Dear John

There’s some irony here. So many letters have started with those words, “Dear John,” that it’s become a verb – to Dear John someone is to say goodbye, usually in the regard that the author is leaving the relationship.

In this case, far from the author doing the leaving, we are in the process of saying goodbye to my good friend John Morgan. I had the good fortune to be his neighbor for the past 23 years and enjoyed many a late evening discussing his Random Observations About This and That. If I have a regret, it’s that we never turned those observations into a blog. My three lunatic children knew him as something between an uncle and a bonus grandfather, and SOBUMD and I knew him as a great friend.

I got to spend some time with him in the days before he passed, and I asked him how he was doing. “I’m checking out,” he said. Since we’d talked about such things several times before, I simply replied, “Are you ready?”

“Oh, I’m more than ready.” After that, our conversation ranged from international travel to family to current events. Here, even in his last days, he went on to compare some of the present political animosities to the various contretemps between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. To hang out with John was always an education, and his students – official and otherwise – were always better for it. We shall miss his good cheer and friendly visage.

John’s family generously offered me the honor of speaking at his service yesterday, and with their kind permission I will post my remarks here:

Good afternoon.

What I shall miss most about John was his love for words and wordplay. He once called me out of the blue and asked me, “What do you call a brief ode concerning the harsh realities of life?” I replied that I didn’t know, and he said, “An Itty Bitty Ditty on the Shitty Nitty Gritty.”

You can take the professor out of the classroom, but you can’t take the professor out of the man. John used to assign me homework. I found this very interesting the first time it happened since (1) He was retired, (2) I knew him as my neighbor a few doors down, and (3) I had no recollection of enrolling in any classes.

None of that bothered John in the slightest. We had gotten into a discussion about insurance, and he said, “You’re the poet, write a poem about that.” I laughed – but a week later, I found myself compelled to write A Poem About Insurance and I presented it to him. About a week after that … he graded it. It was just who he was. I will note that this was not a one-off; this happened several times over the years.

Conversation with John was always fun, because he found things “interesting.” It was just who he was. He was fascinated by the little absurdities of life, he was alternately marvelously entertained and endlessly irritated by people in general, and he was steadfast in his defense of the rights of the individual – all individuals, even the ones who irritated him.

And now, if you’ll forgive me, I would like to hand in one final piece of homework, albeit late, using the title he assigned. I present An Itty Bitty Ditty on the Shitty Nitty Gritty:

From time immemorial, people have told stories of giants.
Through those handed-down stories, giants become real to us,
fee-fie-foe-fumming around in our subconscious minds,

and becoming part of our collective cultural experience.
As a storyteller, John kept many of those giants real for us,
Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and the like,

whether in the classroom or the living room,
John brought those hallowed dead back to vivid human life,
as looking-glasses for us to examine ourselves and our time.

While storybook giants are always with us,
it is in the nature of individual giants to pass into history,
and so become their own stories.

We, who had the good fortune to know him,
will now tell stories about John,
keeping him real for all of us

so that we can stand on his shoulders,
and stand up for the rights of our fellow people,
even the ones who irritate us.

Thank you.

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