Ann and Rud often said that Jay was their best professor, but that he was hard because he often gave them the final examination before giving them the class. But Jay's tutelage went far beyond that of his parents and his family. His friends and colleagues and, indeed, people from across the country and the world learned from Jay. As word spread this past week of Jay's passing, many of us in the Beach Center began to hear from people far and wide whose life had been touched by Jay. These were people who knew Jay personally, but also people who knew Jay only from the stories and pictures that Ann and Rud shared with audiences about his life.
I am reminded of the book Power of the Powerless by Christopher de Vinck, in which he tells the story of his brother, Oliver, who was born with severe, multiple disabilities. Writing several years after Oliver's death, de Vinck described Oliver as [quote] the weakest, most helpless human being I ever met,", but, also one of the most powerful human beings I ever met. He could do absolutely nothing," de Vinck wrote, "except breathe, sleep, and eat, and yet he was responsible for action, love, courage, and insight."
You glimpse Jay's power by the number and types of people gathered in this sanctuary and by the e-mails and letters and blogs and phone calls from around the country and around the world; in these, you sense the power in Jay's capacity to inspire others to action, to love, to take stances of moral courage, and, to gain new insights and visions for what might be possible.
The lessons Jay imparted were simple, but important in the context of our too often hectic lives. He reminded us to remember the holidays; to revel in family and loved ones; to live life with gusto; and to have favorite foods that excite you. But Jay's ultimate lesson to me came this week. When the press release announcing Jay's death was posted Wednesday night, I paused after I read the link from the KU home page to the news release. That link read: University mourns longtime employee Jay Turnbull.
Think about that for a moment. The headline could just as easily have read "University Mourns son of distinguished professors" or "University mourns special worker." Instead the headline points out a simple fact; that Jay was a person in and of himself, independent of who his parents were or whether he had a disability. He was a person who worked for 20 years and who contributed to the mission of the Beach Center, the Life Span Institute, the School of Education, and the university.
And in reflecting on that headline, and thinking about Jay and his impact on my life and the lives of others, I realized that the most important lesson Jay taught me was not really about the possible lives people with severe disabilities can lead, that people with severe disabilities could live in their own homes or perform meaningful work or lead a full social life. Those are important lessons, I know, but these lessons are really about the business of education or the rehabilitation business or the business of the myriad of professions that provided the supports that sustained Jay.
No, what Jay taught me, and what I believe he taught so many around the world who join us today to mourn his passing and celebrate his life, was that we are not in the education business or the rehabilitation business, or any other business; we are, each of us, in the dignity business. By the quality of his character and the example of his life, Jay reminds us of the dignity of living full lives; lives rich with friends and family and the dignity of work and the security of home and the joy and gift that is each day. Tennessee Williams wrote that "Life is an unanswered question but let us still believe in the dignity and importance of the question." Because of Jay, I know more about the dignity and importance of every person. I can think of few more important lessons to have imparted or a more important legacy to have left.
January 10, 2009