love, memories, obits

One last toast to a man whose bright light will never really extinguish…

Last night, I sat in front of my computer with Bill and a German beer. I tuned into Zoom, an application I had only used once before last night. The first time I used Zoom, it was for a wine tasting. Last night’s Zoom meeting was for a much more sober purpose. We were there to remember our dear friend, Matt Jensen. Most of us in on the Zoom call knew Matt because he served with Peace Corps/Armenia from 1995-97. But Matt was also widely known in other circles worldwide. He was also a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal in the 1980s, and most recently, he was a beloved teacher at P.S. 110, an elementary school in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn.

It was in Brooklyn where Matt lost his life just after midnight on May 18, 2021. He was just trying to cross the street– a wide boulevard well known for being dangerous to pedestrians. He had just celebrated his birthday with friends and was on his way home. He’d almost reached home when he was struck and killed by a speeding car on McGuinness Boulevard, the driver having apparently not noticed that they’d hit him and left him for dead!

Apparently, there were no witnesses or surveillance cameras to capture a photo of the person who killed this man with such a huge heart and bright spirit. Based on debris found at that the site where Matt was found, police surmise that he was hit by a black Rolls Royce. He was someone who had devoted his life to helping others– especially through teaching. He was a very gifted teacher, and I learned last night that the young children at the school where he taught practically worshiped him, even if they weren’t in his class. He knew everyone, and they all knew him. He was a very tall guy with incredible energy, so he was hard to miss, even without that vibrant personality and charisma that defined him.

Geoff, the organizer of the memorial, had asked me to sing a song. It always cracks me up that no one ever asks me to speak at memorials or weddings. I usually get asked to sing a song written by someone else. Even at my own father’s memorial, I wasn’t asked to speak. I was asked to sing– and my mom even told me which song she wanted me to perform. I was happy to do it, although my college minor in speech has gone to waste.

Just as I had for my mom when my father died, I sent Geoff a couple of recordings I had made, and he really liked my version of “Imagine”, sort of done Eva Cassidy style. I sing it in her key and with her mood, but more in the straightforward fashion that John Lennon sang it. I guess you could say it’s really “my” style, though heavily influenced by others. I was glad to have Bill with me, as he had graciously downloaded Zoom yesterday so we could figure out the technical aspects of the application. I wanted to make sure we did the music sharing part right. I’m glad to say that it went off well, except that I was very emotional and almost started crying in the middle of it.

Last night, I learned that besides Matt, our Peace Corps community has also recently lost two others– Loretta Land, who was an amazing senior Volunteer who had joined the Peace Corps at age 62– and Don Flumerfelt, who was in the group before mine. Loretta died in January of this year and Don passed in 2019. I had recently been in touch with Loretta, but she kind of dropped off of Facebook. I wondered about her. I can’t say I was surprised about the news that she’d passed, but I am so glad we did get to chat a bit last year. I wasn’t as close to Don, but I do remember spending a great afternoon in Yerevan, making business English conversation recordings for him. I also remember that he was very inventive and had built a shower for another Volunteer.

We also lost an Armenian friend, Ashot, the drummer for a local band in Vanadzor called Snack. Vanadzor was where Matt was originally assigned to work). Snack was an Armenian band, but one of the Volunteers also played with them, so they often performed at our parties. In storage, I have a cassette tape of their music, which always reminds me of so many fun times in Armenia. Ashot would have been turning 49 today, but he passed away of a heart attack in his bed on Thursday of last week. Ashot was also, for a time, married to Rose, a Vanadzor based Volunteer from my group. They shared a son. She was also in attendance last night. Some of the guys would have performed last night, but since Ashot was buried yesterday, it wasn’t possible.

At 7:00pm Germany time, I joined about 25 other people on the Zoom call. I felt so honored to be among them, even if I wasn’t close to Matt in recent years. It was great to see so many familiar faces of people I knew in the 1990s, back when I was trying to make my own mark in the world. To be honest, I left the Peace Corps as an angry person. There were many complex reasons for my anger, and some of them had absolutely nothing to do with my service. But, suffice to say, I was ready to go home in August 1997, thinking that maybe things would get better. What ended up happening for me, personally, was a bit of a nervous breakdown. Ultimately, the “breakdown” wasn’t a bad thing, because it forced me to reset my life and make some changes, to include taking voice lessons that helped me sing last night’s song. But I worried about what people in that group remembered about me, as I was a bit of a mess in the 90s. I was determined not to make an ass of myself. 😉

There were several returned Volunteers from my group, as well as the former country director, the former TEFL director, several Armenians, people who had known Matt through the American University of Armenia, and a woman who knew Matt in Brooklyn. We were also joined by Matt’s cousin, John. I had never met John before, but I immediately liked him. I could tell that losing Matt has been devastating for him. I can’t even fathom how much pain he and Matt’s friends and loved ones felt when they got the terrible news that he’d been killed. I was glad to hear that Matt’s brother is taking good care of Matt’s beloved cats, Katie and Olive.

The participants in the Zoom meeting were scattered around the world. I’m in Germany, but we also had a couple of folks from Armenia, someone in Sweden, someone in Russia, someone in Belize, and a number of folks on the East and West coasts of the United States. It’s amazing to think of how far and wide Matt’s light has spread… and there were so many loving sentiments and stories shared.

