Another person can change your life: The Rev. Dr. Edgar N. Jackson, New England Institute

Todd Van Beck's picture

I was a terrible student in school, well anyway in elementary, junior high and high school.  Terms like middle school, pre-school had not yet been invented when I was attempting to get out, and I mean precisely that, “get out” of the school system in Iowa.

I was a horrible student; my teachers save for two despised me.  In fact I was so terrible that they, the teachers and my parents (me not included of course) used to have meetings about me, and I can assure the reader that the content and conclusions of those meetings (while I was not an eyewitness) were NOT GOOD.  In fact the guidance counselor in my school in Iowa assured my poor parents that I would never ever get into let alone get through Mortuary College.  The prophecy of the “academic experts” was not without substance and evidence, for when I graduated from high school (a questionable exercise at best) I ranked 71st out of a class of 72 students.  The student who graduated beneath me at rank 72 was institutionalized the next year at the Iowa State Asylum in southwestern Iowa.  He and I were academic buddies, we studied together.

I always wanted to be a funeral director, and let me assure the reader not many people supported that life goal, in fact I was made sport of many times in and out of school.  I could not wait to get out.  So in time off to Omaha I went, and by fortuitous chance landed a job at the old Heafey & Heafey Mortuaries.

Then I got the nutty idea that I was going to attend Mortuary College in Boston.  Iowa to Boston—what?  Once again I was dubbed “nuts and inferior in the noodle,” and so off to Beantown I went resplendent with my Midwestern accent, nerdy dress, naïve to the world, and excited and worried and scared as hell.  

Talk about Moxey.  I had never been to Boston in my life, I made all the arrangements for my job and school over the phone, I never saw the mortuary college, and I never saw or personally interviewed for my funeral home job.  I basically slid into Boston, emotionally scared, financially vulnerable, insecure about failure, lonely and lacking any confidence that I would successfully navigate the mortuary college curriculum.  My taxi ride from the airport to Winthrop was basically a tour of East Boston at night, for the taxi cab driver knew he had a greenhorn and just ran up the fare. I was clueless about such city stunts.

Looking back I am amazed that I was so much in denial of how risky my psyche and self-esteem were to bite off such a chunk of life.  But bite off I did.

I remember the first attempt to make it from my funeral home apartment (more like a single room) to the Mortuary College, which was then located at Kenmore Square in the Back Bay of Boston.  It was about a seven mile trip, which in the end took about 45 minutes on foot, bus and subway.  No car, no money.

I successfully arrived at the subway station via a bus in East Boston, I successfully made it to Government Center on the train, but instead of walking upstairs to the next platform I walked across the same Blue line platform and took the outbound train right back to where I started at Orient Heights.  I felt sick.

Finally the first day of Mortuary College started and I was late for orientation because I got confused again on the train.  I was 35 minutes late.  I was frazzled, I was embarrassed, and I thought to myself “I will never ever get out of Boston successfully – I am doomed.  I will fail at this.  It is true I am a failure, I know I am because my father told me all the time.”  Yes, I self talked "Boston will be a disaster," like most of the other educational experiences I had tried.  But now I was 800 miles away from home.  I was stuck in Boston with no money, and I had flown to Boston from Omaha on a one way ticket.

As I was standing in the wings waiting for the orientation to take a break, I felt horrible and in utter despair.  I thought I needed to get out of the New England Institute right then and there and quickly find a part time job washing automobiles or something and make enough cash to get back to Iowa.  But then I thought what would be my father’s reaction if I slid back into Iowa once again a miserable failure.  After all, he predicted that I would not make it.

While I was lost in my chronic low self-esteem self private conversations, a man walked up to me, smiled, held out his hand and said “Hi, my name is Edgar Jackson.”  I damned near fainted, because he, the Rev. Dr. Edgar N. Jackson, was the primary reason why I selected the New England Institute as the place to go to Mortuary College.  I had read everything the man had ever written concerning funeral service and grief psychology.  I knew in my young totally insecure and wacky 20-year-old mind that Dr. Jackson knew his stuff.  He had already captivated me just by what he wrote, and now he was standing right next to me, with a kind gentle smile, a terribly warm handshake, and such deep insightful eyes.  I knew right then that no matter what happened, I was at the right place, even though I was still haunted by the thought that many people thought I was out of my mind to travel one-way to Boston.

