A genuine man

Jeff with the 2015 graduating class of residents and the deputy directors.
The lines quoted below are taken from a poem hand inscribed on back of this framed photo.

“For years to come the stories will be told
Of a genuine man with a heart made of gold…

A good bond is strong, like Gorilla Glue
You bonded with us and we bonded to you.
We love you Colonel Denton!”
— lines taken from a poem given to Jeff by his graduating residents, 2015

Tomorrow Jeff’s casket will be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, with the traditional ceremony of full military honors. Many of you will be with us in spirit, and a few of you will be with us in person to share this memorial service.

In sorting through memorabilia for display at the reception to celebrate his life, Amy and I spent many hours reading through seemingly endless tributes written to Jeff during the last six months of his life. In those few short months, he experienced many milestones. He retired with 30 years of active duty service, being honored at a ceremony in February. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with a large metastatic brain tumor for which he had surgery and radiation, recovering with his trademark amazing stamina. He welcomed a second grandson, began chemotherapy again, and made a brief trip with us to Atlanta, then unexpectedly met an obstacle he could not overcome, as his lung tumors complicated a treatment-resistant case of pneumonia. He finished his life on this earth as he had lived it, calmly, bravely and with very few words, his actions having said all.

There’s a myth in our culture about what constitutes strength, and what a person who wishes to change the world must do. This myth often involves speaking loudly, commanding respect for oneself, and forging ahead with single-minded ambition. Jeff’s life embodied none of those things, but as with so many great people, his quiet influence and inspiring example live on.

Here are a few quotes taken directly from the (often lengthy) letters written to or about him during the final months of his life, by colleagues and some of the residents he taught during his 16 years as director of a postdoctoral dental residency:

“He is such a rare find in this world, a combination of achieving success and being an amazing leader, while also exhibiting great kindness, gentleness and compassion.”

“I care about so much more than how you impacted my career. You reinforced and taught me about how to live life– how to be patient and calm in my reactions. How to find joys in spite of hardships. The importance in being intentional and taking time to speak…”

“You remain one of the kindest, gentlest and most wonderful people that I have ever had the privilege of knowing…Please know that your Air Force family surrounds you today, and every day, with love and adoration for the manner in which you have led your life.”

“He is the epitome of dignity, grace and endurance, and has consistently been an example for all of us to follow in our daily lives.”

“Not a day goes by that we do not think of you. You have been a source of strength for us, and for so many who have been lucky enough to work alongside you over the years…We are forever grateful for the opportunity to say that we have been taught by the great Colonel Denton.”

Because Jeff was such a humble and private person, he protested at every inclusion of any photo or reference to him on this blog over the years, but grudgingly endured it because he understood (as I always answered his protests) that it was impossible for me to write about my life without including him.

Yet here is a part of his life that even I was not completely aware of, one he never mentioned in a boastful or remotely prideful way. As a true professional, he left work at work, to the maximum extent a military officer can. From the moment he walked through the door each day, he gave his all to his family.  For years on end, he worked tirelessly and without complaint wherever he happened to be.

He never needed any advice from me about how to defeat despair. For him, the battle was over long before it started, and his victorious life will light the remainder of my days.

60 Comments

  1. Jack

    Goodness, that’s fantastic! What a great tribute to a life well lived and a family even better loved. You made my morning, prayers to your all for joy in his memory and of Gods great blessing to you for the gift of Jeff (and no doubt you to him!)

    • Thank you, Jack. I appreciate your prayers!

  2. Janice Barker

    Julia, what a beautiful tribute. I love you. Janice Barker

    • Thank you, Janice. I love you too! Next time you come to this area, perhaps you and I can stroll through Arlington together and visit the memorials to our wonderful husbands. I have a map marked with the direction’s to Ben’s niche (they gave it to me the first time I visited there after his funeral), and of course I have our own location already memorized. His/our grave is in Section 21, in a lovely spot on the hill overlooking the Tomb of the Unknowns, very near the graves of John Foster Dulles, Creighton Abrams, Earl Warren and several other well-known Americans. I was quite pleased when I saw the location. Of course we had no idea where the grave would be until just before the chapel service began.

  3. Amen, Julia! My heart is with you; love and prayers, too. Thank you for sharing your testimony of blessings, and tributes to Jeff.

    • Thank you, Susan, for sharing with us here!

  4. Ann

    Julia, thank you for sharing these comments and this wonderful man with us. He has left behind such a legacy of courage, kindness and strength. I will be with you in spirit at Arlington. Be strong, dear friend.

    • Thank you, Ann. I read your comment before the ceremony and it did help. I appreciate your presence here!

  5. Cherie

    Julia, my love is being sent to you and the family today as you honor a great man that didn’t have to blow his own horn. Jeff was the brave example of true love and dignity in how he lived with others. I know he is dearly missed. I love you, dear sister!

    • Cherie, that’s exactly the phrase I often used to describe Jeff to others: “He is not the type to blow his own horn.” I often saw this as a disadvantage to him when he was in competitive situations, especially as regards career advancement, but I think in the long run is modesty was seen as an adornment to his other assets. I’m sending you my love and thanks for your steadfast support and presence here!

