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John Mohan 1936-2003

Two weeks ago a professor of mine died. I regret not posting this earlier, I just have been busy. I wanted to post this though.
I'll paste what I wrote when I heard and the article from the school paper on him, which I think covers his life more completely than the funeral program does.
No lj-cuts.
Please read it, even if you didn't know him. Think about the great people you know and make sure to treasure the time you still have with them.

John Mohan was the best professor I ever had. Hands down.
First of all, he was brilliant. I felt like there was so much to learn from him.
I admired him greatly. I loved the way he thought. I loved his opinions. I don't think I'll ever forget what he said about Rush Limbaugh when he signed my major declaration form. Or what he said about Martin Luther King Jr. in class. He was so funny and so smart. He was great.
He was the sweetest man. He was so nice. That's what I loved most. He took time out when he saw I was feeling bad to ask me if I was ok. He sent me home when I needed it.

The last time I saw him. He told other students to wait and went to me and asked if I was all right.
I miss him so much.
I wanted to talk to him.
He was the best, most beautiful man.

It's so horrible.

I regret so much that the past week I skipped his class for the first time ever.
Not once, but twice.
I couldn't get caught up and didn't go.
I felt bad.
But I didn't know it was the time I could see him.
I'll never forgive myself.

How can I watch those fucking holiday inn express commercials about their cinnamon rolls without thinking of the funniest pun I heard him say?

Will I ever understand the Brothers Karamazov now?

I can't help sobbing.
It's so sad.
I miss him so much.

Grace Notes

Students, colleagues and family find art, home and challenge in the life of John Mohan
by Michael Andersen

News Editor

John Mohan learned about classical music from his father. James Mohan was a coal miner in Ashland, Pa., before the anthracite market collapsed in the wake of the Second World War. He was also a pianist, who would play for his family in the evenings.

John, born in 1936, never had a knack of his own for the piano, but he continued listening to other people’s music as he went to college and became an English teacher at a public high school in Baltimore. After learning Russian during a stint in the U.S. Army, he began to teach in that subject as well, and in 1973 he found a job in the two-person Russian department of Grinnell College.

For the next 29 years he taught a seminar on Tolstoy in the fall and on Dostoevsky in the spring. Everyone remembers the last day of Dostoevsky each year.

As accompaniment to Dostoevsky’s deeply optimistic epilogue to his final masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov, Mohan would play the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy.”

“He puts on the tape in silence, and the class sits completely still,” said Jamie Bourdon ’03, who was in the course last spring. “Save their tears.”

When he learned that the Grinnell Community Chorus was performing the Ninth Symphony at the end of this semester, Mohan showed up unexpectedly at rehearsal.

“I hadn’t known of his interest in Beethoven’s ninth, but he said he’d wanted to do it his whole life,” said John Rommereim, Music, who directs the chorus. “I don’t think he’d done a lot of singing in his life.”

“He had one note and he stuck to it,” said Andrew Greenlee ‘04, who stood beside Mohan in the chorus. “But he was probably the most enthusiastic person there.”

Mohan never got to make his choral debut. He died suddenly last Saturday evening of an unexpected heart attack.

“I was fortunate enough to have coffee with him on Friday after not seeing him for most of the semester,” said Lara Rosen ‘03, a former student of Mohan’s. “He had joined Community Chorus and he was going to perform the Ode to Joy, and it had been a lifelong dream of his. And he looked like a little kid when he was talking about it. He was so happy. It was great.”


Mohan was the first of his family to graduate from college, from Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland in 1958. After two years teaching English, Mohan worried that he might be drafted into military service, so he volunteered for a noncombative position. Though he’d never had great proficiency at foreign languages, he learned Russian in a year at the Army’s Defense Language Institute and was sent to Turkey for two years to listen to radio waves from across the Black Sea.

“He was a language specialist,” recalled his wife Joan. “I.e. a spy.”

Mohan returned to Baltimore in 1962 and resumed teaching, but began working summers at Middlebury College in Vermont to earn an M.A. in Russian area studies. He met Joan, another teacher in his district, in 1965, and they married a year later. The pair then found work as residential advisors at Cornell University, where Mohan began work on his doctorate.

