Students, faculty, family, fraternity brothers and friends gathered in Gray Chapel on Friday at 4 p.m. to honor the memory of Jakob F. Von Der Vellen, who died in a car accident March 16.
The entire lower level of Gray Chapel was occupied by members of Von Der Vellen’s family and Sigma Phi Epsilon brothers seated in the front few rows, and students lining the length of the back walls.
Students sat holding hands and waiting for the service to begin and tissue boxes could be seen spread throughout the rows.
Attendance was so high there were not enough memorial pamphlets to go around.
President Rock Jones began the memorial service and the celebration of the life of Jake Von Der Vellen by reflecting upon the 125 years of gatherings the Ohio Wesleyan community has shared together in the historic Gray Chapel.
It is the location that opens the academic year for freshmen and closes it for seniors, the building where lectures occur and Greek awards take place, and the site of moments such as the memorial service.
“The news of Jake’s death was shocking one week ago, and it is still shocking today,” Jones said. “We gather today with hearts heavy, questions with no answers, and, as the apostle Paul said, we gather with ‘sighs too deep for words.’
“Today we come together to hold one another in love, to remember Jake and the impact he had on each of us and on so many others we will never know. We will allow his values and being to give shape and meaning to our future. Now, with many faiths joining together, we can look to the future with the promise of hope, fulfillment, purpose, the gift of life and the return of joy.”
He said that only 18 months after Jake sat in Gray Chapel listening to his freshman convocation, his impact on OWU had already been enormous through his outreach in service and role as a mentor.
His modest personality was an attribute people knew well, according to Jones.
“Greek awards were held here less than two weeks before Jake’s death, and he accepted the chapter philanthropy award on behalf of Sig Ep,” Jones said. “His character being so modest and quiet, he exited the stage before the photographer could even get a picture of him.”
Jones said that it was important for the OWU community to attend the memorial together and to help one another heal. He said Jake’s life and memory would be a source of celebration and hope for tomorrow.
“We come to share memories, to feel the depth of pain of an inexplicable loss and acknowledge with gratitude the blessing of a young life well lived,” Jones said.
“We will share and cherish memories with Jake’s family here today: his OWU family and his family woven together by bonds of love are a wellspring of hope. We celebrate his life. May God of many names and lands, grant us strength at these moments, peace for these days and hope for what lies ahead.”
Shortly after, the Rev. Jon Powers, university chaplain, began the call to worship and prayer.
“As we enter this time of worship, praise and prayer,” he said, “we collect our hearts and minds to recall all the ways Jake touched our lives during this hour as we already have this past week with a particular focus on the holiness in our midst.”
Reading from a reflection letter from Associate Chaplain Chad Johns’ spring break mission trip group, Powers spoke about true holiness.
“I now know what holy is,” Powers read aloud, “Holy is the love that turns men into brothers, the ritual that binds them together, the trials and times that turn brotherhood into a verb, when silence screams louder than words.”
Father Augustine Okpe from St. Mary’s Parish then led the gathered in prayer.
“We come before you in sorrow and pain, but in confidence of your infinite mercy, oh God,” Okpe said. “Give life to Jake’s immortal soul, give peace and consolation to friends and family left to mourn his passing.”
The quiet that followed was broken by the organist beginning to play “Amazing Grace,” as those in attendance sang along.
Assistant professor of New Testament, Dr. David Eastman, read 1 Corinthians 15:50-54, and Fr. Okpe read John 14: 1-3, 18-21 to those gathered.
The first passage was a message about the mortality of Earthly life and the more beautiful immortality of the next. The ending of the passage said that immortality would eventually triumph over death.
The second reading said that those who die first prepare the way for their loved ones who will one day join them.
Sophomore Alexandra Oney sang an original composition, “Untitled” with piano following the readings.
After a few moments, Powers took the podium again to introduce the beginning of testimonies in memory of Jake.
“There is no way any one of us can capture the kaleidoscope of personality or the vibrancy that was Jakob,” Powers said. “I invite you to take a moment and close your eyes and be present with Jakob that last time you were with him, the last moment of conversation or of quiet or of fun or classroom or studying. Just go there for a moment and recollect and sit with it.”
The chapel was silent.
“I invite you to hold the moment, hold it precious and weave that experience with what the next speakers are about to share,” Powers said.
Mona Spalsbury, office manager for the student involvement office, took the podium.
“Anyone who knew Jake knows he’d hate all this special attention,” she began, a few members of the crowd laughing.