  6. MaryEllen Davis

    God Bless you Julia, today, tomorrow and every day.

    • Thank you so much, MaryEllen!

  7. jholley1954

    Dearest Julia, that was a beautiful tribute to the man I met only once briefly, but have come to admire and respect through your blog. Yes, I will be with you in spirit today as you lay your Jeff to rest in his deserved place of honor. My prayers are with you and your family today and always. Love you cousin.

    • Judy, I love you too and I’m so happy we have been able to see each other at least a couple of times during the past several years. Thanks so much for being here with us to share this emotional time.

  8. Beautiful tribute to an amazing, beautiful man.

    • Thank you, Janice. It’s hard to write a tribute to him because nothing could completely capture who he was.

  9. I’m with you in spirit. That is a wonderful collection of tributes and a man like Jeff is rare indeed. I’m pretty sure your sons don’t fall far from the tree.

    • Marlene, I hope so. Yes, Jeff was a rare person. As I told a friend, I found myself unable to really write an obituary for him. I said “Maybe I should just write ‘We shall not see his like again’ and let it go at that.”

  10. Carolyn

    Be there tomorrow in spirit. We are happy to have been able to become friends with Jeff and the family. Glad I had the chance to work with him for awhile. I had not worked as an assistant in awhile, but he was always so patient with me when I couldn’t remember how something was done. As he is laid to rest , Col. Jeffery Denton will always have a place in our heart. Love you all. Sending lots of hugs. Terry and Carolyn

    • Thank you, Carolyn. I have been so grateful to have you with us all these years!

  11. Kathy Welty

    This is a beautiful tribute. Thank you for recalling these precious memories and sharing them in lovely prose. It is a gift to me and your many readers, who are strengthen by the reading and contemplation of them.
    I’m with you in my thoughts and especially through prayer, for tomorrow. May Jesus lavish His grace and mercy on you as Jeff’s life and service are honored. God Bless! – Kathy

    • Thank you, Kathy. I appreciate your being here to share with us, and especially your encouragement and prayers.

  12. I will be there tomorrow with you in spirit. *hugs*

    • Thank you, Jena!

  13. I hope that you can find strength from all the lovely messages you have. Tomorrow will be hard, but lots of us will be with you… even if our bodies can’t actually be there, you will be surrounded by our love.

    • Thank you so much…I did feel and appreciate the presence of so many of you who were there with us in spirit, and took great solace in your company and support!

  14. MaryAnn Clontz

    What a brave, loving woman you are! Jeff will indeed live on in each person’s life with whom he interacted, most especially you & his sons. I love you dearly & will be with you in prayer tomorrow. God’s loving arms are around you!

  15. Amy

    I have no words. Can you imagine? I love you. I loved Jeff. It was an honor to know him and it has been a privilege to be around you all.

    • Amy, thanks so much for being there beside me, literally and figuratively, through everything…As Jan Karon’s Dooley Barlow would say, “We love you back.”

  16. kjyaccino

    Absolutely beautiful, Julia. I have tears for you but also boundless joy that you had such a wonderful, wonderful man with whom to share marriage, children and grandchildren. I love you.

    • Thank you, Kathy! ❤ I love you too!

  17. raynard a shellow

    Julia, while, I never met Col. Denton in person, I was blessed to know a part of him thru you.. I’m proud and honored to call you my big sister and friend. My hope and prayer for you is never stop ” living and loving people..You might be the only person that I bake a double or triple chocolate cake in the summertime. You earned it..I’m struggling now as I was informed that a appointment was made for my late aunt Ella’s dog to be put down tomorrow due to her declining health. I just fed her what might be her next to last meal.Don’t want her to suffer living her last few years in a cage cause no one wants a old dog. I hope and pray well the joke is” my wife has to bring me a newspaper and let my dogs visit me in the V.A Nursing Home if she wants me there. I digress lol. Thank you for you do and continue to do in the way you touch and encourage lives including mine. Be blessed

    • Thank you, Raynard. I’m so sorry you had to lose Ella’s sweet little doggie so soon after losing Ella herself. This has been a sad few months for us but we will just keep putting one foot in front of the other and I know we will continue to be blessed!

  18. Sheila

    Julia, this is a most wonderful post, words of love and adoration. I hope that you had a quiet evening, just some time to mentally prepare for Jeff’s service but also just to lose yourself to precious memories. We are so glad that we can be here. Love, Sheila

    • Sheila, thanks to you and Bill for being there with us. It was all a blur and I had far too little time with you, but just knowing you were there was a tremendous comfort. Thank you so much and meet me on the Verandah…it’s COLD and I have some spiced tea brewing…

  19. Incredibly moving and such precisely articulated feelings and thoughts. Your love for him is so vast; your respect so deep; and your loss so aching. Fine tribute to a man so many clearly cared about…I can only imagine what a wonderful couple you were, also, as he worked and lived and shared and was challenged, how you must have been right at his side through it all. And surely you remain two who love deep and well, spiritually. May the excellent ceremony hold value to all who are there. My heart goes out…peace and blessings, Julia, God be with you.

