On April 3, 2023, our Drake community lost the kind, creative soul that was Professor John Graham. He taught in the Theatre Department, and I knew him as one of the leaders of the Theatre History J-term that I took in London this past January.
When I heard JG had passed away, I felt confused and sad. I only knew him for a total of three months – I had thought our friendship was just beginning. Feeling as sad as I did, having only known him a short time, my heart goes out to those who felt his loss most deeply, including his family, friends and the students who worked with him on a daily basis.
Although I’m nowhere near qualified to write about his life, JG’s impact on my life was too important for me not to share. His memory deserves to be celebrated and cherished, and that is my goal in writing this editorial.
I first met JG on Jan. 3, 2023. He was the founder and co-leader of my study abroad J-term in London, which centered around theater and theater history. He explained to our group that he’d been battling health and breathing issues for a long time, so he might have to take breaks from time to time while abroad.
My friend Amber, a theatre major who was also going on the London trip, had already told me about his health concerns. She’d had JG as a teacher but had also recently been cast in his play called “The Bacchae,” which he’d be directing during the month of March. She’d told me she was really happy that John was healthy enough to travel to London after the many struggles he’d faced over the past couple of years.
Because I wasn’t a theatre major, I didn’t expect I’d interact much with John on a personal level during the trip. From all our introductory meetings, I could tell he was very knowledgeable and passionate about theater and the arts. I, on the other hand, knew absolutely nothing about theater. I figured he would likely prefer to hang out with the theater majors, who actually knew what they were talking about.
He proved me wrong on the very first day of our trip.
Our group had been given a few hours of exploration time in Covent Garden, a beautiful area of London with lots of shops and restaurants. Amber and I spun in a circle, picked a random direction and started walking.
The longer we walked, the hungrier we got. We didn’t know where to go or eat…until we bumped into John and he asked if he could join us for lunch.
I figured he was just being nice, realizing we were hangry and lost. I appreciated the gesture and we were quick to take him up on his offer.
He took us to a Greene King pub, which turned out to be a popular restaurant chain in the London area. At some point early in our conversation, JG mentioned he was originally from California.
Naturally, Amber and I wanted to know how he got from beautiful California to…somewhat beautiful Des Moines, Iowa.
He then told us the Spark Notes version of his life story. From his early childhood adventures traveling by himself so he could act in theater productions to his run-ins with the law as a political activist in his early adulthood…this man lived one of the most interesting lives we’d ever heard of.
My favorite part of the story was when he talked about meeting his wife. He told us that from the first moment he saw her – standing with a beer in her hand at a party – he knew she was the love of his life.
I remember telling Amber later that if my future husband didn’t talk about me the way John talked about his wife, I would simply return him.
From that day on, JG became a regular character in our London adventures. One day, he overheard Amber and I discussing plans to go get tattoos as our souvenirs. He told us he’d love to tag along and get one for himself – we found this hilarious, but of course, we were stoked to get tattoos with our professor.
Amber and I’s tattoos were little and kind of silly. John’s was beautiful.
He got two of his favorite theater quotes tattooed in a spiral up his arm, each one in a different font. His plan was to start with the two and get a new quote added every year when he returned to London on the J-term.
Looking back, I wished I’d asked him to share what other quotes he would’ve wanted to get. I’m sad his full vision was never completed, but his initial tattoo turned out absolutely beautiful, just the way it was.
I remember when he volunteered to wake up early with me on our free Sunday morning to walk me to a church so I could worship. Despite the fact he was not Christian, he never complained one time about having to attend Mass with me. He seemed excited about it, even.
Eerily enough, I remember having a conversation with him the whole walk there about our thoughts on death and the afterlife. He was intrigued by my perspectives, despite the fact they were different from his own.
I remember him sitting across from me and Amber on the Tube one day, telling us that boys “weren’t shit.” He warned us not to take boys too seriously until they grew up a little bit and actually deserved our care and attention. I couldn’t have agreed more.
I remember sitting next to him at the Minneapolis airport as we waited for our connecting flight back to Des Moines. I asked him if he was sad the trip was over. He said, “You know what? I really miss my wife.”
The last time I talked to JG was in mid-March. I had popped into one of Amber’s “Bacchae” rehearsals just to say hello. I’d heard he was on an oxygen tank to help him breathe, and I wanted him to know I was thinking about him.
Despite the fact he was probably exhausted, he couldn’t have been more chipper to talk to me. We caught up a little bit, and as I left I told him that I couldn’t wait to see his play. It makes me sad to think that he wasn’t able to see his masterpiece completed, but I know he’d have been so proud to see the way his students made his script come to life.
All in all, I remember JG as being one of the most “present” people I’d ever met. He lived in the moment, and lived for the people he was in the moment with. He was a master at connection – at making people feel cared about and seen.
Though his life on Earth was much too short, I hope his loved ones can take comfort in the fact that his impact will live on through students like myself and all those who were inspired by him in his time as a teacher. Rest in peace, JG.