Jefferson Crowther, known by most as Jeff and the father of Welles, the former Boston College student-turned 9/11 hero—“The Man in the Red Bandana”—died on Wednesday after a battle with prostate cancer, his wife Alison told The Rockland/Westchester Journal News. He was 73. He’s survived by Alison and their daughters, Honor Fagan, BC ’01 and Paige Charbonneau, BC ’06.
“Jeff was a wonderful human being who delighted all of us in the BC community whenever he was on campus,” University Spokesman Jack Dunn said in an email. “He endured the tragedy of losing his only son to the most horrific act of hate, and then the joy of seeing what a heroic inspiration he became to people from all over the world.
“Welles was a special person, in part, because he had such wonderful parents. We extend our condolences to Alison Crowther, and her daughters Honor and Paige.”
The Crowthers sent all three of their children to BC: Welles graduated in 1999, Honor in 2001, and Paige in 2006. Jeff grew up in White Plains, N.Y., earned a business degree at New York University, and served in the U.S. Navy, according to the Journal News. He was also a member of the American Legion Post 310 in Nyack, N.Y. He met Alison on a blind date on September 11, 1968.
Since Welles died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Jeff and Alison have shared Welles’ story—the Eagle saved at least 12 people from perishing in the World Trade Center’s South Tower—far and wide to teach as many people what Welles and the Crowther family stand for. At BC, the Crowther family impact was felt in numerous areas: Jeff returned to campus every fall for the Welles Remy Crowther Red Bandana 5k Run, which raises money for the Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust and the annual Red Bandana BC football game is now a University tradition.
Dan Ponsetto, the Welles R. Crowther director of the Volunteer and Learning Service Center (VLSC), explained that Jeff traditionally started each year’s edition of the 5k. Jeff’s only requirement was that he be given the runner number 19—the digits Welles wore during his time with BC lacrosse. It matched the tattoo that Jeff had of a red 19 over his own heart.
Ponsetto worked closely with Alison on beginning the 5k when he first stepped into his position, working closely with the entire Crowther family in the early years of the run—before students worked on setting up the particulars, it was the Crowthers who as a group, alongside Welles’ friends, took care of organizing the event.
Ponsetto got to know the Crowthers well from there—he noted that he never thought of Alison and Jeff as separate entities, but as one unit working to continue Welles’ legacy.
“They saw what Welles was doing in the last moments of his life … that’s what I think gave them the energy to do this,” Ponsetto said. “[BC] has been the beneficiaries of that: Here it is, enacted in heroic fashion what we claim that we’re about.”
Tom Rinaldi, who wrote the book on Welles’ story, The Red Bandana, and penned an ESPN feature segment depicting Crowther’s heroism said he’d remember Jeff for the tight-knit relationship he shared with his son.
“Any father hopes and prays that the son that he raises has values and a code to live by which might serve the world—to help in whatever measure—to make it a better place,” Rinaldi said. “That’s a pretty mighty hope for a parent. Jeff’s hope was realized in Welles and in a way that more and more people have come to learn and respect and appreciate. That respect and appreciation was crucial to Jeff in his healing—in a way to try to face the grief that was such a core part of him after his son died.”
Ponsetto echoed Rinaldi’s sentiment, explaining that what stood out to him the most was the connection Jeff had to Welles. The emotion Ponsetto witnessed Jeff experience whenever his son’s story was brought up as a part of his work stood out as a foundational part of Jeff’s identity.
Rinaldi also noted the importance of the BC football program to Jeff. Jamie DiLoreto worked closely with the Crowthers as the annual Red Bandana Football Game became a reality.
“Over the last decade our athletics department was fortunate to work closely with Jeff, Alison, Honor, and Paige and their families to organize our annual Red Bandanna Football game in honor of Welles Crowther,” DiLoreto said in an email to The Heights. “In meeting Jeff and Alison I realized quickly why Welles was such a special person. The Crowthers have provided me with some of my most special BC memories. I think many of our staff, students, alumni, and fans feel the same way.”
One of Ponsetto and Rinaldi’s fondest memories of Jeff is of his excitement and emotion in the locker room.
“You can question however much you wish with a lot of credibility what the value of a football game can be,” Rinaldi said. “But whoever saw Jeff and Alison in the locker room with [head coach] Steve Addazio and with those players after the victories in the Red Bandana Games … the value is incalculable, it’s immeasurable.
