Remembering My Friend, Jeff Sasser
by Matt Cravey
I don’t know how memorial services will work in 2020. I don’t know if this will end up as a Facebook post, or if I will have to struggle to remain composed while I read this in front of Adam, Daniel and the rest of Jeff’s family. I know that writing helps me process grief and Jeff had so many stories, I didn’t want any of them to accidentally be left out.
I first met Jeffrey Sasser a few years after moving to Greensboro. My wife and I were struggling to make new friends and so she set us up on a night out with another couple from church to go to a Greensboro Bats game. Lynn and Nancy hit it off right away. My assessment of Jeff, the ex-army ranger with the close-cropped hair cut, competitive streak, and deep fanaticism for NC state football was less generous. I knew we didn’t have much in common and would remain polite church acquaintances.
After a few more nights out, I learned that he had a goofy, self-deprecating sense of humor, and surprised me how progressive his outlook on the world was. We ended up hanging out regularly, going to each other’s houses every Thursday night to share dinner and watch this new crazy reality show called “Survivor”. I loved those nights.
Jeff invited us to go see one of his favorite musicians who was playing at Ziggy’s in Winston Salem. I had never heard of Robert Earl Keen and was not particularly a fan of country music. In the week leading up to the show, Jeff had made me a mix tape some of his favorite Robert Earl Keen songs. He enthusiastically explained which were his favorite and why and which songs I could expect to hear at the concert.
When we got to Ziggy’s before the show, Jeff seemed to know half of the crowd. I assumed he had invited everyone he knew, but the reality was that Robert Earl had a loyal following and Jeff being Jeff just recognized concertgoers from previous shows. The concert felt more like a reunion. We ended up seeing Robert Early several more times with and without Jeff.
Jeff and I were youth “sponsors” at our church. Officially it meant that we drove the church vans, kept the kids in line, and set a good example. In reality, it was like being a high school kid again. He and I would stay up late laughing and telling stories and playing pranks on the campers. It reminded me of a time I deeply missed, of being at camp with friends and having deep conversations that veered into unexpected territory over breakfast and late at night.
One of the kids who Jeff bonded with was Andrew Russoli. I think Jeff saw a lot of himself in Andrew, another military man with a tender heart and generous spirit. When Andrew was in basic training with the Marines, Jeff and Michael sent him a novelty post card from Miami featuring buff muscle guys. When Andrew came home on leave we all had a good laugh about it, despite him getting a hard time when his drill instructor pulled it out of the mail sack. Jeff also made sure Andrew got care packages when he was deployed overseas and tried to do everything he could to make Andrew’s time in the military a bit easier.
Jeff loved to play jokes and he I became co-conspirators as often as we played jokes on each other. He and I decorated out ministers’ offices while they were out on sabbatical, painting Michael Usey’s private bathroom a bright, Pepto Bismal pink which remains to this day. When we were camping, once an enormous snake wandered into our camp site. Jeff was delighted watching me squirm from the safety of the car unable to see the snake and reporting that the snake had gone in my tent.
On vacation in the Bahamas, we visited a tourist marketplace. I was a few stalls ahead of Jeff. Whenever a local came up to me asking if I wanted to buy weed, I always whispered back “No, but see the guy back there with the red shirt with a wolf on it? He does.” The rest of the day, Jeff was puzzled why guys kept coming up to him and trying to sell him drugs.
As we were driving home from the port in Fort Lauderdale after that cruise, I was sitting in the passenger seat of the van we had rented while Jeff drove. I drifted off to sleep, and when I woke up, we were three states closer to home. I asked if he wanted a break, or to stop for lunch, but he was ready to get home to see his new son Adam. There was a fierceness to that love that struck me in that moment. Something I would go on to learn about when I became a father a few years later.
Jeff invited me to go to football games with he and his mom, and although I didn’t really care too much for the game itself, I loved being part of the rituals that he and his mom shared when it came to tailgating for Wolfpack games. Later he delighted in reading his sons the book “Hello Mr. Wolf” to the point of memorization.
Jeff told a story about going to some high stakes football game with friends, but having to sit in the opposing team’s student section. It wasn’t until the game was over and his team had secured the win that he took off his neutral outer shirt to reveal the NC State gear he had been wearing underneath the whole time in a crowd of disgruntled fans.
I loved to listen to Jeff tell stories about his time in the military. There was a story about nearly getting killed in a parachute accident and when he finally hit the ground safely, he and the other ranger ran towards each other like they were going to fight and after a moment’s reflection just hugged each other happy to be alive.
Because of a scheduling mishap, he had to take “survival school” twice down in Florida. The second time he made sure not to fall asleep because he learned what happened to students who fell asleep. They woke up suddenly to a rattlesnake held inches in front of their face by the instructor.
It didn’t matter how many times I heard the stories. They were still funny. Jeff was one of the few people who could truly make me laugh hard. We would quote the movie Raising Arizona back and forth. He would imitate Nathan Senior’s response to getting asked if he had any “disgruntled employees”. “Hell, they’re all disgruntled. I ain’t running no damn daisy farm. My motto is “Do it my way or watch your butt!”, although he usually couldn’t get all the way through without cracking himself up.
Jeff had a playful energy that he brought to every adventure. When we would go to roller coaster parks, Jeff was always the last one to want to close the parks and he and I would often be the last ones of the group still standing at the end of the day riding empty rides and laughing at our good fortune.
I was always envious of how much Jeff loved his job, both the kids and his coworkers. He loved to teach and be part of a team. As we reconnected through social media, it was clear how much his school loved him. We still ran into each other occasionally in the last few years as Daniel and my son played soccer in the same league. Jeff was so proud of Daniel and would encourage his skill while making sure Daniel enjoyed it as a game with good sportsmanship. It only ever took a few seconds of two of us milling about awkwardly before it felt like old times, if only for a few minutes.
I followed his diagnosis from a distance through social media, occasionally reaching out. Sometimes I heard back, sometimes I didn’t. When I read about his decision to stop treatment, I sent him a link to the Avett Brothers’ song “No Hard Feelings”. He responded immediately “Wow, right on time. Love you.”I told him I loved him too.
I am so grateful that he offered me that grace and closure to an old friendship. I will miss him dearly.
Yours, Matthew R. Cravey