Surprise gift among largest in FSU’s history

Submitted photo
James A. Jeffries in his winter home of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

FROSTBURG, Md. — When James A. Jeffries died on June 6 at age 91, he left one final surprise: a gift to the Frostburg State University Foundation of nearly $1.5 million, one of the largest gifts FSU has ever received.

“The FSU Foundation is honored and sincerely appreciative that Mr. Jeffries entrusted part of his legacy to us,” Kenneth Oldham, Jr., foundation president, said in a news release. “We look forward to putting these funds to great use in support of our beloved FSU, its faculty and its students.”

Jeffries was a private person who divided his time between traveling the world and his Frostburg hometown. Friends say he was a brilliant man, a globetrotter fluent in five languages who grew up and lived blocks from the university.

“For somebody who never finished high school, I’d put his mind up against any college-educated person’s,” said friend, Darlene Frye, with whom Jeffries worked decades before. “He taught himself four languages from old vinyl records.”

He ended his days no less privately or enigmatically than he had lived them. A brief death notice was all that was published. No service was held. He was laid to rest in his family’s burial plot.

And that’s precisely what Jeffries intended, at least according to his closest friends.

Frye, who was employed at FSU from 1981 to 1999, first met Jeffries when they worked for a Cumberland wholesale business that Jeffries’ uncle ran. They remained close friends even after Jeffries took to spending his winters and summers traveling the world. Each time Jeffries returned to town, Frye looked in on her reclusive friend, always marveling at his encyclopedic knowledge of world history and current events.

It was Frye who helped Jeffries handle the details. He named the FSU Foundation the beneficiary of an investment account 10 years ago, ensuring that his wishes to support the university would be carried through, said Jeff Kirk, another friend and Jeffries’ estate administrator.

“Jimmy had good intentions, but she made sure it happened,” Kirk said. “The only thing he said to me was that the university was getting a big chunk. He never told me any more than that, and Jimmy was one of those people — you didn’t ask him questions.”

Jeffries was a regular and generous supporter of WFWM, FSU’s public, NPR-affiliated radio station, but officials from the FSU Foundation had otherwise no contact with Jeffries.

“When we attempted to thank Mr. Jeffries for his gifts to WFWM, we never heard back. So it was therefore a complete surprise when we were informed of his estate gift,” said John Short, vice president for university advancement and executive director of the FSU Foundation.

That’s how he would have wanted it, according to those few close friends who understood how much he prized his privacy.