(aka El Hadge Abdoulaye Diallo-Bah)
Jesse Thyne, a fallen Peace Corps Volunteer from Pasadena, California, continues to touch the daily lives of those he knew and those he had yet to meet during his 24 years of life. On January 7, 2000, Jesse and fellow volunteer Justin Bhansali perished in a bush taxi accident on a rural road outside of Pita, Guinea. At the time of his tragic death, Jesse was a second-year PCV teaching math in the Fouta Djalon village of Diountou. His legacy continues on in Diountou, where the Peace Corps has constructed and dedicated a village library in his honor. A memorial was constructed in Pita in the memory of Jesse and Justin, and many PCV’s also participate in the annual Memorial Walk For Road Safety.
Before joining the Peace Corps, Jesse was a popular student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he excelled in his studies of Psychology and Education. His favorite activities included cooking, tutoring local elementary school students, playing harmonica, and making everyone he met laugh. During his time in Guinea, Jesse remained close to those he left behind by writing hundreds of letters to his friends and family back home. At the conclusion of his Peace Corps service, Jesse planned to continue his life of public-service by moving to Washington, DC where he had accepted an invitation to teach math to inner-city high school students.
Despite his earthly passing, Jesse remains vibrantly alive in the hearts and minds of all who knew him.
Spoken by Jesse’s Father at his memorial service:
Charles Dickens begins his novel, David Copperfield, with this sentence: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station shall be taken by anybody else, these pages will show.”
Jesse’s death is a tragedy for Becky and Shannon and Brendan and I. Like all of you, we are just drenched in sadness. But as a friend told us the other day, this is the one sad moment in Jesse’s life with us. For the rest it is the story of this wonderfully goofy boy who grew up to be a man, came to know himself and have a vision of his life, and found the courage to live out that vision wherever it took him. The story is one of triumph. And Jess is the hero of the story.
God knows he needed help. The summer he was eight years old, he went to day camp every day. At the end of the day, the bus would drop him off, and he would walk the long sidewalk from the corner to our house. After a couple of days, somewhat typically, Jess got bored just walking home. And he decided that he could make it from the corner to the house with his eyes closed, running. So he started down the length of the sidewalk, closed his eyes, and in order not to cheat, put his beach towel over his head. And he took off. His brief success was interrupted by the trunk of the jacaranda tree.
He needed help. He got some of the help he needed at this place, All Saints Church. When he was fifteen he got in a confirmation class and went to every session and loved the discussions and the people he met there. But a week before the Bishop came to consecrate these kids as members, Jess decided he wasn’t going to join. “This stuff about God is really interesting,” he said, “but I don’t believe any of it.” That was what he called his atheist phase. But this place seeped into him. You can tell that by what he chose to do with his life. And earlier this morning our family got together with Ed and Clark, and we placed Jesse’s ashes in the niche in the corner of the tower. So every Sunday morning he can listen to the music and argue with the sermons.
Jess went to Polytechnic School from fourth to the twelfth grade. He met a group of friends there, a whole bunch of whom are here today, who didn’t realize how little time it is to be friends for a lifetime. He was a pretty good student. He got involved in all kinds of things with these friends, and they found him a little different. He told them that, in fact, he wasn’t just adopted, he was from another planet. And sometimes it seemed that it was true. One Halloween, Jess dressed up as an alien accountant. This kid who had problems with hyperactivity and whose diet we had monitored so carefully learned from those friends to eat gummy bears and red vines and to master advanced Dungeons and Dragons.
In his senior year he learned to play the harmonica. And as a senior project, he took out a license as a street performer. And one weekend in the spring on Friday night, he went to the promenade in Santa Monica. And on Saturday night he went to Old Town, where our friends go to dinner and the movies. And he put his baseball cap on the sidewalk for people to throw coins in. And he played his songs for them.
He went to the University of California at Santa Cruz and expanded his friendship group. He majored in psychology and education, played the harmonica all the time, and he began to articulate the vision he had of who he was and what he would do in the world. And he got lucky. He met the love of this life–Michelle Lynar. Like most things in Jess’ life, their relationship weaved and soared and plunged until last summer when Becky and Michelle and I went to visit Jess in Africa, and by the time we were ready to leave, they had a plan that he would get out of the Peace Corp this coming June and move to Washington D.C. together. She would work, he would go to graduate school. And they would be married. So Jess got a lot of help from his church, and his schools, and his friends, and Michelle. And more.
There is an African adage that says it takes a village to raise a child. In Jess’ case it wasn’t a village. It was a tribe: a family of cousins, aunts, grandmothers, uncles and what my father would have called in-laws and outlaws. When we adopted him, you adopted him. And we loved him into growing up. You let him into your lives all the way in. And we know that your sadness and pride are like ours. And we want you to know how grateful we are that you loved him the way that you did.