    • Cynthia, thanks so much for your generosity and kind words. Sometimes I felt quite inadequate and undisciplined compared to him, but we had different strengths and we did complement each other well. In one sense, that makes it doubly hard to lose him, as if the more efficient half of me has suddenly gone missing. The ceremony was quite beautiful and I think Jeff would have been pleased with it, though he would doubtless have found it embarrassing if he had witnessed it in this life! Thank you for being here with us through it all.

      • Wonderful that it was beautiful, that what was expressed was right, good and needed. Keep blogging; you write well and I enjoy your posts.

        • Thank you so much, Cynthia! I appreciate the encouragement and I’m so happy you are here.

  20. Seeing no messages here today and considered, “maybe I shouldn’t leave a message”. I hope it’s ok that I have. I wanted to tell you it’s a blessing to be your friend Julia. I feel like I’ve gotten to know Jeff through your words but I’m especially sad that I didn’t get to spend time with you two together. Your deep love, adoration and respect for each other and those you hold dear is an inspiration for me to live a true life, kind life and giving life. Thinking of you with love x k

    • K, if you see no messages, that is almost certainly because I just haven’t gotten round to the comments yet. I still moderate them because of all the spam ads for fake designer goods and bootleg Viagara, neither of which I wish to promote on this blog, even accidentally! 😀 So you need never worry about leaving a message, here, there or anywhere! Thinking of you and looking forward to our visit soon.

      • oh, that was silly of me…of course I have known that before….counting the days now!! mwaaaa k

        • 😀 I’ll try to avoid nearly getting us killed on the way home from the airport this time. 😀 As you may recall, Jeff did the driving when we picked you up before, but I drove us home from IAD after Pauline’s flight came in, and “drove” would be an optimistic way of describing it. 😀 Not to make you nervous or anything.

          • LOL, I trust you implicitly my dear……I shall be sure to not miss any flights! GAH! ❤

            • Well, one thing is for sure…if I don’t see you in the group getting off the plane, I WON’T ask those same old guys who kept telling us Pauline’s plane had not yet arrived…no doubt there will be some more merry mishaps in store for us, but I hope not any of THOSE. 😀

              • Oh ya! Those guys reminded me of the two old muppets that sit in the balcony seats on the muppet show. Let the mayhem be all fun ! xo ❤

                • Hey, I knew something about those guys was familiar! You hit the nail on the head.

  21. Carol Hoyos

    Dear Julia,
    34 years ago in March, and 7 years ago in June, my extended family, and as many friends as could make it, gathered in Arlington National Cemetery to lay our father and mother, respectively, to rest.
    Were we there in spirit as you laid your beloved Jeff to rest? Indeed. I realize losing a spouse is not the same as losing ones parents but the interment at ANC lends itself an experience like none other.
    I feel blessed and honored to know my parents are among a finite privileged few who gave of themselves in life to earn their places there.
    I pray you blessings as you and your family grieve. 😘

    • Thank you, Carol. I am happy to learn that your parents are buried at Arlington. It truly is a beautiful place, and the ceremony was otherworldly, even without the unexpected snowfall just as we arrived at the burial site. I have always enjoyed strolling through Arlington and now it will be even more meaningful. WOW, 27 years your mother was without your father…such a long time in our relatively short lives. I appreciate your being here to share your understanding and consolation.

  22. Robert Brault said he overheard this at a gravesite: “And they all said ’I’m sorry for your loss,’ as if you were someone who could ever be taken from me.”

    • It’s true that in one sense, I will never lose Jeff, nor does death fully part those who love one another. But the loss– or should I say losses– are real, and enormous, and at this stage, “new every morning” just as are the mercies. So “I’m sorry for your loss” is a perfectly kind thing to say, I think.

  23. Megan

    I read this post on my phone the morning of the funeral and it moved me to tears then as it does again now. Thanks for letting us hear what Jeff’s students said about him.

    (No need to respond! Just wanted to say ‘thank you’!)

    • 🙂 ❤

  24. LB

    I am moving back wards in time getting caught up on blogs and am seeing this post after the next one.
    I so loved being able to read the words of those who admired Jeff. What a man he was and how he left an indelible impression on so many.

    • Thank you, Laurie. Yes, Jeff was quite unique. I am torn between anger that he had to die far too soon, and gratitude that I was able to have him in my life for as long as he was with us here on earth.

  25. Mike

    Q wonderful tribute. I pray I might live and” finish” with some of the same of the same attributes.

    • Thank you, Mike.

  26. Mike

    Q wonderful tribute. I pray I might live and” finish” with some of the same attributes.
    When you mention -“torn between anger and gratitude”- Psalm 13 comes to mind.
    Why Oh Lord- Why?

    • I can totally identify. Interestingly, Psalm 13 is a perfect benediction for me at the close of this long and difficult day. Details later, but I really needed the reminder.

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