When I enrolled in Texas A&M in the fall of ‘97, the only option for on-campus housing was to join something called the “Corps of Cadets.” I had no real idea of what it was, but I soon learned. That first semester was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It was full of hazing, so much so that the outfit I was in was disbanded by the university and all remaining cadets were dispersed across all the other corps outfits to make sure the mindset was also disbanded.
Anyway, a couple things made that semester bearable. One was working on the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Bonfire. The only way we could get out of the hell they’d put us through was to go work on bonfire, so we went a lot. It was quite the atmosphere, building a 5+ story stack of logs around the clock. The other thing that got me through that semester was a guy named Jerry Don Self from Arlington, Texas. Jerry Don and I were old ladies (roommates) for a time and quickly grew close. He was really tough, physically and mentally.
But what struck me most about him was his love for Jesus. You see, I had come from a family that went to church…it’s what we did. I knew all the right language and was steeped in the culture. But in my heart, it wasn’t real. That was also part of the culture I grew up in–a bunch of church kids that were playing the game they were taught to play. But Jerry Don was different. He was perhaps the first real friend I had that really loved Jesus and lived his life for Jesus. He talked about Jesus all the time. I called myself a Christian and I was uncomfortable about how much Jerry talked about Jesus. It wasn’t that he beat you up about it or evangelized on the corner. Rather, Jesus was who he loved the most and he talked like it, and he acted like it.
The Lord used Jerry Don to change my life. I learned what an authentic Christian looked like, and I also learned that being a Christian man didn’t mean being a sissy. (I had learned that from my dad, but this was different coming from a peer.) Jerry Don loved Jesus, but he would tie you in a knot in 2 seconds if he had to.
When the semester was over, I knew that I wasn’t going military so there was no need for me to pursue more ROTC. Jerry Don went on to another Corps outfit. We remained friends though I didn’t get to see him as much.
20 years ago today, at about 6 in the morning, I turned on CNN in my apartment and saw the news…the bonfire stack had fallen. National news crews were setup just a few miles from where I sat. I at first thought it was a joke…that stack was invincible. Then even when I saw the footage, I immediately assumed everyone was okay. Everyone was not okay. In a few hours, I would learn that my friend Jerry Don had lost his life, along with 11 other Aggies.
Jerry’s funeral was at one of the largest churches in Dallas. Even though I got there early, I was forced to stand with hundreds outside and listen to the service over loudspeakers. Thousands knew who Jerry was…he was that type of guy. And thousands knew who Jerry was all about, because he talked about him all the time. I miss my friend Jerry. I’m thankful to God for Jerry. I would be such a different person without him.