Jamie Kapteyn: gifted teacher, mentor, friend

The following post regards the sudden death of a special person to my family — and to many others whose lives he touched. A special note to those who may have found this post via an Internet search: This link will take you to information on the Deerfield Academy website about memorial services and ways in which Mr. Kapteyn can be honored and condolences extended to his family. Also, a group has been set up on Facebook, In Memory of James Kapteyn, that contains many wonderful memories, expressions of condolences and photos from students and friends of Mr. Kapteyn.]

Last year, my son was a freshman at Deerfield Academy, a boarding school in western Massachusetts. His resident adviser — his mentor and friend and father of the faculty family who lived in quarters adjacent to my son’s dorm hall — was one of the most gifted teachers I have ever known, James C. (Jamie) Kapteyn.

My wife and I had been hopeful that our son would end up on Mr. Kapteyn’s hall as we had grown to appreciate him over the three previous years during which he’d taught english and literature to our (now college freshman) daughter. He was, for her, one of those special teachers who light a spark of passion for a subject that leads to a lifetime of study and appreciation. My wife and I sat in on Mr. Kapteyn’s classes on a couple of occasions and marveled at his skill at opening his students’ minds and eyes and hearts.

As he had spent many years as a teacher, coach and resident adviser — and was the father of a daughter who is a classmate of our son — my wife and I turned often to him for insight into the minds of teenagers — especially on those several occasions when our understanding came to a sudden brick wall of that species known as “15-year-old boy.” Mr. Kapteyn’s wise, reasoned, concerned advice never failed to calm us, or reassure us, or inspire us. In hindsight, he was always right.

Last night, my wife and I wept together with our son who called to inform us that Mr. Kapteyn had passed away unexpectedly earlier in the evening after collapsing while playing soccer with some faculty friends. He was in his mid-40s.

My wife or I did not attend boarding schools, but we’ve learned a lot about them — or at least one of them — over the past five years. When the students’ interactions with teachers (and their families) extend beyond the classroom into the dining hall for three meals each day, and onto the playing fields for sports, and into the evenings for study halls and academic (and life) advising and a whole myriad of clubs and projects — it creates a unique and close community bond, a family. The joys of one become the joys of many. And when the loss of one so loved occurs, it is the loss of a cherished member of a very large and extended family. And the entire family mourns.

Today, the Deerfield community is in shock. I know that my son and all the other boys who have ever been in Field (the “dorm” [house] name) with Mr. Kapteyn and his wife are mourning deeply the loss of their mentor and friend. After talking with him on the phone last night, I sent my son and daughter an e-mail and decided to post a portion of it here:

Going through this sad experience with your friends and all of the people who loved Mr. Kapteyn so much is going to be a very tough thing to do. But you will pull together and your sense of loss will be be shared also with a sense of appreciation for all that Mr. Kaptyn was and all he did for you.

I’m sitting here thinking of all the lives Mr. Kapetyn touched — his students, their parents, the boys who he advised and mentored on his hall, the players he coached. It is a very sad and terrible thing to lose someone you love and appreciate so much as Mr. Kaptyn. Along with our grieving, I know we will be honoring him, as well. For his was a life to celebrate. He was so gifted as a teacher and he was able to share that gift at such a wonderful place as Deerfield. He loved what he did — and was so loved by those with whom he came into contact. That is a special, unique thing to have in ones life.

This weekend, my wife and daughter (who finished her first semester exams today and is flying home from Scotland) will travel to Deerfield to express personally our family’s respect and appreciation for Jamie Kapteyn, to extend our condolences to his wife and two wonderful daughters and to honor and celebrate his life of not only teaching, but inspiring young people in so many ways.

We also want to hug tightly our 16 year-old son (and brother).


  • Much love going out to you & yours.

  • Steve LaPlante

    Hello – Thank you for providing the eloquent post. I was fortunate to have Mr. Kapteyn as an English teacher when I attended Williston Northampton(he left the year I graduated for Deerfield). I could not agree more with your sentiment of Mr. Kapteyn as not only an outstanding teacher of English, but of an intellectual rigor and discipline I have found myself coming back to in the years since high school. This is to say nothing of his value as a mentor in my life apart from academics. I am certain that the time I spent with him was more valuable to my mind than any I have spent to date, and his affect on my person is something I think of often. Its difficult for me to think that this experience will no longer be shared with the young minds he so passionately addressed each day. My condolences to you and your family, I hope we can find solace in how he touched each of our lives, and in this provide some small measure of comfort to his family.

  • Rex Hammock

    Thank you Steve for sharing the point that a lot of students at Williston were inspired by Jamie Kapteyn. My family joins you in expressing our condolences to the Kapteyns for their loss.

