Monday, September 6, 2010

Remembering J.P. Plumez

Some of my first memories of college are of J.P. When I arrived at Hamilton in the autumn of 1990, J.P. was a member of the orientation team. He was among the group there to welcome us to our new homes on “the Hill” and there to be the friendly face of Hamilton College for us, the fresh, anxious batch of first-years. I don’t remember much about that orientation. But I remember J.P. He stood out as the funniest, the showman, the most welcoming, the most lively of the bunch.

At the end of my first year at Hamilton it came time to consider housing for the next year. I had steered clear of the fraternities. Sophomores were last in line for dorm housing. So, with some friends, I took a look at joining the Emerson Literary Society. ELS had the unique position on campus of being a private house, like a fraternity. It was also co-ed and not selective. Anyone who wanted to could apply to live there. And this self-selected group of young men and women were a family of sorts. We divided up the rooms of the big, ramshackled, old home. We shared meals, a living room, and cleaning duties. We held parties and enjoyed the unique blessings of college life.

There was an ELS “type” but I have trouble defining it. ELS attracted a curious mix of scholars, radicals, stoners, and iconoclasts. But whatever the definition was, J.P. embodied it. Recognizing him among the cast of characters helped motivate my decision to join the club. Memories of J.P. loom large from the ELS era. Not just J.P. though. At the time he was really part of a duo. J.P. and Brian. Two tall and lanky guys with identical grins and heads piled with thickets of dark curly hair. Any given day would, inevitably, involve multiple passes by the big dining area during my various comings and goings. Frequently J.P. and Brian could be found there. It was always a worthwhile diversion to stop and hang out for the ritual shooting of the shit. Time well spent.

For my junior year I went abroad to the University of Edinburgh. One side-effect of such a decision is that the class ahead of your will have graduated by the time you return. But it was during that year that J.P. was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s. He missed a lot of school and we learned  he would be returning the following year. I felt bad for him. But I will admit to takings some selfish pleasure at the notion that J.P. would be around to share my senior year. I opted not to return to live at ELS. But I was a frequent visitor and would check in with J.P. Generally I had no particular purpose, but the visit was its own reward.

After graduation came the inevitable scattering as we departed Hamilton. I returned to New Hampshire. But a substantial contingent of my friends, including J.P., moved to New York. Gatherings that once required a trip across the quad, now required trains and cars and hours of travel time. We got together less frequently. Sometimes Christine and I would venture to the big city and sometimes we would entice of a group to come visit us. We enjoyed a lobster diner on our deck and shared the frigid pleasures of a New Hampshire beach. J.P. had set a goal of visiting all 50 states, a goal he came much closer to achieving than I ever well. In pursuit of that noble goal we took a quick trip across the bridge to set foot in Maine. Because the distance made friendships harder to maintain, our time together was valued more. In these years came the winnowing between “college friends” to the select group with whom, however infrequently you gather, you see yourself sharing the events of your life.

Christine and I got married shortly after my 25th birthday. When you get married, at any age, but especially at that age, the event involves bringing together people from the various aspects of your life. These are the people you care about and who care about you. And so they are a reflection of you, your character, and your background. I was especially pleased to have my friends from college there. Having ventured from my home town in New Hampshire, I was proud of the fun, cosmopolitan, very “New York” crew that had been enticed to celebrate with us on a hilltop in Vermont. I have fond memories of J.P. bantering with my old math teacher and dancing with my sister Anne.

My memories of these years are distorted. I remember the pleasant times. The fun times. But we only saw J.P. during the healthy times. We got together during months of recovery and remission. Sometimes we heard other details and diagnoses and sometimes J.P. was unable to join us. Even when we heard the Hodgkin’s had returned we assumed it would be beaten. We were young. We knew he would be getting the proper treatment. After our daughter Mattea died, I remember commiserating with J.P. However horrible, arbitrary, and cruel the vicissitudes of biology may seem, I felt certain we would be ok. We would look back on the dark times as strange, disruptive chapters that stood in contrast to the normal textures of our lives.

