Professor emeritus of religion passes away June 25 at age 88
Presbyterian College’s long and storied history includes numerous people who embraced its Latin motto, Dum Vivimus Servimus – While We Live, We Serve.
But few championed it as thoroughly – or empowered others to serve as generously – as the Rev. Dr. Jack Presseau.
Presseau, professor emeritus of religion and the founder of PC’s Student Volunteer Services program, passed away Saturday, June 25, at 88. In his wake is a remarkable legacy of service to the college and community that continues to this day.
“Jack Presseau’s mark on the history of Presbyterian College is profoundly deep,” said PC president Dr. Matthew vandenBerg. “Myriad alumni, parents, and friends of PC acknowledge him as an essential figure in the course of their lives and for that alone we owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude. Jack lived and breathed ‘Dum Vivimus Servimus’ and will always inspire us to make the world a better place.”
Jack Presseau’s prodigious legacy will continue to be honored at PC. In 2021, an anonymous gift endowed the Jack and Jane Presseau Associate Chaplain for Student Volunteer Services. In turn, the Presseaus endowed a fund to support SVS programs in perpetuity.
More than 55 years ago, Presseau’s Christian education class answered a local pastor’s call to start a child outreach program – and SVS was born. Ever since, generations of Blue Hose have rolled up their sleeves, left campus, and worked to improve other people’s lives. They’ve tutored children, built houses, fed the hungry, and raised money and awareness for countless social causes – all owed to one man’s vision of faith combined with action.
“What we tried, basically, was to be Christian in our daily lives,” he once said. “I was brought up that way. I was taught that faith and deed go hand in hand – that we, as Christians, are to help those who are hurting most and to be a witness to what we believe.”
Presseau’s legendary enthusiasm for the church also inspired generations of future ministers and Christian educators. In 1999, the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators presented him with its Life Achievement Award for graduating 160 church educators and establishing SVS.
Throughout his tenure at PC and after retiring, Presseau spread the Gospel of Christ and the goodwill of PC by preaching in area churches.
Dr. Bob Bryant, PC’s Kristen Herrington Professor of Bible, called his friend and colleague a blessing to him and others and will be greatly missed.
“His Christian witness and visionary leadership shaped not only the lives of countless students and colleagues but advanced the life and ministry of Presbyterian College, too,” he said. “Indeed, he was a tireless champion of PC’s church-relatedness and the essential role our college plays in preparing students not only for lifelong Christian vocations in any walk of life but for nurturing students for ministries of leadership in the church.”
Bryant said Presseau not only created SVS and advanced PC’s Christian education program but also encouraged students to serve in missions worldwide.
“Jack has sown seeds of faithfulness that are going to keep bearing fruit for a long, long time to come,” Bryant said. “His dedication to Jesus Christ, the church, this college, and to the care of others in so many other contexts is everywhere apparent. He is and always will be for me a leading example of a Christ-centered life well-lived for others – of faithfulness working through love.”
As news of Presseau’s death emerged on social media, a deluge of love was returned – from family members, friends, former colleagues, and many students.
In a post to Facebook, the Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon ‘05 – who joins PC this summer as the Marianne and E.G. Lassiter Chaplain and Dean of Spiritual Life – took note of Presseau’s continued influence at PC.
“SVS was one of the strongest factors in my decision to attend PC, and it is now an important part of my ministry as I return to campus in a new role,” Wilcoxon wrote. “In the week leading up to my on-campus interview at the college this past spring, I reread his history of the SVS program, which serves as a wonderful summary of the college’s relationship with the church through the years.
“I give thanks for the opportunities I had to talk to Dr. Presseau in person about his memories and hopes for PC, as well as the impact of this program on the lifelong vocation of service for so many students and alumni. ‘While We Live, We Serve’!”
The Rev. Dr. Jeri Parris Perkins ’81 said Presseau profoundly influenced her life and call to ministry.
“Jack was one of the most brilliant professors I’ve ever met,” she said. “We used one of his books in class and it was a hard book for me to digest at first but once I did, I began to realize his profound and intricate understanding of grace and love. Many of us felt like we earned a master’s in Christian education studying under Jack.”
Perkins later served as the senior intern for SVS and was empowered by Presseau with the “cause and the tools” to continue PC’s long tradition of student volunteerism.
That same year, she said, Presseau also laid out an idea that would change her life for good.
“He told me that I could get a Ph.D. in Christian education and follow in his footsteps at PC,” Perkins said. “Nothing has blown me away as much as that statement from him. He let me see myself through his eyes and gave me confidence I didn’t have in myself.”
Perkins’ long career in parish ministry may not have led her to the classroom, but it did result in a return to her alma mater as dean of spiritual life, which undoubtedly made her mentor proud.
Outside of the classroom and the pulpit, Presseau was also a prolific author. In addition to numerous articles, he wrote I’m Saved, You’re Saved – Maybe and Teach-niques: Creative Designs for Teachers of Youth and Adults. In 2002, he wrote While We Live, We Serve: The Student Volunteer Service Movement of Presbyterian College, a 35-year history of the program he founded.
A native of Curtisville, Pa., Presseau earned degrees from Indiana State University of Pa., Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, and the University of Pittsburgh. In 1998, he retired as the Emma Bailey and the Rev. George H. Cornelson Professor Emeritus of Christian Religion after 33 years of service to PC.
He is survived by his beloved wife, Jane; his daughters, Dr. Susan Presseau ’77 and Cara Presseau; stepdaughter, Dr. Suzie Smith ’82; five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.