passing friends

My daughter called to tell me that my friend Jay passed away. I had thought of him yesterday when i was looking at his old fly rod that he gave me the year before I moved from Blacksburg to Texas. That day on Claytor lake, I remember hooking his hat on a back cast. He took it all in stride and just said “elbow up.” We never caught much at Claytor, but he loved setting up his boat for the trip, bringing sardines in mustard sauce, cheese, and crackers. Those foggy mornings on the lake were cold and truthfully, not really fun, but it was the time with him that I did it for. I knew I’d learn something.

Our later trips to the new river were more exciting. I remember him telling me to put the paddle away at the front of the canoe, that were were going to go UP the rapids. This I’d never seen done and was a bit nervous. Jay would sit up tall and read the water, looking for the slackwater, and the zigzag path up through the rocks, he’d move the boat forwards, then sideways, then back a bit, then forwards, and before I knew it, we were upstream of the rapids. We’d go wade fishing then, working shorelines and structure, pulling little bass out and letting them go. I remember casting to an undercut, popping the bug once and seeing the water bulge up behind the lure. At that moment you hold your breath, waiting for the fish to smash the lure. But it kept coming, past the lure, headed for me! I was hip deep in water, standing on slippery rocks but must have done some fancy steppin to get away from whatever it was. Jay came over and with his calm voice said something like “you’re supposed to catch him, not have him catch you”…

Jay had always been the most passionate person about architecture that I’d met. He’d study a building in incredible detail, trying to learn what the architect and the builders had infused into the fabric of walls, roofs and especially cabinetry. He was a principled man, leaving a tenured university position because he didn’t agree with the emphasis on sports, and then spending every day in the year after in the library and visiting our offices. We’d have a lunch, i’d be amazed by the amount of habenero sause he’d put on his food. He told me once that it was the only way he could taste anything.

Jay was a lifelong smoker. He had tried everything to quit, but just couldn’t. During the summer he rode his motorcycle from Virginia to Texas to visit for a few days on his national tour he said he wasn’t feeling good, but after a few days rest, he put the leathers on (in 104 degrees!) and head on to see friends in Alabama I think. He was looking into retiring in little towns in Oregon, where the water was clean, the trout and salmon abundant, and people thought for themselves. I could see the excitement in his face as he talked about it. It was always great to see him excited, about a new tool, a water-jetted part for his motorcycle, or about his travel plans.

I was telling the one who holds my heart about Jay just this weekend, probably just as he was passing from this life to the next. She was amazed that he would travel by canoe, in the early years with his dog, but later, all by himself. Canoeing for almost two weeks in the wilderness, executing a plan that he had meticulously worked out for weeks during this time of year. He’d give me dates and locations where he thought he’d be, and leave a trip map with me in case I didn’t hear from him. Jay used to stay at the same motel in Eau Claire, Wisconsin that Dad and I stayed at, and then go for pie at the Norske Nook in Osseo. They knew him by name there, and would mention him when Dad and I checked in. He was memorable.

I’d guess that a few thousand students were lucky enough to pass through his studios at Virginia Tech. Many rankled at his high standards, but Jay was more of a coach than a studio master. He’d be there with the students late at night, showing them how to precisely draw the engine block he’d just cut in half, or how to model an off the grid house inspired by Thoreau.

Jay had thought he was ill when he came to see me, and i’m told when formally diagnosed that he refused treatment. Hospice looked after him that last week I’m told, and I’m sure his friends from the department were around him. I wish I had been there.

One never knows what those last days and minutes are truly like, or if our presence bedside is important. I think its a way we honor the person, respecting them to the end.

I’d like to bring his memory to my students, but i don’t think i could. I’ll try to coach them a bit harder though, help them a bit more. Its what he taught me.

I’m hoping his students remember him today. I know his friends are. My world’s a bit smaller now. But i’ll think of him when i throw a cast, or take the tools to the field.

