By Elizabeth Shackelford
Sewanee students are familiar with the day-to-day, in-and-out McClurg rush, whether it be a quick snack or a good stint spent sitting with friends. Students have come to recognize the faces behind the glass, but a passing smile and superficial salutation are all the interactions ordinarily shared.
However, there is one noteworthy man in particular with a scrupulous eye for detail and an infectious enthusiasm in his greetings. Meet the man under the hat: Jack Nance.
Born in Sand Mountain, Alabama, Nance has lived in Sherwood for the past 40 years and has been a part of the Sewanee catering team for the past 24 years. His roots on the Cumberland Plateau area run deep, and he was proud to tell The Purple he met his wife of 40 years just up the road in Monteagle.
“I pulled up at her house; see, I’d been bouncing post to post since my folks died when I was 18, [and] she came running out to see me,” he explained. It was when he asked her to start a life with him that she afforded him the simple response, “Well, what do we have and where are we living?” Nance said, “You’re looking at it!” Everything he owned was in that car. The rest was history.
Nance found his way to Sewanee through an offer to drive trucks for the University’s catering business, assisting with events taking place on campus during December of 1995. “It was the energy of the place, the youth. I loved that feeling; I saw myself in some of the kids. It was then I saw a foundation of consistency that I needed at that time,” he said.
What many people are surprised to learn about Nance is his passion for music, a passion that includes both creating his own and being an avid listener of artists like James Taylor. Nance is a firm believer that music should always be used to spread a message.
“I write all of my songs to tell stories, so that people have something to hold on to,” he explained. Nance has had at least one local region radio station number one hit, which he wrote during the time of the Gulf War as a tribute to his nephew who had fought. Nance also has a CD complete with all original recordings.
When asked what, if anything, about the job made it truly satisfying, Nance described his own time as an undergraduate student: “I had a scholarship playing baseball at a two-year university. At first all I could think was, ‘Man, I’m free!’”
Soon after, he realized how foolish he was to take this for granted when he began to abuse his newfound liberty in life on his own. “I had an opportunity, a good opportunity, squandered by myself. It was just before I was supposed to pitch in the game against Vanderbilt. I had an offer to go back home for the weekend with some friends, so I took it. Seven of us left in my brother’s ’67 Ford Pinto that night.”
What they didn’t expect happened next: coming up the mountain the wrong way, a car collided with them head on. “It just about killed me. I was in the hospital for two months,” Nance said.
Upon being asked about this time in his life and his life now, Nance noted the sharp contrast of pace between his early years in Grundy County versus his life now. Nance shared that he used to run with a rough crowd, growing up as an adolescent around many persons of questionable character, and he learned to not fall prey to their influence.
“Too many close calls; it’s a wonder I’m here today. I’ve seen God working in my life. The interaction with the young people at Sewanee, seeing maybe it could be the place I could help somebody, some young person that could be starting down the road I started down for a time…makes my work worth it,” he said.
Nance’s mantra for his day-to-day interaction with the student body is this: “All you can do is sow and water, provide some positive energy. That’s what I know I can do.”
So, next time students find themselves in McClurg, they should tip their hats and offer positive energy to Nance and to all McClurg staff. Life is a two-way street, and it’s easy to make someone’s day by being friendly to those who work hard.