them.  Name them.

Discuss them with God.

And never stop believing in them when they surely don’t believe in themselves.