We all have a few close friends in life, and usually they can be counted on both hands (Steve, Chuck, Frank, Marcel, Ward, Heiner, Bill, this means you). Jay was one of those for me. Make sure yours know what they mean to you. Life is shorter than we all think.

Send in a comment if you’d like me to post your memories about Jay, I’m happy to host them for you and his memory, he’d like to see more from all of us i’m sure.

27 Responses to “passing friends”

  1. Thomas Freeman says:

    Jay changed the way I looked at the world.

    The year I spent in his 2nd year studio after changing from Industrial Design to Architecture was unfortunately not enough time to really get to know the man. I did however grow to appreciate the depth in his simplicity. He was a man I respected. That year of studio served as my foundation of architecture.

    Our conversations in the breezeway between Cowgill and Burchard are moments I particularly remember. Between lectures I’d often strike up a conversation about something which, in hindsight, was of no significance. He would listen and occasionally take a break from his Malboro Red and say something with a hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth. Even less frequently he would laugh, a good laugh, a muted chuckle that came from deep within. The subject matter ranged from the modest house he’d designed for himself to election of some yahoo politician. Regardless of the topic I’d leave those conversations with a smile on my face trying to figure out the deeper meaning behind his words.

    J’s contempt of the world and the politics of the school was something I didn’t quite comprehend at the time. Now, years later, in today’s world of smartphones, GPS, conference calls, and tweets, when I look back on those conversations… I get it.

    Life should be simpler, it should be meaningful. It should be Towards a New Architecture.

    I’d like to take a wet stone grinder to the Hokie stone lining that breezeway, grind it down to one consistent uniform plane. It would be a simple, monolithic, multicolored patchwork of stones… a memorial to Jay Stoekel.

  2. Jen Magathan says:

    I had Jay as a professor for Second Year Studio in 2000. Jay pushed us so hard to make good work and expected nothing less than a star effort from each of his students. I found it difficult to meet these high expectations even though I worked tirelessly to try.

    At the end of the year he asked me to come into his office for a meeting, and asked me if architecture was what I really wanted to peruse. I thought “this guy is crazy, of course this is what I want to do”, and my stubborn 20 year old self walked out of his office livid and determined to graduate with a degree in Architecture from Virginia Tech, dispite Jay’s opinion. And I did in 2004.

    Fast forward 9 years and I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with an MFA in Graphic Design. It turns out Jay was right all along. I wasn’t meant to be an architect. However I did learn a few things from Jay that I still use today, in my practice as a graphic designer and professor. “Measure twice, cut once” and “One day a 1/16th of an inch will matter” (although for me it’s even smaller… points, picas, and pixels).

    I’ve caught myself many times telling my students these very same things, and expecting nothing less than a star effort from them. And every time I see those students rolling their eyes just like I did. But I hope someday they will feel the impact of the lessons I’ve passed along to them.

    I live in Boston now, and was driving past Walden Pond this Fall I found myself thinking about a project Jay had given us in that Second Year Studio. Design a house for Henry David Thoreau. It’s the only project I’ve been assigned in my 8 years of design education, that I’ve revisited (multiple times), even as a graphic designer. I think that says a lot about Jay.

    He was tough, and difficult to understand, but he was a great professor. I only knew him a short time, but his impact has been great in my life, education and career. I can look back now 12 years later and say I was lucky to have known him.

  3. Jay was one of my favorite Architecture professors and I feel very lucky to have studied with him. His unyielding standards for design and the world shaped so much of who I am. Thinking about it now, he may be the most influential person in my life to this point.

  4. Christopher Boyd says:

    I worked tirelessly in Jay’s first-year foundation studio on the bottom level of Cowgill in ’92. While most of my efforts earned only his cryptic hint of a smile or the slightly raised eyebrow of alarm, indicating I should put my head back down and explore other options, I eventually placed a winner before him in Room 100. He stopped, looked down at it, and told me that I had ruined things for myself — now that I had shown what I was capable of, I had to uphold that standard from then on. It was a rare gesture that I’m still proud to have earned, and the ‘A’ I received from him that semester put me head-over-heels with pride and is still proudly remembered as one of my greatest achievements, even 20 years later.

