I’m sure you have heard about John Graham (sometimes known by his nickname ‘JG’) at this point. He was a theatre-acting professor and head of the Bachelor of Fine Arts acting program, working at Drake since 2011. He died last semester.
You may already know about the university’s disrespectful nature surrounding JG’s passing, but the theatre department is not innocent either. I believe all sides of the story should be told.
Let me show you the timeline of events as I, a theater student, experienced them, using my email receipts for accurate times and representation. Then, you can decide for yourself if this was handled respectfully.
Prior to JG’s death: JG’s reputation within the department
JG was kooky, odd, spontaneous, emotional, passionate and sporadic, and he didn’t take shit from no one. He didn’t play favorites, often went on tangents when teaching and usually had a point that you would only get at the end. He hated the system, or in his own words: “f*ck the system.” He held a special place in the hearts of students that were too kooky to fit in with the rest of the department.
Yet, no one is liked by everyone. Here are reasons I’ve heard firsthand why he was disliked by others: that he didn’t know what he was doing, that his expectations were too high or that it was ridiculous that he held class via Zoom so much or canceled class (because he was sick).
The theatre department emphasizes that they care about students, the students care about each other and mental/physical health is important. And yet, when a professor with a weakened immune system cancels class or moves the class to Zoom, then suddenly no more empathy.
This does not apply to all the students and staff within the theatre department, or imply that this is true for the theatre department as a whole. But, this subset is enough that it should be mentioned.
April 4, 2023
9:59 a.m.: “The department faculty invite you to a department-wide meeting today, at 5PM, in the Coleman Studio Theatre. Please do make an effort to attend.”
I couldn’t go, but I received a call from a close friend in the theatre department who attended the meeting. It was only because of them that I knew the meeting was the announcement of JG’s death.
No email from the department followed making the announcement to those who couldn’t attend, and no individual theater professors sent emails on the topic and on how to proceed with classes the rest of the week.
By 9:41 p.m., I emailed the professor that had taken over JG’s class that me and another student from that class would not be attending to give time to grieve. We received no response.
April 5, 2023
Still no department-wide email announcing JG’s death. Still nothing from the professors. Later, I received a Blackboard announcement for the class, that was previously JG’s, that said “Luckily, we had one wiggle-room day,” since I wasn’t there (because I was grieving). It also said to “take care of yourselves.”
I emailed the rest of my professors that I would not be attending class to give myself time to grieve. I again received no response.
12:23 p.m.: I emailed the Fine Arts Coordinator about my frustration that there had been no communication. No response, yet.
12:52 p.m.: A department-wide email was sent out announcing JG’s death including a link to the Counseling Center for those who might need it.
2:47 p.m.: I called the Counseling Center. When I informed the woman who answered my call that a professor had died and I would like to make an appointment, she was shocked. She said that the Counseling Center is supposed to be informed when a professor dies so they can reach out and provide their services.
3:15 p.m.: I emailed the director of the Counseling Center about the situation.
3:20 p.m.: I emailed the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to express my grievances about the lack of communication and the lack of resources and support provided to students who may need it upon hearing the news.
3:26 p.m.: I received an email response from the Fine Arts Coordinator. It was a thoughtful and genuine apology for the lack of communication and an explanation for it, along with further communication about the situation. (President Marty Martin, I can forward the email to you if you would like to take notes.)
3:54 p.m.: I received an email from the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, apologizing for my experience thus far and informing me that group therapy sessions were being set up. Classes were not being canceled because they didn’t want people to feel alone, but I should contact my professors if I need time off to grieve.Plans to celebrate JG’s life were in the works.
4:04 p.m.: I received an email from the director of the Counseling Center thanking me for bringing this to their attention and informing me of the therapy group session times. They said they would contact professors to give students an excused absence if the time conflicted with a class.
7:10 p.m.: A department-wide email was sent out that sympathized with the frustration of lack of communication so far, provided the information for the therapy group sessions the following day and excusing everyone from classes that conflicted if they wished to attend, provided other support resources, gave the link to JG’s obituary (in which it stated that memorial contributions should be made to Planned Parenthood — which is perfect for JG and what he stood for) and informed that there are talks of how to celebrate JG’s life.
April 6, 2023
12:35 p.m.: I emailed a theatre professor that I would not be attending class the following day to continue to grieve. This time, I got a response. We would reschedule the performance I was to do, but I would not be excused from the in-class assignment and would receive a zero on that.
I want to take a moment to recognize three professors who went out of their way to check in on me and support me: Keith Summerville, the prior Interim Chair of the Department of Theatre Arts; John Pomerory, a theatre professor; and Jen Wilson, a journalism professor who heard the news and gave me an extension on a upcoming assignment — despite being known for her strict deadlines.
And Everything After
On May 5, 2023, there was a celebration of life for JG. On May 10, 2023, JG was honored with the title of Emeritus Professor, a title reserved for professors who excelled in teaching, creative works and engagement with the community.
And that’s it.
What do you think? A professor died, and the theatre department lacked communication and support. The Counseling Center hadn’t been notified. Part of me has to wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t sent all those emails.
I didn’t know if I should write this. It isn’t the entire department’s fault. But would it have happened if it had been a more popular professor? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. And the university is already getting the heat for its complete disrespect towards the situation, anyways. Then I remembered JG’s advice: “f*ck the system” and “stick it to the man.”
JG, may your legacy always lead people to stick up for themselves and for others. I’m sticking up for you by shedding light on my part of the story.
I give credit where credit is due: The department as a whole did, in the end, make up for the missteps in the beginning. They apologized, came together and took action. The department took responsibility, and yet the university still hasn’t.
So, President Marty Martin? An announcement of JG’s passing should’ve been sent out months ago. Preferably in April of 2023. But late is better than never, and your silence speaks volumes on how little you care. As JG once said in an reply-all email after you announced changes in Drake’s COVID-19 precautions without notifying staff first: “Timing is everything.”