‘I will carry him in my heart forever’

By LauraNalin

A Columbia photography student was found dead on March 2 in the Little Calumet River at 126th Street and Stony Island Avenue. The body was identified by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office as 20-year-old Jay Polhill, of Lena, Ill.

Polhill was last seen outside of his University Center dormitory, 525 S. State St., on Feb. 28. As of press time the cause of death had not yet been released, according to The Chicago Police Department’s Office of News Affairs.

A statement was released March 4 by Columbia President Warrick L. Carter, in which he formally announced the death and expressed sincere regrets on behalf of the college.

“Regrettably, the news has reported that the body of our missing student, Jay Polhill, a photography major, has been found,” the statement read. “We are deeply saddened by this tragic loss, and our thoughts and prayers as a community are with Jay’s family and friends. Jay was a hard-working student and his instructors and fellow students enjoyed having him in class. He will be greatly missed by the faculty, staff and students whose lives he touched.  As we focus on our students who have just lost a friend, we will continue to work with the Chicago Police Department and let them speak, as appropriate, to the investigation into Jay’s death. Our entire community is saddened and affected by his passing. Let’s pull together as the Columbia College Chicago community and support his family and all others who need support because of this shocking loss.”

Polhill’s girlfriend, Tiana Sakona, remembers him as being a gentle and caring individual.

“Jay was one of the most endearing people I’ve ever known,” Sakona said. “He was so kind and gentle, but also had a fire, an energy, and love for life that affected everyone he was around.  His comical, easy going personality was contagious.  He was a rare human being with a unique way of viewing the world.  The striking insights in his beautiful photographs showed you an unexpected perspective, even when they depicted common objects.

Though he didn’t always show it easily, Jay deeply loved his family, friends and his art.”

Sakona added that Polhill had an innate ability to make his way into people’s hearts.

“Even when we were frustrated with each other, he would look at me, and I would melt,” Sakona said. “My heart breaks to think of all he will never get to do, and how much the world has lost both a special person and brilliant artist in his leaving us.  I will carry him in my heart forever.”

A tribute was held last Friday afternoon on March 5 in memory of Polhill in the Quincy Wong Center for Artistic Expression of the Wabash Campus Building, 623. S. Wabash Ave., from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Students, faculty and loved ones who attended were given the chance to write their memories on small canvases, cards as well as share their favorite stories of their relationship with Polhill.

Flowers lined the stage as a slideshow of Polhill’s artwork was displayed on a large projector screen and Mark Kelly, vice president of student affairs, welcomed the guests.

“I did not know Jay personally, but in the last several days I’ve had the opportunity to speak to students, faculty and staff and I’ve come to realize what a beloved character Jay was,” Kelly said. “All of the work behind me is Jay’s work, and it speaks to this very talented, committed artist and photographer who was clearly a man that was charming, personable and brought smiles to everyone around him. So we are gathered today to remember him and also to remind ourselves of our values as part of this community.”

Kelly added that Polhill’s mother, Jane, wanted the students, faculty and staff to know what an impact they made on his life.

“Columbia College was the greatest thing that ever happened to this young man,” Jane Polhill said. “This college, you the students, you the faculty and staff took his gifts and turned them into gold. Jay was happy, thrilled and I never heard anything but, ‘Mom, I’ve found my home.’”

Tiana Sakona’s mother remembered Polhill for being one of the greatest people to enter her daughter’s life.

“Meeting Jay for me was like meeting one of those big boisterous puppies. He entered a room with waggy tail and enthusiasm and excitement and yet there was such a gentle, sweet and kind side to him,” Sakona said. “I can still remember getting a phone call from Tiana saying, ‘Mom, I’m in love.’ I can hear her voice and her beginning to tell me about him and telling me all wonderful things about him—that he made her laugh and he made her relax, and though Tiana is passionate and loving, she had a lot of walls around her heart and Jay took those walls down.”

Sakona added that Tiana told her that Polhill made her feel like a better person.

“Most of all, she said his arms felt like home, and listening to a lot of you up here, I think for a lot of you Jay made you feel like home too.  It was one of his gifts.”

Childhood friend Andrew Frits, sophomore biology student at Rock Valley College, said Polhill was one of the funniest guys in his group of friends.

“He had such a sharp comedic wit,” Frits said. “He would just say the wittiest stuff all the time. He could make anyone laugh; he was really the comedic relief in the group. If you ever needed to laugh or if anything got real serious, he was there to put in his two cents and it wasalways hilarious.”

Frits remembered a conversation that he had with Polhill about his studies at Columbia.

“I asked him how school was,” Frits said. “I was like, ‘How’s your major?’ and he said, ‘Man, seriously, I love it.

This is my dream and my parents are backing me through it. They are all behind my academic goals’ and I just thought that was great. It was the most serious I’ve ever seen Jay. Photography was his passion.”

Zanna Pearman, sophomore film student at Columbia, remembers Polhill as having a magnetic personality.

“He was just really friendly,” Pearman said. “Everyone that met him definitely liked him right away. A lot of people have come up to me and have been like, ‘Oh yeah, I met him and he was really awesome,’ and they had only

met him once, but he had made an impact on them.”

Pearman, who met Polhill while living in the University Center last year, said she and her friends are supporting each other by remembering his cheerful personality.

“He was always joking around and always trying to lighten the mood, so we’re all trying to joke around and remember funny things he would say and just think of what he would say if he was here,” Pearman said.

Chicago-based band, The Ivorys, will be playing a show at the Metro, 3730 N. Clark St., on March 26 in remembrance of Polhill.

“The whole night will be a memorial to him,” Pearman said. “People are going to be reading some stuff and there will  be pictures of him, so that’s being planned out, but that would be a really cool thing for people to go to.”

Andrew Bockelman, freshman music composition major, said something about Polhill “just made you happy.” He recalled within the first few weeks of school that Polhill told him Pokemon Snap, a video game, inspired him to pursue photography.

“Words can’t describe how fun he was,” Bockelman said. “The only way to truly know his great charisma would be to meet him and experience it yourself. I can’t remember a sad face at anytime when I was with him.”

Services for Polhill will be held March 12 in his hometown of Lena, Ill.  The wake will be held from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. with a service following at 7 p.m.  Polhill’s parents will provide a bus for students who wish to attend the services, and will leave at noon from the South Loop area.

There is a Facebook group titled “A Bus for Jay” and is available for those interested in bus services.

The college has several resources, including grief counselors, available to assist students, faculty and staff.  The college has asked The Chronicle to make the students aware of their options and to ensure that the students and other members of the college community are aware of the following resources available to those who may need them:

Residence Life and Counseling staff will make wellness checks on all campus residents.

Counseling Services are available for walk-in assistance at the Counseling Center (731 S. Plymouth Court., 312-369-8700; no appointment necessary).

Student Relations staff will be available today at the UCC (Residence Life, 2nd floor) for any student who needs assistance.

Parent inquiries should be directed to Beverly Anderson, assistant dean of student health and support (312-369-8593).

All media or other inquiries should be directed to Diane Doyne (312-369-7524) or Steve Kauffman (312-369-7383) in Media Relations.

Faculty and staff may contact the Employee Assistance Program at 866-757-3271.