These Words Will Never Be Spoken Again. This Moment Will Never Happen Again. For Pepi.

I rarely write on this blog about my real, actual life. Regular readers probably think all I do is take photos of beautiful places and upload them with some kind of pithy commentary. I don’t really write about my actual life of being a teacher in Boston who also studies Applied Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Today I am going to write about my real, actual life because of a tragic loss I experienced. I found out that a man who had been my professor at the university died yesterday. His name was Pepi Leistyna and I’m going to use this blog to pay tribute this unique and interesting individual who I was privileged to have known.

In 2013, I returned to school to do as I called it “graduate school II.” I reluctantly returned to school, as graduate school one was a trying experience that I sought not to repeat. I thought graduate school II was going to absolutely ruin my life. I was set with my life and I didn’t want to add school on top of it.

So off I went to the school and went into a classroom and saw a man wearing pants that had a rope as a belt, a shirt that looked like it had been washed about 800 times and running shoes. As soon as I entered the classroom, he started talking about Pickles, George and Susan. Pickles and George were his cats and Susan I would soon find out was his wife who had died very suddenly and tragically about two years before I entered the program. He also uttered the words that I used as the blog title.

The class was called Theories and Practices of Language Teaching. Having been to graduate school before, I dutifully did the readings week in and week out until one day I came in and realized that Pepi hadn’t gone over them and was probably not going to go over them. Every week Pepi regaled us with stories about Susan. Susan was the center of his universe and she had died suddenly and rather tragically of an untreatable form of pancreatic cancer. Pepi was obviously still in mourning over her death.

In the midst of all of this, Pepi told us “write your paper.” WRITE YOUR PAPER. IF YOU START WRITING YOUR PAPER LATE, YOU WILL FAIL. He asked us to connect a theory to a teaching method and I had done a short paper on that topic. He hadn’t liked it and hadn’t graded it either. He just offered some random comments. It was supposed to be a section of the paper and he hadn’t liked it.

I went to his office hours and a completely different guy emerged. He had all sorts of music memorabilia in his office and pictures of the Grateful Dead. I happen to love the Dead, so we started talking about that. We got around to the paper and I asked him what to do. He told me write about the school I work in. In all of the years I had been in school, nobody had ever for one minute asked to write about anything that had anything to do with my life. In graduate school one, it was all of this stuff that was related to briefing your undersecretary of state. Suddenly, here was a forum where I could write about my own experiences and connect those with theories. I started reading the theories in the materials he had given us and it all started coming together. I wrote and wrote and wrote. There were moments when I hated the guy for making us write that much, but I did it. The paper ended up being 120 pages long with almost that amount of footnotes. I got an A on it too.

A year ago I took a class with Pepi called Cross Cultural Perspectives and I learned more in that class than I ever learned in any class with anyone. He continued to tell us stories about Susan. We heard about her engagement ring, grade point average, love of gummy bears and how she got starstruck meeting Ed Asner.

Pepi also provided some premium content in that class. A couple of quotes from that class:

1. What if I came in here wearing a dress?

2. There goes Pepi, that raving Marxist!!!

3. So what if I like to wear deodorant that smells that flowers.

4. If you came here to listen to my clothes, you have the wrong guy.

Again, there was another long, frustrating paper to write, seemingly thousands of pages to read. I sent Pepi a draft, which he rejected and said it was too descriptive and not at all analytical. I cried, I yelled. I went back to hating Pepi.

But as I worked on the paper, as I created the examples, my way of seeing the world changed. I saw order in chaos and reconsidered my views on just about everything. I realized how as a white person, I have a privilege in this world and also how our world is ruled by social class and most of all money. I started to look at representation in the world and who gets to say what about what. Most of all I started to see the world in a way that made a lot more sense than it had before. I accepted my own privilege in the world, but I could also, in turn recognize it in others and see how it affected my perception. In short, my view on the world changed.

I wrote a second paper for Pepi, received a second A.

In November I went to a party in the applied linguistics department at UMass. I saw Pepi for the first time after he had been my professor and he gave me a hug. We talked about Harvard football, skiing, the Providence Bruins and I realized I really wanted to build a friendship with this man after my schooling was over. Maybe I had found another mentor that could guide my career. It was a fun and engaging evening that I hoped to repeat again. We even took a cheesy selfie together.

