Enter in peace: Family, students, colleagues remember life of professor

Family, friends, students, and staff gathered in the Chandler Memorial Chapel on WKU’s campus on Monday to mourn the loss of their friend and loved one Tammy Jeffries. Jeffries joined WKU in 2013 as the Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications . Lex Selig/HERALD

Andrew Henderson

Silence filled Chandler Memorial Chapel as friends, family and colleagues gathered to celebrate the life of Tammy Jeffries on Monday.

Jeffries joined the communication department in August 2014 as the visiting minority postdoctoral fellow. She had just finished her third semester with the department before her passing on Jan. 15. Jeffries was known as an impassioned teacher, an authentic colleague and to her family, a follower and fulfiller of her dreams.

The service was performed following Quaker beliefs, as Jeffries identified as being Quaker. The service began with a moment of silence followed by people standing to speak about Jeffries as they felt called to do so. The serviced ended with those in attendance singing “Amazing Grace.”

“We were fortunate enough to hire her as a post doctoral fellow here at WKU,” Richard Miller, vice provost and chief diversity officer said during the service.

Jieyoung Kong, assistant professor in the communication department, read from a note she prepared in Jeffries memory. The note highlighted several aspects of the two’s relationship such as their first time meeting and working together. She also spoke about the passion Jeffries had for teaching. 

“You wanted students to experience genuine human connection,” Kong said. 

Charlotte Elder, instructor and director of recruiting, also spoke of her time spent with Jeffries while in the communication department. She said how Jeffries was always willing to listen and tell a story and how she was a walking library of stories. 

“Everything you told her became a story for her not to show off later but because she cared,” Elder said. 

Jeffries grew up in Michigan around the Detroit area suburbs before moving to the southwest area of Michigan, according to her sister Christine Lockridge. Lockridge, her younger sister and their brother were all raised by their mother after their father died.

Lockridge recalled a fun childhood with her sister. One standout memory came from a time when they attended a Quaker friend’s grade school in the Detroit area. Lockridge said one daily activity was gathering around in reading circles as each student read a page from a book and then passed it to the next student.

Lockridge said when her sister’s turn to read came, she would make up her own story instead of reciting the one in the book.

Lockridge described these stories as being exciting and vivid and said her sister’s style of reading was theatrical. She remembered more students gathering around when her sister started to speak and pour creativity into the story.

“She would just start; her imagination would just go so wild. She’d take the beginning of the story and just turn it into a magical adventure, and all the kids would start coming over and listening to her,” Lockridge said. “So it turned into her reading hour.”

Lockridge said she has learned from people who worked with or were taught by her sister that Jeffries continued to draw people to her. Students would follow her back to her office to continue a conversation or a story.

Hannah Burd, a Cave City alumna, was one such student who approached Jeffries one day after having her in Intercultural Communication in August 2014. Burd was a key player in establishing the interCULTURAL club with Jeffries at the end of Jeffries’ first semester in 2014.

During Burd’s class with Jeffries, Burd discovered her passion in intercultural communication and approached Jeffries to explain how she wished to pursue it. They soon began collaborating together and arrived at the creation of the intercultural club.

Burd said she and Jeffries shared similar mindsets about how they wanted to change the future and to speak. Burd said Jeffries inspired her to continue her dreams and gave her “the kick in the butt when I needed it and then the hug when I needed it.”

Burd said the interCULTURAL club promotes equality among races, religions, ages and abilities and that everyone should be treated equally. Burd said during the initial stages of forming the club, she worked to spread the word to students through social media and flyers. During one instance, she tried to promote the club and was met with jokes and jeering.

Burd had recently discovered her passion for wanting to pursue international communication and struggled to make sense of what to do. She approached Jeffries with her concerns. Burd was met with overwhelming encouragement from Jeffries.

“She was like, ‘You can do it. God chose you for a specific reason … God chose you and you’ve got this, and I’m going to be here for you. You can do it,’” Burd said of her conversation with Jeffries.

Lockridge has been gathering stories like Burd’s since her sister’s death. She says her job now is to “find out as much about the other Tammy that wasn’t my sister” as possible as she pieces together narratives from those Jeffries worked with and taught in class.

Lockridge said she and her brother are currently in the process of starting a nonprofit organization in Jeffries’ memory. The purpose of the nonprofit will be to raise money for grants or scholarships for people who think creatively and have innovative ideas about intercultural and interracial acceptance and education.

“I know that we want to somehow continue the story that she wanted to tell,” Lockridge said.

Jeffries had a passion for interracial and intercultural communication, according to Helen Sterk, the head of the communication department. While Jeffries taught a course in intercultural communication, she was slated to begin teaching a new graduate class in inter-racial communication this week. Sterk said Jeffries especially wanted to focus on American interracial communication.

“Given what’s happened in the past year with Black Lives Matter, with Ferguson, with the protests at the University of Missouri, she was right on target,” Sterk said. “That is exactly the focus that’s necessary.”

Sterk said she met Jeffries at a conference for an organization they were both involved with. When she learned she could recruit someone for Jeffries’ position, she didn’t hesitate and was taken immediately by Jeffries’ enthusiasm and authenticity.

“She always was excited about meeting people and sharing their lives. She felt a huge passion for teaching,” Sterk said.

In addition to teaching, Jeffries also mentored students, including Burd, who said Jeffries taught her about hard work and true passion. Bud said that although Jeffries was older, her spirit was much younger.

“What I’m going to take with me is everything she’s taught me — everything that I’ve learned from her — and I’m definitely going to use it one day,” Burd said.

While Burd retains all the lessons she learned from Jeffries, Lockridge and her family continue to learn about the legacy Jeffries left behind.

Lockridge said they are in denial right now, but she and her mother have taken comfort from Jeffries’ ability to meet her goals. Lockkridge said her sister was ambitious and had a vision for her entire life of what she wanted to accomplish. One goal was obtaining her doctorate.

“It was a long, hard fight to get her Ph.D. She was an unconventional student, an older student — she was dyslexic —but she powered through and actually did it and did a great job at it,” Lockridge said. “She met her goals, and that’s sort of how we’re coping with it. You know, feeling satisfied, that she was able to to do what she fought so hard for.”