A genuine man
“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.