Today’s post is one I have simultaneously contemplated and avoided for over a week. Often we take things in life for granted without even realizing we are doing so and, when faced with that realization, it can be a hard pill to swallow. Likewise, we may not always recognize just how much someone is in our corner, rooting for us and cheering us on. We might appreciate their friendship and support, but the real effort behind those actions may not always be clear. In short, we might not even realize just how much someone means to us until we don’t really have an opportunity to tell them.
Last Monday I got word that a dear friend and lifelong mentor of mine passed away. Jereial Fletcher, a professor at Southwest Virginia Community College, where I started my college career, passed suddenly after some health issues. Jereial was first my mother’s college professor in the early 90’s. I met him as a young kid and we became pretty fast friends even at that point. As I went into high school and began considering college and life after public education, he was more than willing to discuss options with me. Once I started at SWCC, Jereial was always there to help with any issues I had on campus and, often, opened his office just to have a chat if I wanted. He made sure I had every resource I could possibly need available to me, and often encouraged me to go above and beyond my own scope of ideas. I honestly can’t even remember who my actual college advisor was there, because I just went to Fletcher for everything I needed, every question I had.
My first short story publication, “The End,” was possible in large part because he encouraged me to submit my material to the college’s literary journal. I work-studied in the library and continued to write and do research into subjects that interested me because I had the undying support of my family, and my professor. This led to another friendship that I hold very dear to this day. My boss at the library, Teresa Yearout. Teresa and Jereial were very good friends and always remained in my corner, encouraging and supporting me more than I was even able to comprehend at the time.
Both of these amazing people were on the board in charge of setting up the Appalachian Heritage Writers Symposium in the years it ran, and both encouraged me to attend for at least 2 years before I found the courage to do so. If you’ve been with me since the beginning, you’ll know the symposium itself it what inspired me to start blogging in the first place. I had never imagined building a platform I could share my thoughts with the world, much less ever attempted to write an idea that wasn’t fiction in the hopes someone would care to read it. Once I finally agreed to be part of the symposium, Fletcher took care of the tuition, and even went out of his way to offer to let me ride with him that first year. He knew I was a bit of a socially awkward person, often preferring to be more of a wallflower than a social butterfly (don’t worry, Fletcher, other than online that hasn’t changed much) so he made sure I was comfortable mixing and mingling with the other attendees of the symposium.
I was instantly out of my comfort zone, as a 19 year old with one publication under his belt, going to workshops with dozens of people varying in age from 30-70 many of whom had been writing and publishing for years. It was Fletcher who told people who I was, pointing out my publication and telling them how talented I was as an author and a scholar. Teresa did the same thing, both of them encouraging me to speak to those individuals they felt would offer the most assistance and ideas in my interest areas. The two day symposium opened me to a world I never truly imagined was out there; a group of authors who knew each other, workshopped with each other, shared ideas and experiences. A group that I am now a member of, thanks to Fletcher’s encouragement. A fact that, sadly, I was unable to even share with him before his passing.
I continued to write and pursue creative and educational publication thanks to the support, knowledge, and encouragement of Fletcher and Teresa. Jereial remained in consistent contact with me after I graduated SWCC (Summa Cum Laude, thanks to the support I received) and went on to UVa-Wise. I continued to attend the symposium for a few more years, even teaching a workshop there in its next to last year of existence. As I pushed forward in academia and creative writing Fletcher remained a close friend and I would often send him emails or make the hour long drive from Wise to SWCC to sit in his office and vent and catch up.
The support of my friends did not end with creative writing by any means, I found out when I had a paper on “The Great Gatsby” accepted into an undergraduate conference. Jereial and Teresa met and drove together from SWCC on a Saturday morning to attend the conference, held at UVa-Wise. They were both so visibly and vocally proud of my accomplishments and made me feel incredibly successful. It’s a feeling I definitely appreciated.
When I told Jereial I wanted to become a teacher after that, he became a resource of knowledge and support once again. He gave me tips and directions aplenty, never once making me feel like any goal I wanted to reach was unattainable. His friendship and mentorship meant more to me than I honestly knew. In January of this year I received my last communication from him. His message included the surprising information that he planned to retire this year. In my response I told him that I planned to come see him in his office before he said goodbye to the college. That’s a visit I will never get to have.
Thinking back on the influence he has had on my life, from encouraging me to pursue education and writing, to steering me away from things he felt would not have benefited me in the long run, I can not be thankful enough. If not for his encouragement, I don’t know that I would have ever gotten a work published. I certainly don’t think I would now be sitting on the print collection and novel that are in publication. I can pinpoint so many areas in my life where I know the support and encouragement of Jereial Fletcher helped make me the man I am today. What hurts, what made me hesitate to even put these thoughts out to the world, is that I don’t think I ever fully expressed to him how thankful I was for it all. I don’t know that I ever told him how much it meant to me to have him in my corner, going out of his way to make sure I could be a success. My wife told me she fully believes that he knows now just what he meant to me, even if he didn’t get told in so many words before he passed, and I believe that. I hope he knew then just how much I appreciated everything he did, but I am certain he now has that knowledge.
I hope that I can be even a fraction of the amazing, supportive, influential person that Jereial Fletcher was to me and thousands of other students over his four decades of teaching. I will strive to be that kind of teacher, writer, human, and friend throughout my life, and I hope I can do Fletcher’s memory justice. I would like to extend a heart felt thank you to Jereial Fletcher for everything he did for me, every ounce of support he gave, every encouraging word. I truly feel I owe him more than I even know. And to Teresa Yearout, Gillian Huang-Tiller, Larry Hypes, and every other professor and mentor who has invested their time and friendship into me and my future – thank you so much. If you have someone who has been this kind of influence, friend, and supporter in your life, don’t waste a moment of time. Make sure you thank them for what they have done, for all they mean to you. Furthermore, if you are in a position to be this kind of mentor and friend to another person, don’t hesitate. It isn’t about getting thanks, it’s about changing lives. Don’t be afraid to go out of your way to invest in someone you feel has a talent or ability. Don’t be afraid to provide a kind word of a bit of knowledge with someone who could benefit from what you have to say. We’re all in this together, and everyone deserves to have someone in their corner. Don’t be afraid to be that someone.
Rest in Peace, Jereial. I will miss you, my friend.