She said when Jake was hired his freshman year, his resume said that at his previous job he answered the phone, greeted people and filed paperwork. However, she said his phone skills consisted of “Hey, student involvement office,” and when asked who had called, he would say, “I don’t know.”
Spalsbury said Jake was quiet when first hired.
“The first few months he used to duck in and out of the office quickly to avoid my motherly, annoying questions. Did you go out this weekend? With who? Any girls? Did you do your homework? Second semester he was more open to conversation and even started asking me how my weekend was. We always talked ever since. I told him he looked spiffy at Greek awards and his face turned red. When he shared the news of his Presidency in Sig Ep, we screamed and clapped and got him all embarrassed.”
Spalsbury said she used to make Jake build shelves and move club gear all around Ham-wil, but that he always did it with a smile.
Tearfully, she continued, “To Mr. and Mrs. Von Der Vellen, thank you for sharing your son with us and allowing us to watch him grow and for raising a boy with fantastic morals and a shining smile. Love, Nancy (Rutkowski), Dana (Behum), Dawn (Wright) and I (student involvement office staff). Thanks for letting us know such a fine young man.”
Taking the podium once more, Powers introduced Jake’s family.
“Jake had a father and mother who were the salt of the Earth and loving sisters,” Powers said. “He came by his goodness honestly.”
Kent Von Der Vellen, Jake’s father, spoke next. He thanked the Sig Ep brothers, faculty, staff and student body for their overwhelming love and support, saying it was a great source of comfort. He said he felt a great amount of pride hearing each of the speakers say how important their relationship was with Jake and how he found it personally so humbling.
“Jake avoided doing things for recognition. He did them because he cared. He excelled at all he did. He didn’t brag. He just did it.”
He said Jake did well in school, without ever being told to do his homework. He always made honor roll and graduated in the top five percent of his high school class. Jake participated in Medina High School’s band, tennis team and NHS. He was on the homecoming court, a mentor for middle school students and a Link Crew member, helping freshman adjust to high school life. Jake loved sports. He had a passion for Medina’s Relay for Life, as he was the OWU 2012 Relay For Life Chair. Relay for Life was scheduled to commence and be dedicated to Jake later Friday night.
“It was so appropriate that Jake was involved in the Big Brother, Big Sister Program because that was the role he always played. He was a big brother to two sisters, Katie and Kerry, and always the oldest among friends and family and outnumbered by girls. He took it in stride, playing ghost in the graveyard and flashlight tag with his younger cousins.
Von Der Vellen said Jake and his two sisters were always very close.
“He loved his sisters. The three of them stayed up late at night playing video games. They watched Youtube videos together, laughing at skits. He would hangout at his sisters’ bonfires with their friends and get to know everyone. He was a man of few words, always contained and under control. You had to work to get him to laugh, but his sisters could. We treasure these moments.”
According to Von Der Vellen, Jake regularly made time to talk to his mother and keep updated on family life. He and Jake used to play catch together in the front yard for hours and they always stayed close. Von Der Vellen ended by saying what the community could do to honor Jake’s legacy.
“Jake volunteered time and used his leadership role to encourage others to get involved and he gave strong hugs. That’s how he showed he cared. All of us want to honor him. It’s an end, but a call to action. Next time you can help someone, remember to do what Jake would have done. Thank you all for being a part of Jake’s life.”
Sig Ep sophomores Greg Hock and Jason Lonnemann spoke on behalf of the brothers to bid Jake farewell.
“Jake was a genuine person that put others before himself,” Lonnemann said. “He was the most dedicated and passionate person I knew and I am honored to speak on behalf of my brothers. Jake had a passion for Sig Ep and kept thinking of new ideas to make it the best it could be. He loved his little brother (from Big Brother Big Sister). He taught us how to be an honest man, brother and friend. I think I speak for all of the brothers when I say we miss him, but are grateful for the time we had with him.”
The all-female a capella group, Pitch Black, sang “I’ll Fly Away” while those in attendance sat in deep reflection. Powers then began his closing remarks.
“God of all light, yesterday we committed brother Jake’s body back to Earth and then committed his soul to your eternal care… Fly away now Jake. Hover over us like God’s Holy Spirit and Jake, God will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn, make you, Jake, to shine like the sun and hold you, Jake, in the palm of God’s hand,” Powers concluded.
Jake’s seated family and Sip Ep brothers stood, lowered their heads and slowly filed out of the chapel while the rest of the crowd sat in solemn silence looking on. As the organ played, students hugged one another, stood together and exited the building in silence.