“What those moments meant to Jeff in particular were a fraction of light and life that struck him so deeply, just the happiness in his voice the enormous pride that he felt sharing the rarified air of a locker room in victory. I think he looked out at all those players and saw reflections of his son—vessels of Welles’ legacy.”
Upon hearing of his death, the BC football program put out a tweet memorializing Jeff.
“Our BC family has lost one of our own with the passing of Jefferson Crowther, father of Welles Crowther ’99,” the tweet says. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Alison and the entire Crowther family. RIP Mr. Crowther.”
Drew Gallagher, BC ’99, was friendly with Welles during their time at BC and got to know Jeff and Alison as he worked on producing the ESPN feature of Welles’ story. He remembered Jeff as a passionate person who wasn’t afraid to show emotion over the loss of his son but retained his sense of humor and pride despite the tragedy. Gallagher went even farther than Rinaldi: He said he believed Jeff saw Welles in every BC student he interacted with.
Gallagher referred to Jeff as “the ultimate BC dad,” living vicariously through his son’s time at BC and, after Welles’ death, living through the experiences of the multitudes of Eagles he’d meet at the Red Bandana 5k or other BC events. Gallagher recalled that Jeff took such joy recounting the story of Welles ice skating through the mods in his underwear or cracking jokes to students on the steps of Lyons Hall prior to the 5k, but throughout his life he could not tell Welles’ story without becoming extremely emotional about what his son meant to him.
To Gallagher, that’s what defined Jeff: He channeled his grief into positivity, taking the opportunity to show the world what Welles’ story meant.
“He was a guy that when you were around him, you knew you were around kindness and compassion,” Gallagher said. “His greatest joy in life was to tell people about his son.
“I could tell you Welles’ story, but when Jeff talked personally about what his son meant to him in the emotional way that only Jeff could, it resonated so strongly with people.”
Rinaldi said he’d always remember Jeff’s laugh and sense of humor, and that he’d always remember that the mention of his son’s name could bring Jeff to tears—his emotional range was what made Jeff stand out as someone with complete confidence and faith in his emotional compass.
Ponsetto recalled that the last time he saw Jeff at a football tailgate, even though he had been battling cancer for over a year, he still wasn’t complaining—in fact, he was just happy he was getting to spend another weekend on BC’s campus.
Rinaldi points to one section of his book as a glimpse into the relationship Welles and his father shared. On graduation day in 1999, Jeff needed to get Welles attention in order to snap a picture of his son in the sea of graduation caps. The only problem was that every parent surrounding Jeff Crowther in Alumni Stadium was screaming their child’s name for the same purpose.
Luckily, there is one noise Jeff had used Welles’ entire life that was sure to capture Welles’ attention: He made the noise of a siren.
“When the father signals, the sound cuts through all others like an arrow,” Rinaldi’s book said. “It pierces the din, dropping into the son’s ear: He hears and he turns back up to face the stands. He looks and then delivers the smile, aimed toward the sound, and at the father; and into the lens.”
Jeff’s pride for what Welles did was boundless, as he told NBC4 New York in 2016, but always colored by sadness.
“I was so filled with pride you can’t believe it,” Crowther said. “But of course, I would trade every bit of that pride to have him standing with us here right now. But I was so very proud of him and I knew that the world was looking at him. And the world was seeing what a fine young man he was.”
Welles followed Jeff to Empire Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 in Nyack to serve as a volunteer firefighter. Jeff was the one who first handed Welles a white pocket square and a red bandana—white for show and red for blowing your nose. The meaning ended up changing quite a bit. Jeff explained the importance of the red bandana during the ESPN feature through a Bible verse: John 15:13.
“‘No greater love than one hath to lay down his life for his fellow man,’” Crowther said. “It’s all here in this red bandana for me.”
Jeff will be buried in his fire suit, Alison told the Journal News, and Empire Hook and Ladder will hold a firematic service before his funeral. The family has asked that donations in his memory be made to the Welles Remy Crowther Charitable Trust, P.O. Box 780, Nyack, N.Y. 10960.
Featured Image Courtesy of Dan Ponsetto
Gallery Images Courtesy of Jaime DiLoreto