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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Remembering Jeff Male: Poet, Activist, Veteran and Teacher

Members of the UMass Boston Community will join together on November 12, at 2:30pm at the Interfaith Chapel for a service to celebrate the life of Jeffrey Male who passed away suddenly in Virginia on October 3. A gifted student, much-admired teacher, tireless veteran activist, and dedicated poet, Jeff Male leaves behind many friends.

Born September 7, 1946, Jeff was raised in Roxbury, a place he loved and returned to throughout his life. Attending Boston schools, an avid athlete, he played on many teams including Roxbury’s youth basketball team the Uniques. Jeff joined the U.S. Navy with other neighborhood friends in 1964, enlisting at a time when racial discrimination and civil rights were prominent issues in American cities and the Armed Services. Jeff served aboard the U.S.S. Constellation off the coast of North Vietnam during the war, a ship which was to play an important role in the alerting the military to the depths of the problem of racial discrimination within the services.

After leaving the military with an honorable discharge in 1968, Jeff returned to Roxbury where he married his childhood friend, Vivian Male Beard, with whom he shared the next twelve years of his life. Jeff earned his High School Equivalency in 1973 from the Newman Preparatory School. For many years Jeff worked for TWA in various capacities until 1991, traveling to Puerto Rico, South America, Greece, and Hong Kong.

It was a chance meeting at the Brighton YMCA with Bob Crossley, Chair of the English Department that led to a friendship centered on a love of literature that would bring Jeff to UMass Boston and the Veterans Upward Bound Program. He graduated in 1993 and went on to excel as a student while continuing to tutor and teach fellow veterans in the program. Double majoring in Philosophy and English, Jeff graduated Cum Laude with Honors in Creative Writing. At graduation he was awarded the Francis Russell Hart Prize, given to an English major who combines academic excellence with a record of service to and mentoring of other students.

As coordinator of the Student Veterans Center for three years, Jeff worked closely with other student groups and administrative units. Among his triumphs were two visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and annual awards dinners held under tent at the Boston Aquarium and shipboard on a Boston Harbor cruise.

Each summer Jeff joined fellow writers at the William Joiner Center’s Writers’ Workshop. His work with poets Martin Espada, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Carolyn Forche led to deep friendships and mutual admiration. His own work as a poet grew. Lloyd Schwartz and Martha Collins, co-chairs of Creative Writing, worked closely with Jeff, sharing poems, correspondence, and visits in the years after he graduated in 1998.

Jeff was one of only three students selected to participate in the program, supervised by Schwartz. “Rich, accomplished, honest, and deeply moving pieces,” Schwartz wrote of Jeff’s poems. Jeff was the unanimous choice to read at the annual Greater Boston Intercollegiate Undergraduate Poetry Festival. He read at the annual Conference on Undergraduate Research, Scholarly, and Public Service at UMass Amherst, the Joiner Center’s Writers workshop, and many other venues. He was one of the poets featured on an episode of Chronicle dedicated to Boston’s poetry scene.

A teacher and invaluable member in the university’s Upward Bound team, where he taught English Language Arts for five summers, Jeff traveled to Amherst to spend long hours working with students from the neighborhoods and city he loved. His rare combination of intelligence, intellectual passion, life experience, dedication and sensitivity made him one of the most inspiring and effective teachers Upward Bound had in its nearly-forty-year tenure at UMass.

Jeff created a classroom environment buzzing with creative energy and, at the same time, comfortable enough for his students to feel safe taking risks. They seemed to sense that he had a lot to teach them-about stories, about words and about life.

Jeff brought poetry to Upward Bound. In addition to teaching a full course load each summer, he donated his scarce free time to running his student poetry contest, “Writing from the Margins.” In this context, he dared many students to think of themselves-for the first time in their lives-as writers. He was generous in sharing his own work with the students, giving readings and performing at student-organized poetry slams and talent shows. Jeff also served as an advisor for the drama workshop, choosing plays, helping with casting, and often just lending his support and encouragement.

Jeff cared deeply about the mission of the Upward Bound Program and about preparing the next generation for Life. About knowledge, education, and an appreciation for language, he always said, “You can’t take them with you. You have to give them away.” All at Upward Bound who had the pleasure of being in one of Jeff’s classes or of being his friend are richer for having received the gifts of his teaching and his words.

Jeff’s writing life eventually brought him to George Mason University and its Creative Writing Program, earning his MFA in 2002. While at George Mason, Jeff had the honor of being selected as a Lannan Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library. As at UMass Boston, students at GMU remember Jeff as a quiet, dedicated, soft-spoken man with a great sense of humor and great love of poetry, jazz, and photography.

GMU friend and teacher, Carolyn Forche, remembers the force of his presence in a classroom, “a man who brought humor, generosity, wisdom, spiritual discernment, and grace to his poetic art, a man with selfless dedication for the young.” Poet, friend, and teacher Martin Espada remembers the generous poet and friend who once quite literally gave him the coat off his back as he was bent over coughing fighting a bout with pneumonia.

Most recently, Jeff had taken a teaching position at Northern Virginia Community College where he continued his much-loved role of poet, teacher, and advocate for the young. Jeff’s subject matter was difficult – poverty, racism, Vietnam – but he always wrote out of experience and with compassion and heart.

Jeff leaves many friends, colleagues, and family members. He leaves his sister Aleta M. Lyles of Houston, Texas and her daughters Jasmine Lyles and Nichole Deas (formerly March) and her children. His remains will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

The Student Veterans Union has dedicated this year’s Veterans Day Ceremonies and Reading to his memory. The program begins at 2:30pm at the Interfaith Chapel with readings from poems, personal reminiscences, an ecumenical blessing and a reception to follow.