One of Matt’s former students, Hoveek, really touched my heart as he spoke about how much Matt had impressed him. When we were in Armenia, it was just a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was a time when there weren’t a lot of Americans there. And Hoveek was immediately moved by this man who was not at all like the people he knew. He spoke movingly about how he observed the way Matt dressed, and how when they visited the Peace Corps office in Yerevan, Hoveek saw the magazines about America and met others. Matt helped Hoveek get a job working for the Peace Corps. I could easily see and hear how much love and gratitude this man had for Matt. It was an honor to hear what he had to say… and really, just to be a part of the large group of people who got to know Matt and were touched by his spirit.

I learned that Matt wrote letters to so many people and had connections to folks in very high places. I think, if he had lived longer, he might have even delved into politics. He loved to talk politics and wasn’t afraid to speak out… but even in death, he will make a difference. There was a huge memorial for him in New York, and some very high ranking people vowed to finally do something about McGuinness Boulevard, a dangerous street that has claimed other people’s lives over the years. If they make that boulevard safer for others, then Matt’s death will have done a great service to so many people… again, a way of sharing that light and affecting others for good.

But I think the most profound commentary I heard regarding last night’s memorial came from my own husband, Bill. Bill never had the chance to meet Matt, but he’s heard me talk about him over the years. My memories of Matt are mostly about some of the hilarious things he said, but also his wild dance skills. Matt loved to dance, and had taken lessons. I don’t dance all that well, but I do like to spin around the dance floor with men with rhythm. I learned last night that Matt would dance with anyone! I have told Bill many stories about Matt over the years, but until last night, all Bill knew about Matt came from my limited perspective.

Thanks to our Zoom meeting memorial, Bill had the chance to hear about Matt from others who knew him through different channels. So, this morning, when I asked Bill what he thought about the memorial, his comments came from a totally different perspective. This was the post I wrote for the Peace Corps Armenia Reunion Facebook group:

My husband, Bill, was sitting in the Zoom meeting with me last night. I just asked him what he thought of the memorial, and he said it was interesting to hear all about Matt from someone other than me. Not having met Matt in person, he was struck by how personal Matt was in his dealings with others. He noticed we didn’t just gush about the positive things, but we mentioned his many quirks, too. And he loved that Matt wrote letters, since letter writing is such a lost art. He said he could tell that teaching was truly Matt’s calling.

And then Bill said, “It made me wish that the person who killed Matt could be there to see and hear just how many people have been affected worldwide by his death, and the profound loss and grief caused by that one careless act. Especially among the kids he taught.”

It really drives home how much we all affect each other, even if it doesn’t always seem like it. My husband never even met Matt, and yet he has been affected by him through me, and now by all of the people who spoke so lovingly about him last night. I take some comfort in knowing that there are so many people worldwide that he taught. Every single one of them has the potential to share his vibrant light with everyone they know, too. In that way, he’ll never truly be gone from the world.

When I think about that, it makes me realize that we all have so much potential… and most of us affect people in ways we’ll never know. We’re all connected. Not to be corny, but Matt’s life was a little like the proverbial “candle in the wind”. It glowed bright and cast warmth and light to so many… and then it was suddenly snuffed out by the careless actions of someone driving a Rolls Royce. Such a bizarre way for a man like Matt to die… it was as if Kurt Vonnegut conjured it for a novel! But in the end, his death may end up saving lives, as local activists continue to demand that something is finally done about that unsafe crossing.

Every person has the potential to share something unforgettable and good. Matt Jensen shared his light generously with people far and wide, and because he cared and shared so very much, that generosity is still perpetuating through people who will never, ever forget him.

Bill never met Matt, but Matt still affected Bill. Imagine what those young students in Brooklyn will do as they grow up. Maybe one or two of them will be inspired to teach. Maybe a few will decide to join the Peace Corps. Maybe one or two will learn to dance, or become fans of ABBA, or travel the world. Or maybe they will simply tell their friends and family about this tall, blond, monarchy obsessed ABBA fan who taught them so much , helped them learn English, made them laugh… or made them a memorable meal with beets and cabbage, or a delicious pound cake!

Matt was a thoughtful, kind, and loving person to the very end, and he always thought of others. Upon hearing of Prince Philip’s death in April, Matt wrote letters of condolences to Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Anne. Princess Anne wrote back before Matt died, but I think I heard that Her Majesty the Queen also responded, but her letter arrived after Matt’s death. I like to think that Matt knows how many people loved him and will remember him, sharing his light to infinite numbers of people around the world. And I hope he’s up there in the great beyond, sharing a toast with Loretta, Don, and Ashot… and anyone else beyond the bar who was touched by Armenia and knows how much Armenians love making toasts!

I’m so grateful that I was able to share my memories with other people… and in some small way, honor Matt with one of my own gifts. Maybe I can share my light the way Matt did with whatever time I have left. The most important thing Matt taught me is that no one is promised the next minute. So I hope this post inspires you to share yourself… because I promise, you matter to someone. And you probably matter to many more people than you will ever know.

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2 thoughts on “One last toast to a man whose bright light will never really extinguish…

    • Well, I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in many years. It is sad that now I will never have the chance to see or speak to him again. But if his death prompts change that will save lives, maybe it will not have been totally in vain.

      I do think his death has left a huge hole. The school where he taught lost a priceless member of the community. But as I’m writing about today, most things are not all good or all bad. If Matt hadn’t died, I probably wouldn’t have reconnected with some of these folks who were at the memorial. It was good to see them.

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