Professors are not supposed to attend the funerals of their students. But roughly one year ago today I was sitting in a funeral home in southern New Jersey mourning the death of Megan. She died on May 25, 2011 from complications related to her ten year battle with Lupus. She was 31 years old. Megan was the first student I worked closely with when I arrived at Messiah College in 2002.
Megan’s enthusiasm for life, God, and the study of history was contagious. If she did not have to take a medical leave from college after her junior year, I would never have had the opportunity to teach her and my life today would be a lot less rich. I remember telling Megan’s mother at Messiah College’s graduation ceremony in 2003 that her love of early American history and her profound intellectual curiosity helped me make it through my first year at a new college. Megan had found a community in the Messiah College History Department and she convinced me that I could find a community there too.
After graduation, Megan went on to the Winterthur Museum Program in Early American Material Culture. I remember my feeble efforts at helping her prepare for her interview by showing her printed pictures of eighteenth-century objects and asking her to interpret them. (We would laugh about this later). It did not surprise me when I learned that Megan won the award for the best thesis. Shortly after graduation she left Winterthur for her dream job as the curator of the James and Ann Whitall House, an eighteenth-century historic building situated on the Red Bank Battlefield near her home in Gloucester County, New Jersey.
I had a lot of good conversations with Megan in the short time that I knew her. We talked about our mutual love of American history, our Italian-American backgrounds, and our experiences as first-generation college students. I knew she was battling Lupus, but it was not until her funeral that I realized just how courageously she had faced her illness.
Megan and I would get together for lunch whenever I was conducting research or speaking near her home in southern New Jersey and she would stop by to chat whenever she returned to Messiah, which was often. I vividly remember her coming to a book talk I gave to a patriotic organization (I think it was the Sons of the American Revolution) in New Jersey. After the talk she told me that the next time I spoke to a group like this I should use more visuals. I always appreciated her candidness. And now I use more visuals.
Another time, while my family was visiting in-laws in Colorado, I decided to take advantage of the time alone and travel to New Jersey to conduct some research. I set up my base of operations in a cheap hotel along Route 295 in Gloucester County. One evening while I was toiling away in the room preparing for the next day in the archives, I got a call to come down to the hotel lobby. When the elevator doors opened I saw Megan and her mother sitting in the lobby with Rita’s Italian Ice. (If you are ever in Pennsylvania you should definitely give Rita’s a try). It was one of my more memorable study breaks.
I did not communicate much with Megan in the last couple of years before her death. I had tried on numerous occasions to get her to come to Messiah to speak to my students, but she seldom answered e-mails during her periods of sickness. The last time I saw her she was dressed in eighteenth-century clothing at a history festival in the New Jersey village of Greenwich. She was there to enjoy the event and help me sell copies of my latest book. At the end of the day my wife, my daughters, Megan, and Megan’s mother had dinner at a local restaurant. After dessert we all sat on park benches and watched the fireworks as they lit up the sky over the Cohansey River.
It was a great night–a constant reminder of why I do what I do where I do it.