Sadly, that turned out to be the final time I would see Pepi. An hour before I found out that he had died, I was trying to (unsuccessfully) convince my boss of an idea that Pepi had advocated. When I found out he had died, I was utterly shocked. I was in the middle of Downtown Crossing surrounded by police and fire trucks. It felt like something out of a movie. I was trying to call somebody, anybody to tell them what had happened. I spent the afternoon reeling from this piece of news.

Somehow (and I don’t know how this happened) today was the day that I volunteer in the soup kitchen. Pepi taught us to treat other people with dignity and frequently spoke about the people that society had forgotten about. I thought a lot about that tonight working at the soup kitchen. I guess it was fitting, almost poignant that this was the evening I was to do that. Maybe it was just a coincidence or maybe it was fate, but somehow I felt like I was doing something for Pepi, something he would be proud of.

Rest in peace, Pepi Leistyna. For a man who always felt left out and unloved, you left a legacy of admirers and people who will never forget about your ideas and passions in life.

A night at the soup kitchen. For Pepi:

boston paulist center supper club march 25 1

boston paulist center supper club march 25 2

boston paulist center supper club march 25 3

boston paulist center supper club march 25 4

25 Comments on “These Words Will Never Be Spoken Again. This Moment Will Never Happen Again. For Pepi.

  1. Well written. Thank you for expressing my sentiments about Pepi. His random verbosity always moved me. No matter what the subject. And his expectations of those loooong papers frustrated me. He certainly has left a mark.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I studied with Pepi too and graduated in 2009. He was brilliant. The world is a better place because of him.

  3. I was his student also, graduating in 2006. Thank you for writing this. He will truly be missed.

  4. I found your blog while searching for information about services for Pep. I am Susan’s best friend from childhood. It made me smile to hear that he still talked about her, George & Pickles! Years and years ago they had 2 others, Buddy & Charlie, who were their loves as well. Susan could never have cats when we were growing up, I think her mom was allergic, but I always shared mine with her. I’ll miss Pepi’s views of the world- we even argued about one of them at my wedding 10 years ago! Despite my profound sadness, I rejoice in the fact that Pepi & Susan are together again, forever. I hope some one wonderful has George and Pickles. Thanks for your writing….

    • Cheryl, I am Pepi’s older sister Tracy and though we never met, I heard many wonderful things about you. A highly spiritual friend of mine shared with me an image…. she saw a flame coming from above, and another joining it. They both rose together to eternity. She questioned who Susan is, not knowing who she was…just a name. It blew my mind. Knowing and believing that they are embracing once again…..Pepi’s service will be posted on his FB and mine soon. I hope you find peace in your heart….it takes time but we will all get there…..xo

      • Dear Tracy,
        With profund sadness I read just today on Pepi’s death.
        Pepi had written to me few years ago and we met on his visit to Israel three years ago. I must introduce myself: I am Sonia Leistyna, the daughter of Joachim Leistyna-the brother og Arthur! It was indeed very exciting to meet Pepi and I ment to meet with him again on my coming visit to N.Y in
        Sept. I am so sad and sorry it will never happen…. I would like to keep in touch with you, as we are relatives. Hope to have a note from you and wish we could meet sometime. Best regards, Sonia

      • Hi there, I am shocked and speechless. I was browsing the net and looked up Prof. Pepi Leistyna and am learning he had died.
        Whyyyyyyyyyy? How we???
        I was his student at UMASS/ Boston. I loved Pepi so very much, and still do. When did his wife, Susan, die??? 😢
        Can you please tell me what happened?????