The orientation started up again, and I mumbled something to Dr. Jackson, I don’t remember what I said, but I remember thinking it was stupid, and started off to take my seat, but as I left Dr. Jackson looked at me and smiled saying “Todd, watch out for the subways in Boston, they can be tricky.”  How did he know?

This first meeting began a long-term and extremely fruitful relationship between the good doctor and me, the loser from Iowa.

Looking back at the years I spent in Boston as a student, I can recount every conversation I had with Dr. Jackson.  It was Dr. Jackson who convinced me that I could be a good student, it was Dr. Jackson who convinced me (I knew it in my heart, but not my brain) that funeral service is a noble and honorable profession and I should not let others get me down because of they own anxieties and misunderstandings.  It was Dr. Jackson who first planted the seed that I just might be effective as an educator, and that I should try writing.  It was Dr. Jackson, who when I lost my funeral home, walked me through the valley of shame and healing and told me a thousand times that I was a decent person, and that losing a business in the big picture of life was survivable—he was right.  It was Dr. Jackson who listened to me when I felt misunderstood and unappreciated.  Dr. Jackson changed my life.

I remember the first academic quarter that I was at the New England Institute, the school sent my parents a letter.  When the letter arrived, even before he opened it, my father announced to my mother shaking the envelope in the air, “You see, I told you they’ve kicked him out already.”  When the NEI letter was opened it announced that I had made the Dean’s list.  This incident broke my heart, and I went to see my mentor and now friend, Dr. Jackson.

He sat in the NEI office listening to my heartache saying nothing.  When I had exhausted myself I looked at me and said, “Todd, life is not easy or fair.  Seems that your father has his own troubles, but those troubles need not be yours.  Yes this hurts, and yes children long and want to be appreciated and accepted by their fathers, and mothers.  But in your instance this might take time, and it might never happen.  The question is what will you do with this possibility?  Remember not to expect too much from people, or you will always be disappointed.”

The clouds temporarily lifted, but Dr. Jackson was right, stuff like that happened again and again throughout my life, and not just with my father.  

As I look back those words rang through my head as I drove to visit my son who is in drug rehabilitation.  To this day that conversation has become one of the most important communications I have ever had.

Dr. Jackson has now been dead many years, and except when I present at the Dodge Seminars, I rarely ever have a conversation about him, but the Dodge family knew him extremely well also, so we rehash Dr. Jackson stories, which always warms my heart.

His wisdom, his insights, his kindness, his spirituality, his legacy certainly changed my life, and while this old undertaker still messes up royally, still makes monumental blunders, still misses many important life points, still feels many times like the slow boy in the class, I have to say that my life experiences with Dr. Jackson have been pure tonic for my troubled and terribly imperfect soul throughout the years.

I wish that all the young funeral directors in the world might have had him (or somebody like him) as a professor in Mortuary College, and today I wish that every young funeral director in the world would be required to read his writings.  Without question the Rev. Dr. Edgar N. Jackson was one of the best friends funeral service has ever had, and without question the Rev. Dr. Edgar N. Jackson helped salvage a once young funeral director’s very soul.

Attending Mortuary College at the old New England Institute of Anatomy, Sanitary Science, Embalming and Funeral Directing ended up being one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.

Thank you, Dr. Jackson, your memory lives on, and I am still trying to labor in the vineyard as I know you would expect me to do.

Oh, by the way, on August 31, 19 __, no brag just fact, I graduated “With High Honor” which put me in the top 10% of the class at the New England Institute. So much for academic experts' prophecy of failure and doom.  My father was proud I guess, but certainly stunned, I know.