This past weekend, I attended a memorial service for a professional colleague, a man for whom I developed a great personal respect during the years we worked in the same department. After I left the Savannah River Site in 2007, I didn't see him for years afterwards. When I encountered him at a restaurant in 2013, we chatted as naturally as if we'd encountered each other in the hallway at work.
It was a rude shock to pick up the Sunday newspaper on a recent Sunday morning and see this man's obituary. He was seventy-three, no longer young, but no an old man as we understand that term nowadays.
I already knew that he was trained as a professional soldier, a West Point graduate in the fabled Class of 1966 (h/t: Rick Atkinson, The Long Gray Line). He did two tours as an infantry officer in Vietnam. Arguably, though, his greatest gifts were as a servant and teacher. Good teachers are, above all else, good servants. My mother was one and I can recognize the characteristics of those who successfully blend both roles.
The associate pastor of the church where the service was held gave a lengthy meditation on how his life embodied the principles of servanthood. But it was the eulogies by his daughter and son that pulled back the curtain on the man's deepest beliefs and actions. The word that kept popping into my mind was "integrity," i.e., wholeness, a personal character in which all the pieces fit together. He was of a piece, whether showing a North Vietnamese prisoner how to eat with a fork, or memorizing a lengthy lecture in Spanish to be delivered to a group of Latin American officers in Panama.
His family hosted a reception at the Rye Patch, one of the historic Winter Colony homes in Aiken. I made my way through a throng of other mourners to speak to his wife and children. When I introduced myself to his daughter, I said, "Your dad was the epitome of 'an officer and a gentleman.' But I can see one fault with him: He hid his light under a bushel.
She smilingly disagreed with me, reminding me that to serve others was her father's way of living up to the West Point motto, "Duty, Honor, Country." He just didn't want to be singled out for praise for living his life in accordancee with his values.
No one could have a better epitaph.
In memoriam, Lt. Col. (Ret.) John M. Jenkins, Sr., 1944-2018