    He gave me many great bits of advice that still ring in my ears, but the one I hear him repeat most often he said during one of his late night visits to the studio as he showed me a much simpler way to notch the ends of about 100 wood dowels with my Xacto saw (probably saving me a trip to the emergency room in the meantime): “Work smart, not hard,” he said, and I still put it to good use in many different aspects of my day-to-day life.

    Jay commanded a great deal of respect and was the most highly revered and sought-after professor in Cowgill during my time there. I watched him tell some students they should change their major and leave architecture, but I also saw him practically beg one to stay after the student announced his intention to leave school and join Greenpeace. Jay recognized commitment, creativity, and passion in his students and knew how to bring it out. He could crush you or crown you with his words, but the way in which he did so was always fair, gentle, level-headed, and heartfelt. He took his responsibility, both to the profession and to the students, more seriously than any other teacher I ever knew. I have remembered Jay, and talked about Jay, and re-used and built upon many things I learned from Jay, since the first day that I met him, and I have no doubt that I will continue to do so for the rest of my life.

  5. Stella Dujnic says:

    Hi everybody,
    Your stories are really beautiful. I haven’t been able to sort through my thoughts about jay yet– I was also a student of his. For years I’ve wanted to collect the things he said just to have a source to refer to– the farther school recedes into the past, the fainter the memory becomes. I am hoping you will copy your stories into a forum I’ve created for this purpose– it’s at
    thank you so much for sharing your experiences

  6. Misti Moser says:

    Too young. Was hoping to talk to him at least one more time. So it goes.

  7. Jay was my professor for 4 years way back in the early Days at Florida. (1978) Jay and Jack Davis gave a much needed infusion of energy and passion to a moribund program.

    They were both nearly as young as we were. Since the drinking age was 18 at the time Jay was not only our professor, he was also our confident and drinking buddy.

    One story to this day displays the wit and humor of Jay:
    During a frequent evening at Cafe Gardens. Jay, Jack Mills and I got ripped pretty good and Jay proclaimed that we should go sailing. We trundled into Jay’s truck, hitched his sailboat and headed for the southern gulf coast. We added a giant jub of pickled pig’s feet and some cheap cigars. We hit Jack’s parent’s house in Fort Myers about 7:00 am. With throbbing
    heads we immediately became aware of our mistake. Jay was missing a faculty meeting, i was missing work and Jack was losing valuable time next to his girlfriend.

    We reversed course with Jack and Me in the cab. Jay sat in the boat, a dejected look on his face and the rigging flapping in the I95 breeze. He was dragging on a cigarette the entire way.

    Not our finest hour but certainly one of the more colorful. That was Jay for you. In one moment making a deep insightful statement. A moment later being more of college boy than we were.

    We “Florida Guys” have missed Jay for years. Now that loss is forever. Tight lines, Professor Stoeckel.

  8. Jonathan Frantz says:

    Jay was my first professional mentor, which says a lot because I’m not in architecture and left the profession in my freshman year. But they way he approached architecture as his passion I attempted to approach my chosen profession after leaving his. I thought that for many years, everyone at Tech should experience the tough environment of a studio class because it makes you better at everything else – but really, I wanted everyone to experience Jay’s class. Much like Henry Moore finds the sculpture within the stone, Jay found the human within the student.

    When I left architecture, he told me that I should try and be the best “whatever” I could be – to shoot for a Nobel if it was science I chose. It seemed very sage advice at the time, and I hope I haven’t let him down.