  5. As I fight back tears, I thank you for writing this piece. I miss him already, and can sympathize with you.

    I met Pepi just last semester when I enrolled in his Cross-Cultural Perspectives class at UMB. I immediately loved his wisdom, passion, and wit that I saw in every class session. He and I became “email buddies” outside of class, occasionally sending each other positive messages of hope and inspiration. Half way through the semester when I suffered a tremendous loss in my life (similar to Pepi losing his Suzie), Pepi was incredible and offered me an extension on my final paper. He explained to me that sitting in class as my loved one was dying in a Hospice bed was NOT what was important in life, and that I should go be with her instead of at UMB in front of him. In the weeks following her death, Pepi frequently checked in with me after class or through email. God couldn’t have given me a more compassionate and understanding man during the hardest semester of my graduate school career. I thank Him immensely for putting Pepi in my life to bestow a vast amount of knowledge— course work and life lessons—on me when I needed it most. The world suffered a tremendous loss this week and academia doesn’t quite know yet what it is missing.

    I have comfort knowing that Pepi is finally reunited with his beloved Suzie. A few months ago he told me that he wasn’t afraid of death–in fact, he welcomed it–because then he would be back with the love of his life.

    I’ll never forget you, Pepi. You were one of the greats.

  6. I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts about Pepi in this blog. I grew up with Pepi and was also deeply saddened when I heard of his passing. He was always such a genuine, caring person who challenged all of us to dig deep inside and bare our true self. There are never easy answers, just true feelings and expressions hiding beneath the hard shell we build to protect us from their vulnerability. Pepi forced/welcomed us out of that shell to proudly display our humanity. Thank you Pepi for all you did and the wonderful imprint you left on this world.

    Dave, H.S. Class of 1981

  7. The description of you in Downtown Crossing just wanting to call someone, tell anyone what had happened and tell someone about the person that the world had just lost was perfect, and captured my feelings exactly. Thank you for this. Pepi’s life will continue on in the thousands of people he inspired, us included.

  8. This was so beautiful. I’m Susan’s cousin and though I only met Pepi a few times I know he filled Susan’s life with love. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a couple so connected since seeing them together. It’s comforting to know Susan and Pepi are finally reunited.

  9. I am also a former student of Pepi’s (2012). You depict him beautifully, and I share your same sentiment about wanting to call anyone I could reach in learning of his passing. I also share your same sentiment about his papers!

    While taking his Theories and Practices of Language Teaching course, I had the privilege of driving Pepi, each week after class, to a nearby hotel where he would stay because of a project/research he was working on for the APLING program. I saw Pepi in a different light during those short drives. As always, he spoke so lovingly of Susan, Pickles, and George, but in general conversation, he was so genuine, insightful, and caring, and never without an easy smile and hearty laugh.

    He allowed me also an extension on the paper for his Cross-Cultural Perspectives course and as I was finishing up (on about page 130!!), I emailed him saying, “Pepi, you’re killing me here!” So very sadly, I received word of Susan’s passing the very next morning. Needless to say, I felt horrible, not only by my choice of words in my message to him the night before, but that he had so sadly and suddenly lost the love of his life. May they both rest in eternal peace and in the arms of one another.

    God bless you and thank you, Pepi.

  10. Having never “blogged” before, this truly was a gift I encountered, sent to me this morning by a wonderful old friend….life is filled with mysterious moments leaving us to believe that things happen for a reason. So we continue on a path hoping to to encounter amazing moments that connect us to eachother in love and peace and appreciation for life itself. This was truly Pep……….

  11. Beautiful and eloquent. I knew Pepi well, back at Amherst Regional High in Amherst, MA. We all used to play our guitars and just hang out. He had an infectious smile and whenever you left after ‘hanging out’ with him, you were in a much better mood. I will miss you, my Friend. Danny Greenberg

  12. I worked with Pepi on RADICAL TEACHER, a journal that’s been around since the 70s, and we both joined the editorial collective of RT early in our academic careers. Though I didn’t know Pepi as well as I would have liked, I was able to speak with him at RT meetings about how much I appreciated his film CLASS DISMISSED and his contributions to RT, especially the long bibliographies he produced of media related to the topics of various issues. I’d even talked with him about trying to make a documentary about RT, as we both loved and appreciated the people who founded the journal and were proud to be involved with its history. I’m tearful now thinking of his untimely passing and that we’ll never get to work together on this project. He will be missed and remembered and celebrated by me and our RT comrades.

  13. I will never forget my summer course on Nantucket Island with Pepi. His zest for teaching paralleled his passion for life. I am so blessed that those weeks , in the classroom and on the islsnd with him and class members , will be one of those rare, endearing memories that will be forever vivid.