  • Jack Redmond

    Dear Rex,

    Our son John, now a sophomore at Amherst Colege, lived in Field his first 2 years at Deerfield. Jamie was his advisor for three years (he had Mr. Henry his first). We’ll never forget how John felt as though he was a member of the Kapteyn family…and always spoke enthusiastically about the “friday feeds” (Jamie grilling up sausages and other grilled items for the Field boys). John was also a soccer player at DA so had that bond with Jamie as well. He is traveling up this weekend and I am hoping to juggle my schedule to get there. A very sad loss to the community and to the family.

  • Amy Wenning

    Although it has been years since I have been his student, babysat his
    girls, or even spoken with him, Mr. Kapteyn, my freshman English
    teacher, has remained my favorite teacher of all time through my
    entire high school and college career. The respect he commanded from
    his students is rare and extremely admirable. I’m confident that I
    can speak for any student who was lucky enough to be in his classroom
    that it was an honor and a privilege to be taught by him and to know his family!
    ~Amy Wenning ~ Cushing Academy 2000

  • John Wei

    My wife and I attended his memorial service at Deerfield Academy this weekend, and we cried along with many others in attendance, for the lost of a fine human being and a great teacher. My son had lived in Field House where Jamie Kapteyn was a house master, and he had also played lacrosse under Jamie’s guidance. The Deerfield family and community will mourn his passing at such a young age.

  • Steve Hebert

    As one of the more than 1000 friends, students, colleagues, parents who attended the memorial service on Sunday, I was moved to tears for much of the 3 hour service. Jamie Kapetyn affected people in a way only the special are capable of. His sincere gaze, the honesty in his eyes made him so easy to approach. My son lived in Field 2 as a freshman last year and had Mr. Kapetyn as a Dean this year. The total devastation and grief in Jeffrey’s voice last Tuesday evening after the school meeting is something no 16 year old should have to bear. Once again, the Deerfield Community showed why it’s recognized as one of the top schools in the nation. Students from all walks of life leaned on each other for strength and support. Faculty and Staff such as Jan Flaska assured students had the opportunity to grieve. Guylaine and I would like to join Jeffrey in offering our deepest condolences to the Kapetyn family. You continue to be in our thoughts and prayers.

  • Bess

    Like Steve LaPlante, I had the priviledge of having Mr. Kapteyn as a teacher at Williston eight years ago.

    Just now I was reading something that referenced Beloved by Toni Morrison, which we studied in Mr. Kapteyn’s class. I can’t tell you how often this happens: I read something or hear something that takes me back to that intense and enlightening class. Since his death when one of these reminders comes up, the memories come to me tinged with such sadness. Today was the first time, though, that I felt more grateful for having known him than grieved by his death. That is certainly a harder transition for those that were closer to him, but for the many of us in the outer circles of his rippling influence, perhaps we can smile more now when we think of him. Here’s a memory that helps: While waiting for instructions during a play rehearsal, he said to the other actors, “Have you heard this one? Yo mama’s so dumb, instead of sitting on the couch and watching the TV, she sits on the TV and watches the couch.” And then he cracks up before his stunned audience falls to pieces.

  • Xiu

    Dear all,

    I am a 18-year-old girl from China. I love Deerfield very much and I applied for DA this year. Now I was placed on the Wait List and I am going to get the answer from admission on June 15th.

    I crossed into this website while I was searching for Mr.kapteyn on the Internet today. I have a friend who is now studying at DA and from his blog I got to know the sad news. As I have not ever gone to DA, I did not know who is Mr. Kapteyn. But I love Deerfield and I prayed for Deerfield every night ever since I started to apply for Deerfield. I can even memory and recite every essay on the Deerfield viewbook which DA sent me. My friend mentioned Mr.Kapteyn ‘s two young daughters on his blog and I had a sudden feeling that it is Mr.Kapteyn who had an essay in DA’s viewbook. Then I searched on the internet, worried. wanted to know the truth. Then I crossed in to this website and saw this picture. It is Mr.Kapteyn. The picture was the one which in the viewbook.

    It is my honor for me to get to know Deerfield and read his essay in the book. Though Mr. Kapteyn would never know there is a Chinese girl who wished to go to DA had read his article for hundreds of times.

    Rest in peace.

  • Peter J Capuano

    I will never ever forget the wondefrul man who first hired me to teach English to young people (Cushing ’97). I am finishing my PhD at Virginia and in an interview with a large research university just today I responded with his name when asked to site the biggest influence on my teaching methodology. I talked about enthusiam, I talked about academic rigor, I talked about Jamie Kapteyn. He was an excellent fisherman who once looked up while we were fishing and asked me if I thought there was any place in the world where an airplane could not be heard. I’ve been to Alaska, Montana, and the deep woods of Maine and I’ve never once stepped into a river where I haven’t thought about his question. Norman Maclean has famously admitted that he is haunted by water. Having taught and fished alongside Jamie, I am simultaneously haunted and comforted by his presence. Like Tennyson, I find
    comfort in poetry: “”Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all” (In Memoriam AHH). Rest in peace without airplanes, my dear friend.

    Peter J. Capuano
    Department of English
    University of Virginia