Hard To Accept, Impossible To Understand

In UGA’s August Commencement ceremony, Dr. Jim Cobb (right) proudly draped the doctoral hood on his star history student, Jason Manthorne.

Although my countenance in the picture may suggest otherwise, as I have already indicated in this space, the August 2, 2013, UGA commencement ceremony was a truly joyous occasion for me. Now, scarcely three months after I draped that hood on Jason, I am stunned beyond mere sadness into something more akin to emotional paralysis by the untimely, unexpected and deeply tragic death of one of my most prized and beloved students at any level.

I first laid eyes on Jason Manthorne when, upon entering the room for the first meeting of my freshman seminar, I detected a young man poring over the New York Times Book Review. This kid, I thought immediately, is somebody really special, and thus formed a first impression that, for once, turned out to be right on the money.

Jason and I met up again a few years later in a senior research seminar for history majors, where he turned out a stunning and quite possibly publishable paper on the roots of Tom Watson’s anti-Catholicism. He followed this up with an M.A. thesis on the Southern Tenant Farmers Union that boasted more original research and interpretation than a typical published monograph. His dissertation study of the values, motives and goals of leading New Deal agricultural reformers (which must be published) was the spitting image of its author—nuanced, complex and quietly but powerfully brilliant. Working through it with him was one of the most rewarding experiences I have enjoyed as an advisor. He was always open to criticism and suggestion, and on the rare occasions when he gently pushed back a little, he unfailingly proved himself closer to the mark than his mentor.

I would put Jason’s intellect up against anybody’s, but for all his brain power, he was one of the most unassuming people I have ever met, and despite his quiet demeanor, one of the wittiest. I possess absolutely nothing more cherished than a set of T-shirts proclaiming my membership on “Jason’s Beer Team,” a motley but loyal cadre of serious imbibers who gathered annually for an all-out assault on Athens Brewfest.

We in the History community at UGA are still trying to recover from the loss of a treasured colleague and friend Tom Dyer. It is one thing, however, to bid farewell to someone who has already registered a life and career of great accomplishment, especially if it means he will be spared any further pain and suffering. It is another thing entirely, to accept the untimely and wholly unexpected death of someone as young as Jason, who, even as he stood poised to fulfill his immense promise, found that his own suffering, however personal and tightly contained, simply left him no option. Though his abrupt departure from our midst left us confused and deeply hurt, rather than beat ourselves up in a futile attempt to understand it, I’m guessing that ol’ “J Man” would prefer that honorary membership in Jason’s Beer Team be extended to all who knew and loved him, provided they agree to honor his memory not with their tears but, just every now and then, mind you, with a toast of their favorite brew.