    I went back to see him occasionally, but one time stands out in particular. It was my senior year and I happened to come when he was lecturing his first-year students. He saw me standing outside the door, stopped his class, called me in, told me the floor was mine, and left. I saw him standing outside the door, grinning like it was only he on the inside joke, and watched me lecture the students. I have no idea what I spoke about, but I’m sure I wanted to push them harder since it was Jay’s class.

    I appreciate what the original post said – that his world is smaller now that Jay is gone. Mine too, but I can also thank Jay for making it so much larger to begin with.

  9. jd. glick says:

    Jay planted in my mind, beautiful and complex knots that – to this day – I continue to untie… slowly. slowly.

  10. Christian says:

    Jay was a drill sergeant, let’s be honest. He instilled and tested our dedication to iteration and refining the craft of design techniques.
    In the age of rhino and revit, he’s definitely a throwback, but the lessons were timeless.
    My favorite moment was more or less a rant, but a jovial one. I call it the ‘Dah-duh, Dah-duh, Dah-duh.’ He was speaking of the rhythm you find when you get into a zone and everything about the design unfolds, as if some higher power has taken control of your pencil.
    It’s a sublime feeling, and when that happens, I always think of Jay.

  11. Catherine Stoeckel Wohlberg says:

    jay’s wishes were that no memorial service be held. The greatest tribute to my brother is found on these pages.
    The dignity in death is found in the dignity of the life that preceded it.
    Thank you all.

  12. Marcia Feuerstein says:

    Jay was a wonderful colleague — I still remember his laugh, kindness, and support when I first arrived in Blacksburg. A heart of purity. He told me he was cold – I told him to wear a hat — he grinned…

  13. Marna McLendon says:

    Jay was my dear cousin, and I loved him. To read what you all have written is so wonderful, although I do remember a few choice comments he mentioned about his students! Clearly I see that Jay was, well, always Jay – the same Jay to all of us. I can just hear him say “you’re supposed to catch him, not have him catch you”…can’t you? And everyone knows his mild manner, the low, light chuckle, the “hint of a smile at the corner of his mouth,” the excitement, and how principled a man and professional and friend he was to all.
    My thanks to you as well.

  14. Tom Duke says:

    I believe I was a jr at the University of Florida in ’78 or ’79 and I remember the first time Jay walked into the studio. It was one of those EARLY morning 8 am design classes that nobody wanted to have. He came in about 8:15 and looked like he had just woke up. Disheveled hair, untucked wrinkled white shirt, blue jeans and flip flops. He had a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. I’m not sure we knew he was our professor until he walked up front and started talking about design. It was as though he was picking up in the middle of a conversation that we had been having at dinner the night before. Should we take notes? Will there be a quiz on this?? He told us to relax and started asking us questions. With every answer someone would give he would ask other questions that would make you question what you had just said. After about an hour he said, “okay we’ll see you tomorrow,” and walked out. I wasn’t sure if it was because he had run out of cigarettes or because he had simply told us all we needed to hear for the time being.

    As the semester went on he quickly became everyone’s favorite design instructor. Jay really had a passion for good design. His attitude and demeanor sort of personified ‘Howard Roark’ from The Fountainhead. He would go from desk to desk and critique each students work. If something were important enough or if he thought we weren’t getting it, he would stop and go up to the front and start “lecturing” us. One student had spent meticulous untold hours building a model and was arguing with Jay about the angle of the wall or the roof or something. Jay told him it wasn’t right but the student had insisted he had calculated it and therefore it had to be correct. Jay stopped and went up front and proceeded to explain how architecture was a visual art. He said “if it doesn’t LOOK right then it’s NOT right, not matter what it looked like on paper.” I loved it. I learned more about design from 3-4 months with Jay than most of my other time there combined. He was the main reason I went on to Va Tech for graduate school.

    It’s very rare that you have someone in your life who really inspires you to try and become better than what you think you can be. Jay was one of those people. He was special and I know he has touched untold lives and will be missed dearly.