It wasn’t hard to be optimistic about what awaited us. We seemed to be approaching the lives we envisioned for ourselves. J.P. got a job in the world of New York advertising. He was dating Joy, a delightful woman who wholly lived up to her name. Talk of the latest Lean Cuisine campaign or a Saab photo shoot in Scotland began to pepper our conversations. I remember a sunny summer day we spent exploring J.P.’s home town of Larchmont. We were two lucky young couples in a fancy convertible. J.P. showed us around to the various sites and stomping grounds that had occupied his youth.

Shortly after that, fighting the disease became a full time occupation for J.P. The prognosis reports became increasingly dire with talk experimental treatments and cross-country trips for a bone marrow transplant. Nothing could stop the spread of the disease. They ran out of treatment options. And so J.P. returned to home. He was 29 years old. We made the trip to to see J.P. one last time. At his wedding.

I brought a gift. It was a plant. It was an ugly plant - a two foot tall, thin green stem with two or three plain green leaves at the top. If my memory serves, on the attached note I wrote:

Dear J.P.

I would like you to have this plant. I do not offer it because it is a very fragrant plant. In does not seem to have any particular smell. Also, it’s not an attractive plant. It is quite plain. Ugly even. But it does have some special significance.

In the fall of 1990 each member of Hamilton’s incoming class was given a plant during their orientation week. This is the plant that was given to me. Somehow it survived my years at Hamilton and the years that followed. I believe it is the last of its kind.

I have fond memories of you from that time and from our years at Hamilton. This plant has been a reminder of those times. It is also a symbol of longevity, of perseverance, and of beating the odds.

We are thinking of you and hold you in our hearts.


J.P. and Joy were married at the Guggenheim museum. We celebrated and said goodbye with the vast spiral rising above us and around us. J.P. arrived in a wheelchair, thin and bald, but still showing flashes of the wide grin we remembered. He stood and danced. A slow dance. The bride and groom held each other close. It was a beautiful, sad, profound moment. It was a gift to all off us who were fortunate enough to know J.P.

We will remember him.


  1. Those moments are framed in all our hearts. As always, beautifully written.

  2. Ben, this is an extraordinary bit of writing. Thank you for helping me remember J.P. Ward Halverson, '92

  3. Jacqueline Plumez, careerdoct@aol.comJanuary 26, 2011 at 11:20 AM

    JP's sister Nicole recently found this on the web and told me about it. The tenth anniversary of his death is on the 26th of February and it is very dear to us that you remember him so fondly as we do. We loved his quirky humor, his loving nature, his incredible braveny during his illness, and his ability to be joyful in every situation even in the last days of his life. And, Ben, of course we remember your gift of the plant!
    Jacqueline Plumez

  4. I wasn't at J.P.'s and Joy's wedding but I worked with them at the ad agency, Della Femina... (actually more closely with J.P. as we were in the same department). I want Joy to know that J.P. is still remembered very fondly by many of us at the agency and we also hope that she is well and happy. Christopher Floyd

  5. Thanks for the note Christopher. It's good to hear that people who knew and worked with J.P. found their way to this post.

  6. My time with J.P. was select, the summer of 1992, we were all at Hamilton College for work opportunities, I from Colgate. Ben, you have precisely captured so much of what and who J.P. was. Joy, you were blessed as was he, with your obvious love and encouragement. I miss him and didn't realize how much until I stumbled upon Ben's reflection. Thank you for celebrating the essence of J.P. for us all. J.P. you will always be in our hearts and minds. Sarah D. Treter

  7. So nice to find this. I went to high school with JP. I'll never forget him and every year I try to get people to join the bone marrow registry in honor of him. A friend mentioned The Police today and I always have this memory of JP jumping up in the air, dancing to them. That's how I remember him. Dancing.

    1. I'm glad you were able to find the post. Thank you for the note.