By Pam Watts, NIRSA Executive Director
It is with profound sadness that NIRSA shares the news that Dr. Jeffrey S. Vessely passed away on Monday, February 1. Jeff, affectionately known as “Dr. V.” to many of his students, retired in September 2010 after a 36-year career with Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis’ (IUPUI) School of Physical Education and Tourism Management (PETM). He was an educator, leader, coach, devoted husband and father, mentor, and friend to many in his more than 40 years as an active member of the NIRSA family.
“Jeff had a special ability to captivate when telling a story,” remembers fellow Honor Award recipient Kathy Bayless, Assistant Dean for Campus Recreational Sports at Indiana University. He “possessed a keen wit and delightful sense of humor. But I think of Jeff most as a person of faith, family, and service. He was a model of integrity, professionalism, selflessness, principles, compassion, conviction, and was unwavering in his commitment to the development of others.”
Jeff had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2015, and with candor and courage he shared much of what was important to him in his personal blog “The Talk Doctor: Funny things happen on your way to getting cancer.” An active attendee at the NIRSA Annual Conference & Recreational Sports Exposition over a period that spanned five decades (his enthusiasm for this event is palpable in his “MyNIRSA2014” contribution to the 2014 Nashville conference), Jeff’s virtues and friendship will be sorely missed by many in Kissimmee this spring and far into the future.
An IUPUI legend
Jeff answered a call to service from the US Navy before enrolling at what was then The Normal College at IUPUI in 1969. This was the start of a long relationship with IUPUI where he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Along the way, Jeff pursued his Doctorate of Education in Higher Education Administration and Biomechanics from Indiana University. He returned to IUPUI where he would go on to spend the remainder of his professional career.
Jeff served in numerous roles with IUPUI in the following decades. These include physical education faculty member, Student Ombudsman, Director of Sports Information, Director of Sports Services, Dean of Students, President of the Faculty Senate, and Chair of the Department of Physical Education. “Jeff was my professor and professional mentor and a very important person in my life,” recalls John Lentz, now Director for Recreational Sports at Indiana State University. “I simply would not be where I am today without his counsel, guidance, and friendship,” he adds.
His contributions to athletics at IUPUI have also been considerable; he did everything from sweeping floors to coaching golf and basketball to directing intramural sports. As recognition for his years of stellar service, he was inducted into the IUPUI Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998 and his 36-year career was celebrated by the University during his 2010 retirement.
“IUPUI will remember Dr. Jeff Vessely as the consummate team player, instrumental to its growth,” says Jay Gladden, Dean of IUPUI’s School of Physical Education and Tourism Management. “Jeff will be remembered as a positive force who took great pride in helping faculty and students alike.”
Active NIRSA member and tireless volunteer
In reflecting on his retirement, Jeff revealed his philosophy about his relentless work ethic. He said, “I believe in giving overload,” a training principle that advances the idea that peak performance is reached by pushing yourself a little more each day. Jeff said, “I’ve always had a need to take what I do to the next level.” This innate need resulted in a decorated career and years of invaluable service to NIRSA.
He became a NIRSA member in 1974 and in the following four decades Jeff served in numerous leadership positions within the Association—these include NIRSA President, Region III Vice President, and Past President’s Representative on the Assembly from 2012-2014. He was a leading figure in the development of the NIRSA School of Collegiate Recreation, hosted the first NIRSA School, and served as a founding member of the faculty for the burgeoning event.
Jeff was an active member of the Indiana Recreational Sports Association—IRSA—and hosted so many local and association-wide events, including the first Region III Student Lead On in Indianapolis at IUPUI in 1988. NIRSA President Stan Shingles, Assistant Vice President at Central Michigan University, remembers how Indy “as the ‘center of Region III,’ was selected as the host city, and Jeff unselfishly offered his campus as the location for this first workshop.
Jeff was a critical voice in shaping NIRSA as we recognize it today. Tom Jones, Director Emeritus of Central Michigan University and also a NIRSA past president and fellow Honor Award recipient, explains that while the organization has since reached a broad consensus on a number of topics, it wasn’t always that way. Tom recalls working long hours with Jeff and other NIRSA members “discussing and debating a wide variety of issues that were fairly controversial at the time. Topics like NIRSA event sponsorships and endorsements, a professional code of ethics for the Association, professional certification, investing in outside speakers for the national conference—and the list goes on and on.”
In addition to discussing these topics with NIRSA leadership, Jeff “was an advocate for involving all stakeholders in decisions. He sought input from students, women, community college reps, underrepresented minorities, exhibitors, etc.” Jeff believed in a NIRSA that was truly of its members. “He constantly attempted to reduce friction and animosity among people while seeking to build a consensus,” explains Tom.
Jan Gong—retired from the University of California, Davis, and a past NIRSA President and Honor Award recipient—adds, “I had the great good fortune to follow Jeff in the NIRSA Presidency and served with him on the NIRSA Board of Directors for two years. I learned much from his passion to the profession, his astute political sense, constant good humor, and most of all, his ethical commitment for choosing the right and just path, even when that path was difficult or uncomfortable.”
Jeff’s commitment and leadership were recognized with various Association awards over the years. Among the many are multiple National Service Awards, the NIRSA Honor Award, and the Regional Award of Merit.
In addition to his extensive service for NIRSA, Jeff was also an ardent supporter of the future generation of leaders in collegiate recreation; he is one of only 24 individuals to reach or exceed the NIRSA Foundation’s Executive Level donor status. A regular co-participant in the annual NIRSA Foundation Golf Tournament, Tom remembers Jeff with his “GPS in hand seeking the precise distance to the green.” And although they were one of the oldest teams—with an average age of nearly 70—and never threatened to win, Tom remembers “the competition was intense, and the rally efforts never ended.”
Beyond IUPUI and NIRSA
Jeff refereed high school basketball and football in his community for more than 15 years. He has been named an Outstanding Alumnus by Indiana University’s School of HPER and Department of Recreational Sports. He was an active member of Shape America—formerly known as the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD)—and the Indiana chapter of AAHPERD (IAAHPERD).
From 1984 until his passing, Jeff served as National Executive Secretary of the Phi Epsilon Kappa Fraternity, a national professional fraternity for persons engaged in or pursuing careers in physical education, health, recreation, dance, human performance, exercise science, sports medicine and sports management. But beyond all of his accolades for service and professional achievement, Jeff always expressed that his greatest success was his family.
His wife Sue and his four children Tracey, Leslie, Sara, and Tom, and his grandchildren were the center of so many of his charming stories, which were “filled with humor and a wisdom that only comes from a person with his vast and diverse experiences,” says Stan.
The viewing is scheduled for Friday, February 5, from 12:00-8:00pm at Lauck & Veldhoff, 1458 South Meridian St, Indianapolis, IN 46225. The funeral service will take place on Saturday, February 6 at 11:00am at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 311 North New Jersey, Indianapolis, IN 46204. Electronic condolences can be shared online with the Vessely family using the Lauck & Veldhof Funeral & Cremation Services website.