Every November around Veteran’s Day, I think of Tom Jenkins. He was a student at Xavier University in Cincinnati; I met him when I volunteered for the Appalachian aid program at Mount St. Joseph College my freshman year in 1972. A senior coordinator for the program drove students from Edgecliff, Xavier, and the Mount to the Manchester area in Adams County, Ohio, where an adult director broke us up into small teams assigned to different households that needed some kind of assistance.
I don’t remember the names of the other students, although I can picture most of them. There were probably about seven of us, two of them males, one of whom was Tom Jenkins.
It was a long drive to Adams County, which gave us all time to get to know one another within the confines of the station wagon. In Manchester, I was teamed with Tom, and we were dropped off at the house of an elderly couple who had asked for help with their yard.
It was a nice old home, and the couple were sweet. I had expected poverty, but in this instance the couple simply needed someone younger to tidy the yard and perform a few other tasks.
Tom was affable, and I was impressed with him in a hurry. He told me he was from Maryland, had a girlfriend there. We planted daffodil bulbs, and I wound up with blisters from the spade handle. Tom grabbed my hand and inspected my palm with a gallant concern that made my heart flutter a bit.
The elderly couple fed us lunch (I think it was cold cut sandwiches), and we chatted with them as we ate. The old gentleman showed me a photo of himself in uniform from World War I. I told him what a handsome guy he’d been.
Tom was talking to the spirited woman, and I overheard him say, “I’m sorry, but I believe a woman should stay home with the kids!” This bothered me, but he was so nice and appealing I put my feminist inclination to the side for a bit.
Late in the day the group regathered, and we started home. Back in Cincinnati there was talk of grabbing a bite. Somehow it came down to four of us going to a local pizza restaurant: my fellow Mount student and me and Tom and his Xavier classmate. It wasn’t a date in the true sense, but it felt like one. We all got along well naturally , and talk was lively throughout the meal. I wasn’t dating at all then and hadn’t all through high school, and my social life was limited to activities strictly on the Mount campus. I was overwhelmed by this night out. I had a great time, and I liked Tom Jenkins very much.
I volunteered for the following Saturday and again drove to Adams County with a group of local college students. I admit I was a little disappointed that Tom wasn’t part of the group, but I’d become dedicated to the Appalachian aid program and planned to go on volunteering. I was at a point in my life when I was actually playing with the idea of joining the some assistance group like the Peace Corp., and these Saturday excursions were filling a need for me as well.
There was no going out to dinner that night, and I spent the evening at the dorm, as usual. The next morning I was talking to my roommate about her night of partying at Xavier. Almost as an afterthought she said, “Oh, and there was a murder last night!”
I don’t know why I got a sick feeling when I heard it was a freshman. She told me what little she knew. Finally I asked, “His name wasn’t Tom Jenkins, was it?” Her eyes got wide and she said, “I think it was.”
I went down to the dorm lobby for a newspaper. There was the whole terrible story: There had been a robbery in the student center at Xavier, and in the process Tom Jenkins had been shot dead.
I was in shock the rest of the day. The death of anyone I knew always upset me deeply, but there was something about a young person’s death that completely rattled me. That summer a girl I had just graduated with, whom I had known since grade school, was killed in a car crash. And now here was another person my age tragically wiped away.
In a way I felt guilty over my grief. I’d hardly known Tom Jenkins, I’d only met him that one day. Sure, I hoped we’d cross paths again, and it was reasonable to think I might get to know him better, if only through the Appalachian aid program. It wasn’t a romantic infatuation so much as Tom Jenkins had been permanently linked to my life because of a treasured encounter. And now he’d been murdered.
I went on volunteering for the Appalachian aid program until I dropped out of college that following winter. The adult director in Adams County asked about him and said one of her elderly ladies said she thought he had helped her out one Saturday. Tom Jenkins’ name was in the local news continually for a long time as the murderer was tried and convicted. Even without that reinforcement of memory, I would have remembered Tom Jenkins. And so I do, almost 40 years later.
The November 16, 1972, issue of Xavier News has campus coverage of the tragedy, from student and faculty reactions to editorials. I still have this issue somewhere in my keepsakes. The area colleges put copies of their publications in our lobby at Mt. St. Joseph, and I snatched this issue both for the information and to remember Tom by. It was hard to recognize him in the photo they published on the front page.
The 1973 Xavier yearbook has a tribute page to Thomas Jenkins. I never saw these photos before until tonight when I was researching the facts behind his murder. I find the photo of him in caving gear especially moving; that evening when we four volunteers went out to dinner, I’d mentioned something about the local spelunking organization. Tom was grateful for the lead; he’d heard there was a group in Cincinnati and had wondered how to get in touch with them. He had a mustache that day we were planting tulip bulbs. Otherwise, these images bring him vividly back to life for me.
Thomas Jenkins was born in early April of 1954; I was born in late April. If he’d lived, he’d be in his late fifties as well, probably a grandfather. He was a political science major, so who knows where that would have taken him. I wonder how his family remembers him when November comes again each year.
NUDGE: Write about someone who died when you were a child or teenager who was about your age. It needn’t have been a violent death. Perhaps a classmate died of disease, or someone you worked with after school died in a car accident. Were you sad, haunted by the death? Did that young person’s passing leave a hole in your life that continued to hurt you for a long time? How often have you thought of the deceased since then? How did that death affect your attitude toward death in general? Was your grief different because the person was young?
Maybe you had a different reaction: Indifference, or even a sense of relief because you were still alive. Explore your feelings about the death and the person honestly.