Leave Your Mark: A column by Cara Bailey, former Parthenon executive editor and friend of Jeff Kovatch


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Our Marshall community recently lost a professor, researcher, adviser, mentor and cheerleader when Jeff Kovatch passed away Nov. 5. Personally, I lost a dear friend.

Jeff, a biology professor, and his wife, psychology professor Paige Muellerleile, have lived in Huntington for just 10 years, yet their roots here run as deep as the trees Jeff helped to plant across our community. Their deep-rooted involvement is evident in the outpouring of support the community, Marshall and beyond, has expressed to the family over the last several weeks.

From “Respect the Beard” buttons distributed in the College of Science, to the river clean-up organized by graduate student Sarah Legg, to the beautiful “thank you” banner created by the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega, our university community has united over Jeff Kovatch. That unity will continue as more events are organized, like a fundraiser this Thursday at Black Sheep. Twenty percent of the day’s sales will go to the Kovatch/Muellerleile family.

Personally, and perhaps selfishly, I am thankful for the years our circle of friends shared with Jeff. Memories stretch from the softball field to the campgrounds to the snowy mountaintops across West Virginia. Jeff was a constant in our life.

He was the officiant at my husband’s and my wedding — a short, sweet ceremony we will never forget, and how could we? Not many officiants create their own wedding persona, but we were blessed by the presence of Rev. JJ, a Pantheist minister who rode his motorcycle to the ceremony and read a beautiful sonnet while wearing an old tie-dyed t-shirt and his lucky green chucks.

Such memories of Jeff go hand-in-hand with the lessons his life continues to bestow. Jeff taught in the classroom and the lab, the marsh and the river, but he also taught through his actions. Those life lessons have cycled through my mind for weeks, helping me come to peace with the passing of my friend. Here are a few ways we would all do better to live like Jeff:

Value people.

It was not unusual to find Jeff in a conversation with someone. In fact, a science colleague said, “It was easy to lose hours of my day in a conversation with Jeff Kovatch.” Jeff truly found value in every person he met and he remembered them, a trait I envy. Jeff had a penchant for connecting people who might not otherwise cross paths because he could see beneath the surface of a person.

Be charitable.

He also did his part to put his money where his mouth was. We would walk to the Memorial Student Center, where Jeff would pull out his wallet to buy a cupcake, a ticket or a bag of popcorn from a student group. We had several conversations where he would note that some people were less fortunate, and $5 or $20 would not make much of a difference in his life but could help someone else’s immensely. When you have a couple bucks in your pocket and you walk by a student organization selling something, ask yourself “What would Dr. Kovatch do?”

Be a part of your community.

Fourpole Creek Watershed Association. Dine and Discover. Alpha Phi Omega. Softball. Basketball. Girl Scouts. Motorcycles. Live music. Local arts. Jeff displayed a diverse area of interests and, usually with his family and his dog at his side, supported those interests in the Huntington community. He was not a bystander, but enthusiastically and fully invested in everything he did. That enthusiasm created a ripple effect, building a community that continues to support him.

Go outside.

Many of our memories involve Jeff and the outdoors. From recreation to research, Jeff enjoyed nature and the unpredictability that comes with it. Specifically, I recall a very soggy 2014 football season when Jeff insisted we all stay until the end of every game. Jeff was no fair-weather fan (or fair-weather friend).

Say “yes.”

During the memorial service honoring Jeff last Friday, one friend called Jeff the ultimate Yes Man. He was the first one to call if you wanted to go on an adventure, like driving on a gravel road through a tiny state forest in hunt of West Virginia’s best swiss cheese. He was also the first one to call if you needed help, like repairing your roof. He could do it all and he was happy to do it all.


I told someone recently that Jeff was one in a million, then corrected myself to say he was one in 7 billion. There is no one in this world who looked at life with the same curiosity, intensity and mindfulness as Jeff. Biology professor Frank Gilliam, a colleague of Jeff’s, wrote these words and shared them at Jeff’s memorial service: “One hears of people being larger than life. Jeff was not larger than life; he simply showed us that life could be lived larger than we could imagine.”

Leave this place better than you found it.

At the risk of sounding cliché, we, truly, are a better world because Jeff Kovatch was here. Maintain a clean watershed, help a friend, or make someone laugh, and, in doing so, you will honor Jeff.

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