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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

In memory of Jeff Cason

Respected professor, provost and community member, Jeffrey (Jeff) Cason, passed away last July, leaving an indelible impact personally and professionally on the Middlebury campus.

Jeff passed away at the University of Vermont Medical Center on July 14, 2022 due to complications with his cancer treatment. He is survived by his wife Gail Borden, who also works at the college as director of special projects for the Provost’s Office, his son Gabriel, stepson Elias and his fiancée Allison, and stepdaughter Sophia, as well as other family members and friends.

Jeff was born in Madison, Wisc. in 1962 before moving to South Bend, Ind. He graduated from LaSalle Public High School in 1980 before attending Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. At Earlham, he was captivated by Spanish and international studies. It was in his first-year hall that he first met Gail, who would become his wife 22 years later.

In addition to being hallmates, Jeff and Gail were in a humanities class together. Gail recalled Jeff’s early academic talent in an email to The Campus, “I remember commenting (with some frustration) how Jeff's paper, as usual, was the best of the group.”

After graduation, Jeff hitchhiked throughout South and Central America, a story that his brother Tim shared during his Celebration of Life ceremony held last July.

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Graduation Day in 1984.

“I remember dropping him off at a highway in Indiana with some other family members, and he had his backpack and his long hair, and he’s like this happy-go-lucky Jesus who’s going to stick out his thumb and hitch hike all the way to South America,” Tim said in the ceremony. “And he did.”

He settled in Peru, taught English and married his first wife, Rosa Maria Carolina Menendez, in 1987. Upon returning to the United States, he completed a Ph.D. in Political Science at University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1993 before coming to Middlebury Collegeas an assistant professor of Political Science a year later.

Back in New England, he got in touch with Gail, who was also married at the time with two children.

“An Earlham classmate let us know that we both were here, and I still remember bringing my daughter Sophia, nine months old, to his first office on the first floor of Munroe Hall,” Gail said. “With Sophia in an umbrella stroller, we walked around the campus on a beautiful fall day and got reacquainted.”

A few years after the end of their first marriages, Gail and Jeff wed in 2002. Jeff became “Papi” to Sophia and Elias, and the couple welcomed their son Gabriel.

Jeff enjoyed a long, vibrant career at Middlebury. He became an associate professor in 2001 before becoming the dean of International Programs in 2006. He was named Edward C. Knox Professor of International Studies and Political Science in 2008. His area of expertise was economic development and democratization in South America.

With grants from the Fulbright Foundation, he went to Uruguay and Brazil to research and coauthor the book “Overseas Research: A Practical Guide.” He also published “The Political Economy of Integration: The Experience of Mercosur” about the South America trade bloc, in addition to numerous papers.

As dean of International Programs, he helped to expand Middlebury schools to Jordan, Morocco, Israel, Japan, Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, Egypt, India and the United Kingdom. He became the vice president for academic affairs and dean of the Language Schools in 2015 before a promotion to executive vice president and provost of Middlebury in 2018. He helped support Middlebury through the Covid-19 pandemic with grace, determination and good humor.

Jeff served as an advisor, mentor and friend to Drew Miller ’03. Drew also worked with Jeff as he transitioned to administrative work, and observed Jeff’s valuable leadership skills firsthand.

“If he didn't have an answer for you right then, he would say so; then you would get a note from him with the answer once he had looked into the question further,” Drew wrote in an email to The Campus. “Admitting one does not have an immediate answer is a true and honest sign of leadership, and following up with one, if found, is a true sign of dedication and sincerity.”

Jeff valued travel both personally and professionally. He took work trips to South America, Europe, Africa and Asia as well as sabbaticals with his family to Brazil and Italy.

Along with Jeff’s love of travel and languages, he was passionate about food. Gail fondly remembered how, during their sabbatical in Italy, Jeff befriended a couple of locals interested in learning English. They became friends, and Gail recalled one night where the families had dinner.

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“Even for Jeff it was a little ambitious to cook an Italian meal for Italians, but of course he succeeded and they loved his dinner and we had a fabulous evening. The daughter [of one of the Italians], unbeknownst to us didn’t like lasagna, but she liked Jeff’s — he always had a knack for making an impression,” Gail said.

For Jeff, cooking was therapeutic and a way of connecting with others. In addition to lovingly preparing food for his family, Jeff liked grilling for friends. He hosted a memorable dinner for the directors of the Schools Abroad on his screened-in porch, as well as grill nights with other faculty members. During the pandemic, he experimented with sourdough, and Gail has enjoyed sharing his sourdough starter with friends and family members.

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Undoubtedly, Jeff touched numerous lives. In a memoriam released by the college in July, the Director of National Economic Council for the Biden administration and former student of Jeff’s Brian Deese ’00 said, “I am one of the countless people whose life was changed by Jeff. He was an extraordinary mentor to me. He made it clear he believed in my academic capability when I needed that. He was tough on me when I deserved it, and most of all he had a magnetic passion for the ways that political change could help people’s lives all around the world. He helped spark in me a passion that I carry to this day and try to instill in my kids.”

Drew also fondly remembers their relationship, and recalled a humorous anecdote about his early interactions with Jeff.

“One day I happened to walk by his office. His door was open and he was working on his computer. I had skipped his class that day. I said hello and he invited me in, and then he asked me to shut the door and have a seat. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘you are frustratingly good at this. If you tried — just a modicum — you’d be dangerous. I honestly just want to give you a swift kick in the ass.’ While no physical altercation occurred, the message was sufficient. He reviewed and gave guidance on two theses (honor and high-honors),” Drew recalled.

Throughout the years, Drew appreciated Jeff’s kindness.

“Jeff never forgot my name, and when, as provost, he would meet with the Alumni Board during my tenure on it, he always greeted me with the ‘cool guy’ half- handshake/half hug,” Drew said. “Jeff was a brilliant academic, a thoughtful advisor and mentor, and I cannot think of a negative word said about him as a professor.”

Jeff shared so many identities: father, husband, friend, professor, mentor, scholar. His wisdom, sense of adventure, humor and kindness are missed by many.

“He liked creating things by connecting and motivating people,” Gail said. “Middlebury was a huge part of his life.”

Charlie Keohane

Charlie Keohane ’24 (she/her) is an Editor at Large. She previously served as the SGA Correspondent and a Senior Writer.   

She is an environmental writing major and a psychology minor from Northern California. Outside of academics, Charlie is a Senior Admissions Fellow at the Middlebury Admissions Office. She also is involved with the women’s track team and hosts Witching Hour, a radio show on 91.1 WRMC. In Spring 2023, she studied abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, watching Greta Gerwig movies, polar plunging, sending snail mail, and FaceTiming her rescue dog, Poppy.