Surprise Posthumous Gift One of Largest in Frostburg State University’s History

Jul 16, 2019 3:25 PM

When James A. Jeffries, a diligently private man who divided his time between traveling the world and his Frostburg hometown, passed away on June 6 at 91, he left one final surprise: a gift to the Frostburg State University Foundation of nearly $1.5 million, one of the largest gifts FSU has ever received.

It was a stunning, but welcome, development.

“The FSU Foundation is honored and sincerely appreciative that Mr. Jeffries entrusted part of his legacy to us,” said Kenneth Oldham, Jr., president of the FSU Foundation. “We look forward to putting these funds to great use in support of our beloved FSU, its faculty and its students.”

Jeffries’ friends say he was a brilliant man, a globetrotter fluent in five languages who grew up and lived just blocks from the University.

“For somebody who never finished high school, I’d put his mind up against any college educated person’s,” said one of those friends, Darlene Frye, with whom Jeffries worked decades before. “He taught himself four languages from old vinyl records!”

He ended his days no less privately or enigmatically than he had lived them. A very brief death notice was all that was published. No service was held. He was quietly laid to rest in his family’s burial plot. And that’s precisely what Jeffries intended, at least according to his closest friends.

Frye, who was employed at FSU from 1981 to 1999, first met Jeffries when they worked for a Cumberland wholesale business that Jeffries’ uncle ran. They remained close friends even after Jeffries took to spending his winters and summers traveling the world. Each time Jeffries returned to town, Frye looked in on her reclusive friend, always marveling at his encyclopedic knowledge of world history and current events.

It was Frye who helped Jeffries handle the details – he named the FSU Foundation the beneficiary of an investment account 10 years ago – ensuring that his wishes to support the University would be carried through, according to Jeff Kirk, another friend and Jeffries’ estate administrator. In the end, the gift from that account amounted to nearly $1.5 million.

“Jimmy had good intentions, but she made sure it happened,” Kirk said. “The only thing he said to me was that the University was getting a big chunk. He never told me any more than that, and Jimmy was one of those people – you didn’t ask him questions!”

Jeffries was a regular and generous supporter of WFWM, FSU’s public, NPR-affiliated radio station, but officials from the FSU Foundation had otherwise no contact with Jeffries.

“When we attempted to thank Mr. Jeffries for his gifts to WFWM, we never heard back. So it was therefore a complete surprise when we were informed of his estate gift,” said John Short, vice president for University Advancement and executive director of the FSU Foundation.

That’s how he would have wanted it, according to those few close friends who understood how much he prized his privacy.

Frye and Kirk knew that Jeffries shied away from personal questions, but he delighted in talking with his friends at great lengths about almost anything else, including his extensive travels and countless stories about dear friends overseas and the adventures they took together.

Two of his interests led to his first adventure overseas. Jeffries was an aviation buff who had kept a small Cessna airplane at Cumberland Airport in the 1950s. He was also a prolific photographer who made space for a private darkroom, slide projector and pull-down projection screen in his home.

Immediately after World War II ended in Europe, then-19-year-old Jeffries packed his camera and crossed the Atlantic to backpack through Europe, shooting pictures of downed and abandoned warplanes, his friends said.

Along the countless journeys that followed, Jeffries’ camera remained his constant companion. When Kirk and Frye began sorting through his effects, they found many boxes packed with slides in carousels – each box containing hundreds of images from 70-plus years of world travels. They’ve begun looking into archiving Jeffries’ innumerable images at Frostburg’s Lewis J. Ort Library.

Jeffries’ lifelong travels took him to nearly every country on earth.

“He was in a nearby country, and he was going to go to Russia, and he was told, ‘Sir, you probably shouldn’t go. It’s not safe right now,’” Kirk said. “Apparently, there was a lot of kidnapping going on then. But that was literally the only place in the world he never went. When you own clothes for safari and the Arctic, then you’ve probably traveled a lot.”

Among other noteworthy moments, Kirk remembered Jeffries’ stories of drinking in a Havana bar just before the Cuban Revolution with armed soldiers moving through the streets.

Even late in his life, Jeffries maintained an international “snow-birder” pattern he’d established before Kirk met him in the 1980s. Starting each June, Jeffries spent his summer in Davos, Switzerland. Then each November, 60 days after returning home from Switzerland, he traveled to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for the winter. It was a pattern Jeffries maintained until this spring, not long before his death, when he cut his Mexico trip short. Frye and Kirk couldn’t remember their friend coming home early before.

In those two destinations, worlds away from his hometown, Jeffries apparently counted a handful of other very close friends. From Davos, he would spend time each year with friends who lived just over the Alps in Germany. In San Miguel, Jeffries spent five decades returning to the same hotel, which he saw pass down through three generations of one family, all of whom he considered good friends.

After Jeffries passed away, Kirk reached out to those people overseas to see if they knew any more about their mysterious common friend. Those friends, apparently, knew no more than Frye or Kirk did. But they, in turn, had heard countless stories about Jeffries’ dearest friends – two lovely people from Western Maryland he reunited with every time he returned home.

None of his friends, it seems, were ever very far from Jeffries’ heart. With his generous final gift to FSU, it appears that he likewise cared deeply about the many college students just a few blocks from his home of 90-plus years.

You can find more information about the FSU Foundation web site or call 301-687-4068.

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit the Frostburg State web site or the FSU Facebook page. Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.