Poetry recitations, the gifts of home-grown roses, a special grace of dignity in the simple acts of being and sharing, and an encyclopedic memory that connected him deeply to all he met: Mourners of Dr. Jay B. Landis, professor emeritus of language and literature at Eastern Mennonite University, have taken to phone, social media, and email to share poignant memories of a man who touched the lives of many across decades of teaching and mentorship.
Landis died Sunday, May 17, 2020, at age 87 in Harrisonburg.
University administrators past and present acknowledge Landis’s legendary influence. With more than 50 years of service, he likely taught more students than any other professor in institutional history, and befriended many others, including colleagues in faculty, staff and administration,who missed out on the opportunity to enjoy his gifts from a seat in the classroom.
Landis taught at EMU from 1956 to 2007. His wife, Peggy Heatwole Landis, also gave 16 years of service to the university, providing leadership to student life. The couple led several cross-cultural semesters to England and Ireland, and were a constant and beloved presence at university events after their respective retirements.
Park View Mennonite Church will host a live-streamed memorial service on Friday, May 22, at 2:30 p.m. Pre-service organ music and a slideshow will begin at 2:20 p.m. Visit pvmchurch.org for a link and order of service.
A memorial website, JayBLandis.com, will be available Friday, May 22. Peggy Landis and the Landis family invite visitors to sign a guest register, and to share remembrances and tributes.
Portions of this article were taken from the full obituary. Memorial gifts may be made to Eastern Mennonite University, Language and Literature Department, 1200 Park Road, Harrisonburg, VA, 22802 or online at https://emu.edu/giving/.
A Lancaster, Pa., native, Landis graduated from then-Eastern Mennonite College with a degree in English in 1954. He joined the faculty of Eastern Mennonite High School in 1956 and taught while earning a master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University in 1958. At EMC and then EMU, he taught a range of undergraduate classes, including literature, writing, and public speaking. He also was a faculty advisor to English majors and to students who were undeclared. Many former students remain grateful for his attentiveness and insightful urgings toward discovering their true aptitudes and callings. [One is script and story writer Liz Hansen ’99.]
In 1976, he earned his DA from Idaho State University. During his studies there, encouraged by President Myron Augsburger, he took several courses in drama, and played an influential role as a faculty sympathizer and eventually formal advisor to budding student-produced dramatics. This eventually led to the hiring of a theater professor and the establishment of a major and minor program. Landis chaired the language and literature department for many years and held memberships in several professional organizations, including the Modern Language Association and the Virginia Association of Teachers of English.
His colleagues remember with affection Landis’s poetry recitations, from memory, at faculty gatherings, as well as his steadfast, equanimous presence. He served EMU through five presidents and immense intellectual and cultural change on campus.
Myron Augsburger, president from 1965-80, noted the “privilege of working with Jay for many years.” A “wonderful friend,” he was always “upbeat and a good spirit whether we agreed or not.”
“Always positive, affirming and accepting” is how Loren Swartzendruber, president from 2003-16, remembers his former colleague. As a young EMU staff member, he first knew Landis from the brown-bag lunches in the faculty-staff lounge on the second floor of the Campus Center that became quasi-seminars on a fascinating range of topics. Later, Landis would occasionally emerge from the audience after one of Swartendruber’s presidential communications to offer a compliment, “and reminding me with his characteristic twinkle in the eye that he was sharing his response as a teacher of public speaking.”
EMU’s current president Susan Schultz Huxman, who holds a doctorate in rhetoric and also spent many hours teaching public speaking, has enjoyed similar interactions. “As a fellow rhetoric scholar, I so appreciated his views on the power of rhetoric to move people,” she shared. “With a refreshing Anabaptist perspective, Professor Landis reminded us that aspiring to eloquence is not an obsequious display; rather it is an act of love to connect with audiences and readers. He set the bar high for why we must choose the right words in print or in public speaking–because words matter–they inspire and instruct and inculcate community.”
Joe Lapp, president from 1987-2003 and a personal friend who worshipped with Landis at Park View Mennonite Church, characterized him as an affirming presence, leaving “permanent impressions on others by knowing them, remembering their names, providing encouragement …all who sat in Jay’s classes went away with warm feelings for his teaching of literature, quoting and reading of poetry classics, and contributing his own words of warmth and love of others. It was always obvious that Jay loved EMU — his heart was in all he did as a professor at EMU.”
Colleagues in the EMU Language and Literature Department dreaded his retirement, even as they celebrated the “bittersweet privilege” of wishing him well into a new stage of life, with more time for writing, gardening, volunteering, and spending time with family, said Professor Marti Eads. On that occasion in 2007, she quoted a stanza from Robert Frost’s “Reluctance,” and nearly 13 years later, those same six lines are helping her to process his loss, to “yield with grace” and “to accept the end of a love or a season.”
(The couple did indeed spend time writing, and in 2013, shared a joint reading and celebration of their respective works at EMU: Jay’s poetry collection “Verse Assignments” and Peggy’s memoir “Kitchenary: From Birth to Zucchini.”)
The profound gift of well-chosen words are what Professor Vi Dutcher also shares in this remembrance of how she came to join the faculty 14 years ago, a difficult decision that meant leaving behind small grandchildren, adult children and elderly parents:
Jay B sent me an email with these prophetic words, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’ written by Julian of Norwich in the 14th century. I decided to believe him. I had the honor to work alongside him for one year before he retired. In the many years since then, Jay B supported our department in word and deed accompanied by his beautiful roses. His legacy endures in each of us.
Among the many former students mourning Landis, Regina Beidler ‘88 recalled taking an advanced writing class with Landis, as well as travels during a cross-cultural semester in England. She remembers the couple’s warmth and enthusiasm as they lived on the same floor of a youth hostel in London, “just the right amount of parental [influence] to their horde of young adults.”
Beidler last visited with the couple two years ago at Homecoming and Family Weekend. “I was recognized immediately and was glad to introduce my daughter who was herself an EMU student,” she said. “If we are lucky we are remembered by those who knew us when we were young because we are appreciated, not for what we can do, but for who we are. I’m grateful to have known and to be known by Jay B. We’re holding his family and the whole community who loved him, close.”
A fitting end to this tribute are words crafted and shared by his family in celebration of his life: Throughout his life, he endeavored to live out EMU’s proclaimed mission to espouse justice, show mercy for all, and walk humbly with God.
We welcome your memories of Professor Jay B. Landis below as well as encourage you to visit JayBLandis.com to share tributes there. Memories and condolences posted here will be shared with the family.