It was a turbulent time at universities everywhere, with black students wielding rifles on the cover of Newsweek and FBI visits to the doors of Russian scholars. Mohan apparently got his name on a list by receiving grants to study at Moscow State University in 1969 and 1971-72 (the second time as a Fulbright scholar).

“I worked for a peace and religion outfit,” Joan said, “and when I called to get a parade permit in Ithaca … the FBI showed up. They didn’t want to talk about that, really; they wanted to talk to John about his time in Russia.”

Her husband, she said, asked the agents whether they didn’t have better things to do.

The couple came to Iowa because of the job. In 1973 a friend named Sheila Macarthy had just been accepted to fill one of two empty slots in Grinnell’s fledgling Russian department. Mohan learned of the other position, applied, and got it, and he and Macarthy spent 14years building the department together.

Ms. Mohan described the pair as “drinking buddies” and “soul mates.” Macarthy left Grinnell in 1987 when her husband found a job teaching elsewhere.

John arrived in Beth Holmgren ‘76’s sophomore year. The man whose position he filled had been widely loved, she remembered. “I was a little skeptical because I figured, ‘Who’s going to be able to top this guy?’ And John was great. He took a subject very seriously, but he did not take himself seriously. … There was sort of a twinkle in his eye, and he had a way of advancing the discussion, and we didn’t know what hit us until it was too late.”

Holmgren, who said Mohan inspired her to enter teaching and who is now the chair of the Russian department at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said he was always more spiritual counselor than academic mentor.

“We used to joke about how he should have been a priest,” she said. “But he really enjoyed being married and doing all the things that priests should not be doing.”

The Mohans’ two sons, John Paul and Joseph, were born in the years that followed. Though Joan said her husband was a devoted father, he was committed to his work at the college, teaching students, researching, and tracking down faculty for a growing department.

“He was gone a lot,” she said. “I remember once being near tears—it was February registration, and I was standing there at the back stairs with the baby on my hip … I said, ‘Well, I’ll see you in May.’ He said ‘Declare a Russian major. You’ll see me a lot.’ … School came first.”

Joan became an instructor at Grinnell’s reading lab in 1983. Meanwhile her husband was spending years as chair of his department—he spent 17 of his 29 years at Grinnell in the post—and hating the administrative work.

“He was much more into reading books, discussing them with students, talking to colleagues, discussing literature or teaching language,” said Anatoly Vishevsky, the current department chair and a 1994 recruit of Mohan’s. “He did not like paperwork.”

“He was extremely democratic in the way he ran the department,” said Todd Armstrong, Russian. “Though he had his own way … there was never a sense that he was in charge.”

“He never had much tolerance for power structures at all, actually,” laughed Kelly Herold, who, with Armstrong and Raquel Greene, makes up the rest of the four-member department. All were hired by Mohan.

This was to be Mohan’s last semester as a full-time faculty member, though he planned to continue teaching his popular literature seminars during retirement. Colleagues said he was looking forward to the freedom to focus on classes.

Classes, of course, were enough work in themselves. “He was just shocked at how much preparing he had to do,” Joan said. “Every Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday night I’d know the first thing he’d do when he came home. He’d go sit upstairs and he’d prepare.”

Strong lectures and discussions, however, bred strong and lasting relationships with students in a field that, at many U.S. colleges, struggled to attract students after the end of the Cold War.

“He would go to a conference and by the way tell us that he was going to meet with several alums from different years and they all knew that he was coming and they would be very happy to see him,” said Vishevsky. “I think it is due to his vision that the department is so popular with students. We have basically, to the best of our abilities, contributed to this vision.”

“He was just a real program-builder in a way that I don’t see the like of in the rest of the field,” said Holmgren, who saw Mohan regularly at Russian literature conferences.

“John was part of the reason Grinnell reached the level that it did in the early 80s, or whenever it became one of the top 20 or whatever,” said Armstrong. “And he often would say that rather than always striving to emulate our peers or to see what other people are doing, let’s not forget what we did to get here … paying attention to detail, caring about students.”

“He’s the most incredible professor I’ve ever had,” said Corinne Weible ’03.