  15. Peggy O'Neal says:

    Jay and I met in November 1970 when we were undergraduates at Tech. My student part-time job was working in the architecture library. Jay checked out a lot of books, rarely brought them back and I was always trying to convince him that I had no discretion to waive his overdue fines. I can vividly remember him in his oil-stained suede jacket which bore evidence of his constant efforts to rebuild one sports car or another or of his side-of-the-road motorcycle repairs.

    For most of that time, Jay was living in a cubicle/treehouse sort of thing that he had built in Cowgill Hall. He explained that he liked living in small spaces like the cubicle as it reminded him of how much he loved being on boats. I once went with him to the D.C. Boat Show and he tried to share his excitement about the event by giving me an in-depth lecture as to the nuance of boat design and what boats could teach us about the efficient use of space. “Why does anyone need a big house? Does a house have anything that you can’t find on a boat?” he puzzled. Jay’s efforts to educate me as to what constituted good design did not find fallow ground (I became a lawyer). However, I can see from what is written on these pages that he did find many souls who appreciated his understanding of design and his commitment to excellence.

    I heard from him from time to time over the following 30 years, even though several years might elapse between phone calls. In a marvelous coincidence that could never have been scripted, I was on sabbatical in Siena Italy in October 2001 and one evening I saw Jay drinking beer at a cafe at the top of Il Campo, the piazza. That our paths would cross in such an unexpected locale was delighful. He told me that he was there with a group of students from Riva, that Il Campo was the “best public space in the world” and that he had already spent several hours just watching how Il Campo was used by the locals. I joined him for a couple of hours of locals-watching. The next day we ran into each other again in Florence and finished our visit with another black coffee. I remember that Jay commented how much he enjoyed teaching but feared that his approach might now be out of favor as Tech was only interested in turning out ‘architects’ not good designers; it seemed a heart-felt lament.

    I last had contact with Jay about 18 months ago and thought that on one of my trips to Virginia we might arrange to have coffee again and I could catch up on his latest views, news and projects. I miss that I will not have that opportunity and I miss him.

  16. Charles McSorley says:

    I landed a spot in Jay’s 1st floor Cowgill studio for Second Year Foundations lab in the Fall of ’96 after gaining my entry to CAUS from summer lab. I got the last spot I recall, because there were not even enough desks and Jay had to track one down for me.

    Jay was gifted in planting kernels inside our heads that he hoped would flourish, even if he was not around to witness our growth . I recall him telling us that there should be people assigned to go around to building sites and tell them when they were finished, meaning there was a point where everything after was just a “tacked on” attempt and not necessary to the architecture. To no surprise, I find myself monitoring construction projects around my community and saying to myself and others of when they hit the point where they can stop. I think of him every time I reach for a new roll of trace, recalling “you should be going through at least one of those a week”.

    Jay embraced what Le Corbusier termed as “a patient search” in process and about an architecture that was “distilled” in practice, meaning so pure and powerful, nothing could be added nor taken away.

    Those kernels are still growing Jay. Thank you for placing them.

  17. Larry Cherney says:

    I’m one of the few who had the good fortune to have known Jay as a classmate. He was an inspiration even then. The most talented person in a talented class, IMO altho there are those who would disagree. Passion? He had no peer. Easily the most original thinker I’ve known.

  18. Emmett Thomas says:

    While working as a graduate assistant I met Jay at Va Tech.  He didn’t teach in any of my classes but he taught me about humanity through his choice of words and demeanor.  I recall his statuesque eyes  hovering over his students and the reverence they had for him.  A hush would rush over the studio when he entered as if their very own father had just walked into a PTA conference.  We often engaged in conversations about any number of subjects as if we had known each other for years.  At the time I thought that was a rarity between faculty and students. He was among the first to show me what was truly valuable in mentoring and forming  professional relationships through dialogue.  Just be yourself.  I will always regard Jay as both a friend and a scholar.  

