On September 11, 2014, this magazine lost its longtime editor, Jennifer Johnson Gilnett ’81, to a sudden illness. In the grief-filled days that followed, when I hardly knew what to do with myself, I found that the only way I could concentrate was to use the very skills she had taught me, even to edit and fact-check her obituary.
During a fact-checking phone call with Seattle Pacific University’s Human Resources Department, I learned that Jennifer’s personnel file showed she’d been hired as a full-time staff member even before she graduated from SPU in 1981. That information stuck with me. From the position of “typist,” she eventually rose to become Seattle Pacific’s director of University Communications, working here more than 30 years. When she was a student, her professors and her then-supervisor, John Glancy ’70, recognized her gifts, invested in her as a person and professional, and honored her abilities as a leader.
Just as SPU faculty and staff members had taught, encouraged, and mentored Jennifer, she cared for and mentored her staff members, including me. She always challenged us to do our best work, but she put people first. Though she was not a classroom teacher, she provided guidance and instruction for her employees that matched the intensive teaching and learning that happens in classrooms across campus.
As a magazine editor, Jennifer never shied away from tackling tough topics in Response — stem cell research, biblical illiteracy, or a faltering economy. Most recently, as the value of higher education has been called into question in national media, Jennifer believed we should tackle these questions head-on: Is a university education really worth the cost? What benefits do those who achieve it really gain? And how do we know whether Seattle Pacific is, in fact, producing graduates “of competence and character”?
In wanting to address those questions directly, I think Jennifer showed the strength of her own character — and she was a person of deep character, rooted in her Christian faith. That character showed itself in every thoughtfully worded email, every efficiently run meeting, every artfully composed article — the dozens of ways she lived out her faith serving others. Many of us in the University Communications office trusted her judgment so much that, when confronting any given challenge in the workplace, we’d ask ourselves, “WWJD?”: (What would Jennifer do?).
When we talk about the way Seattle Pacific students engage the culture and change the world, I think we mean that the value of a university education is never simply measured by the quantity of knowledge in a student’s head or the size of a paycheck. We measure value by what those graduates go and do in the world and how they do it, in actions big or small. Under her leadership, I felt the value of Jennifer’s SPU education every single day. My dream for SPU is that it would be a school that sends more people like Jennifer into the world.
Read a full version of Jennifer’s obituary and share your remembrances online.