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In Memory of My Godfather, Cow

August 3, 2011

Jonathan Tucker, in professional guise.

Many people knew Jonathan Tucker as a brilliant biological terrorism academic.  Not only did he appear on television, write four books and many, many articles, he has his own Wikipedia page, which, as everyone knows, means that he truly had cultural cache.  But very few people knew that Jonathan Tucker, small pox expert, giant in his field, had a nickname.

To me, Jonathan Tucker will always be Jonathan Tucker Cow.

When I was in preschool, we were given the assignment of putting white paint spots on brown, construction paper cows.  After completing this arduous task, we could name our creation.   I was seeing my godfather later that day and kind of excited.  And so when I got home, I ran up to JT, gave my godfather my paper cow and yelled, “It’s you, Jonathan Tucker Cow!”

The name stuck.

Jonathan would forever sign birthday cards to me “JT Cow,” or “Your Godfather, Cow.”  He knew the moniker was affectionate.  I jibbed at him that it was also appropriate, considering both he and his totem animal were vegetarians.

Jonathan was a constant presence in my life, a guiding, gentle force, fulfilling and surpassing his duties as my godfather.  He always took his obligations seriously but with joy, and his relationship with me was no exception.  He was over at my father’s house frequently, many Sundays, and he would make a point of asking me how I was doing. Whatever I said, whether trite or profound, he thoughtfully listened to my response.  He respected me in a way that children are almost never respected by the adults around them.  My opinion mattered to him, so I gave it liberally (perhaps too liberally) to all aspects of his life; I analyzed his girlfriends and choice of bon mots in drafts of his articles alike.

I remember one particularly noteworthy time when he was completing the final edits of Scourge; he asked me to look at his final chapter because he wanted the average lay-person to be able to understand his conclusions.  After assuring him that due to my recent 7th grade biology class I was more informed than any lay-person, I got to work, gleefully circling and underlining in red ink.  I explained my corrections in a didactic fashion.  Even as I spoke, I didn’t really think he was going to incorporate my edits.  What did I, a twelve year old, know?  I felt honored when the book came out later that year; once again, he had listened to me.

As I grew older, the relationship deepened.  Instead of giving a paper cow as a present, I graduated to painting a wine goblet that depicted a cow for him.  I grew to love my godfather in a more nuanced way, not only as a parental figure, but also as a peer.  I remember last summer, when he visited me in Chicago.  I took him on a tour of Millennium Park, and as we drank our iced coffees we talked about where our lives were going.  He was leaving for Germany in a month, and was anxious about fitting into the community there.  I was desperately trying to find my first job out of college.  We spoke frankly about our options, and we commiserated on the difficulty of maintaining long distance romantic relationships.

I didn’t tell him how happy I was that he visited.  I didn’t want him to realize quite how lonely I was there, and how just talking to him for a couple of hours made everything feel less terrifying.

I ended up getting a job in DC, he went to Germany and I rented his apartment from him.  The bachelor pad was mine!  I put up some of my posters, and filled his refrigerator with various meat products.  I sighed about his choice in German propaganda and French café photographs on the walls.  I rearranged his furniture.  I held wine and cheese parties and celebrated my first step into adulthood.

I got a call from Jonathan in December.  That’s when he told me, apologetically, that he was coming back to the States, and would I mind terribly moving again?  He sounded worried, like he was afraid I would tell him ‘no’ he had to find a new place.  I quickly put the furniture and wall hangings back in their proper places, scrubbed the wall where some Taleggio had joined a splash of what was formerly Merlot, and hoped for the best.  Upon his return, he never said anything to me regarding the state of the apartment.  I guess he really did love me.

I hadn’t seen my godfather for almost a month when I heard the news from my brother.  In a Kübler Ross sort of way, I am very much still in denial.  I cannot accept that my godfather, who saw me in the hospital the day after I was born, is no longer going to be there with me.  That I am not going to see him next Sunday, that he won’t hug me and apologize because he is sweaty from biking.  He was my one and only godfather, irreplaceable on so many levels.

I am a better person because of him.  Thank you, Jonathan.  It’s been an honor and privilege to know you.

Goodbye, JT Cow.

Your Goddaughter

To read more about this incredible man:

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    August 3, 2011 11:53 PM

    I’m so sorry for your loss – but this a beautiful and moving eulogy, and one that makes me wish I had such a person in my life, if even for a while. Take care of yourself, Luca; know that you’re not alone.


  2. Jim Curren permalink
    August 8, 2011 7:07 PM

    I am sorry for your loss. When I read your words I can hear his voice. You have caputured Jonathan perfectly. I only got to know him in the last couple of years but enjoyed our conversations on a wide range of topics as we hiked or scouted future hikes for the Club.

  3. Laura Darkins permalink
    August 9, 2011 1:13 PM


    I am so sorry for your loss. I hiked with Jonathan and the Capital Hiking Club. I remember him speaking of you, the bike trips to your father’s house and his relief that you were able to take care of his place while he was in Germany. Thank you for sharing your story about the gentle and humble JT Cow.

  4. January 8, 2012 8:10 AM

    I am so sorry for your loss. This man was an enormous influence to those who knew him as well as those who only knew him through his knowledge and publications. Would you mind contacting me off the blog? Kindest regards, Leah

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