    Sent from my Samsung Galaxy Note™, an AT&T LTE smartphone

  19. Catherine S. Wohlberg says:

    Today would have been jay’s 64th birthday. I miss him. Tomorrow is the anniversary of his death.

    What a loss …

    his sister

  20. Administrator says:

    I remember him often. Wish he was here.

  21. Mohammad Rajab says:

    I still think of him often….
    Slowly slowly….

  22. Norman W. Nesmith says:

    I just discovered Jay had passed. I had him in design studio at the University of Florida College of Architecture in 1978 and I would have to say he was the most inspirational instructor I had at UF. He always had a can of coke in one hand and a cigarette in other hand. He came into the studio in Flint Hall late one night and sat at a drawing board and stared at a parallel bar while students slowly gathered around him. After a few minutes as we waited for him to speak he began slowly moving the bar up and down listening to the roller wheels as they moved. Then he looked up and staring at us said “Do you realize the immense power you will hold in your hands when you are an Architect? Do you realize the lives you will effect down through generations by what you design?” Then we just stood there thinking and he got up and walked out to go home. He made us think at so many levels. I am truly sorry to hear of his passing because I had hoped there would be someway I could see him again one day but I guess that will not be the case now.

  23. Mark Wilson says:

    I was so sorry to just learn about Jay’s death. He was definitely one of the best professor’s I had in Gainesville, if not the best. I was so glad I was able to see him a few years ago in Blacksburg, after moving back to VA. In many ways it was if no time had passed. I was glad I was able to thank him for having such a positive impact on my “thinking” as an architect. We didn’t do much reminiscing, but spoke like old friends … at least I like to think of it that way. I was clearly not one of his best students, but felt the benefit of his teaching showed itself as the years passed. I like to believe he planted good seeds in good soil. He is sorely missed! As Emmett said, Jay was interested in students discovering who they were and making the contribution they could. A great mentor!

  24. Administrator says:

    Very well said!

  25. Vishakha says:

    I’m so sad to be hearing this news just today. Couple years after the fact. I’m terribly sad. Jay was my first professor at Virginia Tech back in 1992. Yes, studio with Jay wasn’t easy, & wasn’t for the fainthearted, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Jay taught me so much about architecture & design & more… a perspective of the world. I cannot really express it in words except that I consider myself very lucky to have studied with Jay. Rest in Peace. xo

  26. Garrett Stone says:

    Happy birthday Jay. I think of you often. Thank you everyone for your memories. They help to preserve the image of Jay in my mind.

  27. Charles Collins says:

    I had the honor of going on a semester abroad to the VT CESA residence in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland with Jay as the professor hosting our trip and running the design studio (fall 2001). His reputation was of a tough professor, one of the few that had the conviction to really tell students how they were doing and honestly identify areas for improvement. During the trip I found that, beyond the tough exterior, he was also a compassionate and caring professor that was dedicating all of his energy and pas to help us achieve excellence. He embodied the Goethe quote that he mentioned in one talk, providing guidance for our design work in the studio: “Do not hurry, Do not Rest.” I think he said it “Never Hurry, Never Rest” and that has stuck with over the past 13 years since, as life has presented its various projects and challenges. Jay had a way of indirectly making me conscious of the baggage I was carrying that was holding me back from achieving excellence in my sketching, my design work, and my life. His theory of architecture extended to a way of being and living. Above all there seemed to be a humility to the greatness of architecture and place, and an awareness of our shortcomings as humans that drove a constant search for self improvement. Maybe I am postulating 13 years later through the fog of the years, but upon seeing this blog for the first time today I was filled with a deep sadness for the passing of Jay, who had an out-sized influence on my architectural studies despite the brief semester I spent with him. If only I could go back there knowing what I know today, to have the chance to learn from him again, having been humbled myself by the vastness of the years. Good bye Jay, thank you for everything.

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