“It’s impossible to differentiate between John Mohan as a professor and John Mohan as a human being,” said Rosen, “because I feel like any interaction that I had with him, whether it be social or academic, I learned something and I gained from it.”

“He helped me a lot freshman year,” said Angela Sparks ’04, whose first class session at Grinnell was Mohan’s tutorial Can Beauty Save the World? “I definitely kind of felt like he took me under his wing.”

“He had so many wings, though,” said Elizabeth Clark ‘04.5, another member of the class. “He never ran out.”

Mohan shared the joys in his life with those around him, said Rosen. “Every time we would meet, whether it be like for coffee or to talk about a paper, he would always bring up something that Joe had done or John Paul had done. It was really touching. … He was filled with an endless compassion that couldn’t help but rub off on you.”

“And moreover, it wasn’t the kind of compassion you run into inside a Hallmark card,” said Jim Edwards ’03. “It was a compassion founded on a painful knowledge of an absolutely liberating imperfection that plagues humanity. He loved humanity despite—or not despite, even, but maybe because of—its foibles.”

Mohan seemed to revel in a few foibles of his own, said students. Most notably in an apparently insatiable taste for the awful.

“‘You guys are like cinnamon’—pause pause—‘on a roll,’” said Rosen, imitating him. “And then he would look around the classroom all wide-eyed, and then be silent for a moment, and then just burst out into laughter and start slapping the table. Inevitably. I heard that joke probably ten times during my academic career here.”

Students did not seem to mind the unabashedness of Mohan’s pleasures.

“A lot of people that I know in my generation,” said Edwards, “are suffused with a sort of pervasive sense of ironic detachment which seems to equalize all things that they face in a kind of all-powerful, but simultaneously utterly powerless, critique. And John Mohan taught me that you can critique without negating—that you can critique in a very affirmative way, a life-affirming way. And that critique can be a joyful act. That obligation can be a joy.”

“I don’t want to say a challenge, but that’s kind of what it is,” said Jamie Bourdon. “When he left, there’s like a hole in the world, and it’s left to be filled by everyone that he touched. Even more than that, by everyone. Because I don’t know if that hole can be filled by one person. I’ve never met anyone other than him that could even begin to do that. … I know that sometime over the semester that I had him I knew that I had changed in some incomprehensible way and I couldn’t tell if it was where I was, or if it was Dostoevsky, or if it was John or if it was all three. But losing John on Saturday, I think I’ve come to realize that it was him. And it was the life that he put into me, and the life he put into Dostoevsky that I don’t think I could have gotten from somewhere else.”

“He believed in rebirth in a very Russian sense,” said Edwards. “Which is to say, this is not rebirth occurring out of some sort of eternally pastel-shaded plastic Easter basket. This is Russian rebirth. This is tempered with an extraordinarily deep sense of sorrow implicit to the human condition.”

Joan Mohan described her husband as “very spiritual, but not necessarily in an organized way.” The couple attended St. Mary’s Catholic Church regularly. Several years ago, Prof. Mohan read the Bible all the way through for the first time.

Mohan designed his last tutorial, Can Beauty Save the World?—a reversal of an assertion in The Brothers Karamazov—in 1997. The class explored some of Mohan’s favorite texts: Tolstoy, Boris Pasternak, Toni Morrison. He asked his students to consider the existence of beauty and the existence of evil and ugliness in the face of beauty. On the first and last days of the course, he asked his students to vote on whether or not they thought beauty could save the world.

But he prepared them.

“At the end of each class before that, he would show us a segment of a film or a piece of music that reflected beauty to him,” Clark said in an interview on Monday. “Like, one was the end of James Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ the movie of that. He showed us that. The snow was falling.

“Last night was really appropriate, I guess,” she said.

Other students thought of Mohan during Sunday’s odd spring weather as well. Bourdon said he stayed up almost all night at his window, watching the snow fall.

“I don’t want to say ‘go on,’ because I firmly believe that he’s not over, because he was so so much more than a man to me,” said Bourdon. “I never had coffee with him—I don’t even know if the way that he exists in my head is the way that any other person exists. To me he is a way of life, and since the end of last year, the end of his class, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to live it, and I think that perhaps … watching the snow yesterday I got it.”


Andrew Like-Slettuce

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