One of my most interesting students was Jeff Landry, the one who threatened to kill me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was teaching anthropological theory at Bethel University—10 students, all in their early twenties. All except Jeff Landry who was in his early thirties.
The first day Jeff walked in, he took a seat in the back and slouched down in his chair with his motorcycle-booted feet splayed out in front of him. Hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. Black, disheveled hair hanging down over dark glasses. Looked as if he was running security for the mafia. Like a person whose anger boiled just below the surface. Intimidation behind dark glasses.
An older student often enlivens a class. Jeff was like this. He didn’t talk much, didn’t fraternize with the other students. But he asked questions, good questions. He showed himself a skeptic—never smiling as he offered humorless critiques of my ideas. And he had this strange interest in the motivation of serial killers. He said he wanted to do a sociology major, which we did not offer at the time. I advised him, “Take the sociocultural major and take lots of sociology classes.”
One day he told me, “Dr. Hurd, we’ve gotta talk about Postmodernism.” My heart sank. Not only did I not want to teach Postmodernism; I knew almost nothing about it. But I grudgingly prepped a lecture on the subject.
After he graduated, Jeff pursued a Ph.D. in sociology. His thesis topic: serial killers—their methods and motivations. Completely focused. Over the years, he would email me. I was puzzled why he kept up a correspondence with me, but I tried to give him helpful suggestions for his graduate studies.
He had some run-ins with his instructors and finally stalled when he had to write his Ph.D. thesis because he kept clashing with his thesis adviser.
I was sitting at my office computer late one night when I received a short email from him: “I can show you how to strangle a man with a piece of piano wire.”
My spine chilled. Jeff was like this—straight, direct, and he apparently still had this obsession with serial killers.
I emailed my colleague, Harley Schreck. He said he’d also received an email from Jeff Landry which read: “I can show you how to strangle James Hurd with a piano wire.”
I freaked, and called Bethel security. They told me to call the sheriff’s office.
The sheriff came out. I was surprised he did not seem panicked. Maybe people called in death threats every day, I thought. “Look,” he said, “contact Jeff and ask him to explain his email to you.” Then he disappeared out into the night.
But I was afraid to contact Jeff. I couldn’t concentrate on writing my lecture, so I gave up, and decided to head home. Walking out in the dark toward my car, I was looking to the left and right. How do you protect yourself against a vague threat, I wondered? I had considered asking security to accompany me, but reasoned that only women did that. I walked a little faster, trying to stay under the lights that illuminated the parking lot. I was relieved when I reached my car. I checked the back seat, checked under the car, then got in and drove home.
The next day I told Harley about the sheriff. He said, “Oh, Jim; I’m really sorry! Landry never sent me an email; it was a joke!” Harley was like that. Random jokes. He was really apologetic.
In later years, my study of Postmodernism transformed my thinking about theory and even about understanding the Bible. Jeff was the one who pushed me into it.
So, that was the day I survived Jeff Landry’s threat to kill me.