  14. I just got to know about Pepi’s death today and was really shocked. I was his student 20 years ago at UMass Boston. As an international student from Vietnam, I was often shy in class, but Pepi was the friendliest professor I’d ever known. He always wanted to chat with us and get to know more about us personally. I recall very well one night after class, I happened to see him at the T station. We got on the train had a very good conversation all the way home. He later wrote in my term paper that he enjoyed this talk. What a nice professor-always caring and encouraging!
    Rest in peace Pepi!

    • Dear Hiep Pham, I am Pepi’s brother Jeff. I live in Tam Ky Vietnam where I teach English. I just heard about my brother passing and I know nothing more other than the love shouted out by those who knew him and were lucky enough to be his students. I am writing you because I am more ‘Vietnamese’ now than american and feel very happy that he touched your life. On this year of the Goat I wish you happy new year and thank you for your kindness toward my brother. Jeff

      • Hi Jeffrey,
        Let me first express my condolences on the passing of your brother. He was a huge part of my graduate studies and one of the most interesting people I have ever met. Please pass my condolences onto your family from all of us in the Applied Linguistics program.

  15. I was very moved by your tribute to Pepi. I graduated from the Applied Linguistics program in 2004, and I ADORED him. Who wouldn’t? When people talk about “larger than life,” they’re talking about Pepi. That phrase was made for him. He was so hilarious and brilliant and engaging.

    I’ll never forget this story he would tell about social class. He was a lifeguard at a community pool one summer, and some of the patrons thought he was essentially a slave. “Pool boy! Get me a drink. Pool boy! I have some furniture that needs moving; can you do it after your shift ends?” Then he told them that he was studying to get his PhD, and suddenly they wanted to get *him* a drink.

    I’ll also never forget this extraordinary sound effect he would make when he was deciding where to take the class next. He would touch his cheek and make the sound of a drop of water falling into a pond. It was so crazy and wonderful.

    In about 2003, I got beat up by a couple of strangers on the Red Line while on my way to class. The first thing I did was go straight to Pepi. I told him what happened, and he gave me a big hug and let me cry in his office. He was the sort of person where you knew you could turn to him in a crisis. I have no lingering trauma from the assault, and I think it’s because Pepi instantly restored my faith in humanity.

    I was shocked to learn that Susan (“Suze,” as he called her in class) had passed away. How heartbreaking. It was clear that she was the light of his life.

    I don’t often teach these days, but when I do, I try to take my cues from Pepi. Be honest! Love your students! Love what you’re teaching! And don’t be afraid to be completely off the wall. This is what I got from this gentle, marvelous giant. I’m so grateful to have met him.

  16. Just an FYI—after searching almost daily for any type of memorial service for Pepi, I read last night that UMass Boston is hosting one this Friday 5/8/15 from 5-7 p.m. at the Campus Center in Ballroom A on the third floor. They are asking for an RSVP to this link if you plan on attending.

    https://www.facebook.com/events/906484996081544/

    To Pepi’s family—please forgive me if I am out of line spreading the word about this gathering. I just want any grieving former student of his (like myself) or local friend to be able to attend if they can. I’m hoping to find some closure with his untimely death.

  17. My name is jeffrey leistyna. I am Pepi’s brother.I have just returned from Vietnam for a special memorial at a small lake where Pep and me swam together so many summers ago. I am sitting in the Kitchen of Pep’s best friend Khris. Pickles is rubbing his head against my leg and I want to thank everyone for their wonderful, heartfelt tributes to Pep. When I heard Pep died I felt most of my life spirit leave my body. I cried for two days and pounded the walls of my tiny room with my fists. I begged God to let Pepi return to me for a much needed conversation, long over due. God did nothing and the worst part of this tragedy is that I will never get to have another epic back and forth with amazing and hilarious Pep. Thank you for sharing and listening

  18. I just found out about Pepi. I coordinated and led his New Year’s trip to Cuba. We are all in shock and I was searching on line for any thing, any news here that could connect me to him. I am very grateful this is what I found with responses that clearly resonate how much he was loved. May he rest in peace with his loving Suzie. – drea

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