Remembering Jacob, and Peter

Jacob Riley-Wasserman passed away last month at the young age of 25. He was yet-to-be-famous, but most definitely on the way. If you take the time to watch the short 2-minute video “It’s Half-Time at RISD” that Jacob made just as he was about to graduate from RISD, you can catch a glimpse of what a young creative leader feels like -- the raw potential that was in Jacob and his student colleagues, was so aptly captured in his narration. It was unforgettable, like him.

I knew Jacob as an undergraduate at RISD. He had started at RISD at the same time that I became president. I would pay attention to what he was up to on campus -- Jacob had an intelligent, understated, beloved presence there. One time I recall how Jacob’s parents caught my attention on Twitter by livecasting one of his critiques while in studio -- this was before the era of Periscope. That spontaneous online moment confirmed what I often found -- that in life there can be no better teachers in a student’s life than their parents, guardians, and loved ones who grew up together with them. I always thought of Jacob to be an exceptionally lucky man to have such parents; I also thought myself to be an exceptionally lucky president to get to work on behalf of young creative leaders like Jacob.

Jacob was the kind of young man who, as John W. Gardner would say, “... make the world better just by being the kind of people they are.” I noted how after he left RISD, that he went to one of the best graduate programs in the world: NYU's Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP) founded by my dear mentor, the late Red Burns. I knew he would be happy there, and was delighted for both Jacob and his parents.

But unfortunately Jacob was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his first week at ITP. And thereafter, he put up a fight against cancer in a way that befit his practiced, creative stance on the world. I watched via social media how Jacob fought his cancer in a way that had dignity and humor, and always embodied the principles of leadership: Jacob didn't just intend to cure his own cancer -- Jacob wanted to cure everyone’s cancer, and would fight for them all. He launched a product online to support cancer research with the whimsical title “Buy a Spatula -- Kill Cancer” which while attention-catching, also underlined his strong belief that his life, and his work, could stand for so much more than himself. He understood design as something important to society.

I hadn’t checked in a while to see how Jacob was doing, and I was deeply saddened to hear from one of his close friends that he had passed on January 26, 2016. I felt a profound loss.

You will be remembered, Jacob.

And I remember someone else now.

Because remembering Jacob, reminded me of another RISD student who left the world much too early.

It was 2009. I had completed my first commencement exercises as president, and the campus had quietly transitioned into summer. I received an email from a friend of a family who wanted to get the word out that a RISD alumnus had passed away in an accident. She couldn’t get in touch with anyone at RISD to get the word out that weekend, so she reached out to me. I knew his name to be familiar for some reason, and it was because he was a recent graduate -- I shook his hand, at my first graduation ceremony. My heart sank. As the chief blogger at the time, I made a quick post on our Tumblr.

A month later, I received an email from his father. He vividly related every detail of his son’s experience at RISD. From the day that they drove to campus and dropped him off; to the many exhibitions that he and his wife got to attend; and such happy memories of seeing their son grow into an adult that they could barely recognize, and to become oh-so-proud-of-parents to see their son grow to become an artist.

He related one regret. It was how he knew his son to be a talented artist. But it wasn’t until at the funeral when there was a long line of his artist friends and colleagues who, one by one, said to this father over and over, “Your son was the most talented artist I ever knew.” He regretted, then knowing how truly talented his son really was as an artist, that he never got to tell him so.

I was grateful to learn such an invaluable lesson: To say how you feel, *now*, and say it the best way you can. Now.

You are remembered, too, Peter.

We remember Jacob, and Peter.

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Copyright 2009 - 2016, John Maeda