Eulogy for John Ohliger

Memorial Service, May 8, 2004, Madison, Wisconsin


David Williams


It seems appropriate that, when talking about a person who was one of the world’s most prolific readers and writers, I should begin by mentioning a book.


In his novel published forty years ago and entitled The Last of the Just, Andre Schwarz-Bart articulated the legend of the Lamed-Vov, the 36 just men that the Almighty had destined to wander the earth at any given time, absorbing the sorrows and cares of the rest of us. Most of the Lamed-Vovniks suffered horribly, in pogroms and gas chambers and famines.


I don’t know if John was one of them. I know that he wasn’t Jewish. And I am sure that he wasn’t a masochist. But I’ll tell you one thing that I know for certain: John Ohliger was a just man.


He possessed what one might call an elongated sense of justice. He seemed to me to be an exemplar of the just, the kind, the caring, of those who exude a social conscience and who, by their words and deeds, compel others to see the need for justice in our midst. John never sought glory, but he was genuinely proud of accomplishment. He was driven to seek and want the better, not for himself, but for others. I never knew John to waiver from this.


John Ohliger wore his heart on his sleeve. That’s not a negative thing or denigration. It is an iteration of the miracle that one who conducted his life so nobly as an adult could maintain the idealism of a child


John was almost depressed by the pre-emptive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, since he knew better than most that such imperial conduct is what fed terrorism in the first place. But ultimately, such events brought out another of John’s perennial traits, which was to anguish, to take things so much to heart, to take on the burdens of the world, but never to the level or torpor and lethargy, always as a stir to renewed action and thought. I am reminded of Vachel Lindsay’s poem, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,” in which TO the activist Booth God says, OK, come on in, it’s time for your rest and reward, OK, OK, I get your message, but Booth keeps banging the gongs and beating the drums, as if to say, no you don’t get it, God, there’s still work here to be done. Get you butt off the throne of heaven and get out here with us.


And this, of course, has led me to speculate on our friend John’s first actual encounter with the Almighty.


Upon arrival at the Human Resources Desk or Admissions Door or whatever it is in Heaven, I can envisage John confronted by the Almighty, who says, “John, we have a few questions regarding your conduct, particularly in terms of the dictates of the Commandments. To himself, the Lord says, “Let’s see, he was not slothful or a drunkard. He did not bear false witness. What can I pin on this guy?”


“John, what about graven images? What are these passions you had for things called Basic Choices, Media and Adult Learning, and what’s this thing called WORT?”


And John replies, “Well, Lord, they were indeed passions, and perhaps I did push them to the boundaries of idolatry.”


The Almighty responds, “Well John, did any of them involve anything like an icon or a bull, or maybe a golden calf?”


John answers, “No Lord, but we did think for a while about having a cat as a logo.”


So God says, “Let’s move on down the list, John. Let’s see, you didn’t steal, you didn’t murder, you did not covet thy neighbor’s bodily parts. What about taking my name in vain?”


John confesses: “Yes, Lord, I’m sorry. But it was usually only around the times of the elections of 1952, 1956, 1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, and 2000.”


The Almighty responds, “Well John, I think maybe that’s OK. I understand. They kind of got to me too, especially that last one. And I have Dante and Milton here to keep reminding me that the sleep of reason brings for monsters. And I have Jonas Salk and Tim Leary and Freud to calm me down. So it’s OK, John, come on in.”


John was easily hurt, but never struck back in rage. John was easily moved by causes, by injustice, by the needs of others, and always struck back with righteous indignation with little regard for his own welfare, short term or long term.


So we are here to mourn and memorialize the passing of a friend, a wise counselor, a comrade on the barricades, a voice in the wilderness, but most of all a truly great citizen of our Republic, or what is left of it. Now I know that the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld would have a hard time comprehending the likes of such an idea, but that is largely because the likes of them lack the vision, idealism, and compassion that made John such a remarkable citizen, that caused us to be blessed by his presence, that gave those who could meet him at the crossroads a renewed sense of purpose, and that gave a sober and sobering voice to disillusionment and disenfranchisement.


I met John shortly after he arrived at Ohio State in 1967. I was an undergraduate.

In years to come, we were in the gas together, before Governor James Rhodes had ordered the 1970 executions at Kent State and the closing of the state universities. As the calm of occupation set in, John turned me on to the concept of adult education, which I desperately needed, since after student teaching in a junior high I knew that I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with the schooling of children.


Verne Cunningham, OSU’s Dean of Education, suggested to John that, because of his study of the ideas of de-schooling society and pedagogy of the oppressed, he didn’t belong in a College of Education. John was really hurt, but I think it took him not too long to make a decision to transform and move on. It was then that we began to realize that these schools were really Colleges of Schooling, not education, and it was with no small measure of chagrin that we watched adult education in the 1980s cash in on continuing professional education and mandatory continuing education, and become highly profitable schooling for adults, enslaving the mind under its Orwellian rhetorical banners of empowerment and critical thinking. Except when he was dissecting it, John avoided such inane and heavy-handed jargon, revealing instead and effusive and almost folksy writing and conversational style that simultaneously stimulated and disarmed his listener or reader.


On p. 19, in chapter 7, of a life story John circulated among us a couple of years ago,  John recalled being asked a question about publicity materials he was mailing out when working in the 1950s for the Fund for Adult Education. Someone asked him why 100,000 pieces of promotional material were addressed to “Dear Friend”, when John didn’t know any of the recipients. John tells us that he couldn’t answer the question then and he can’t answer it now.


Well, I can answer it. John could call them friend because John was a friend to man, as Walt Whitman would say, and the spirit of his friendship will and must abide in those who were among its privileged recipients. So many of us are where we are, in a political and psychologically beneficent sense, because we became wrapped up in John’s imagination, and he in ours. John revealed an ethical radicalism that was at times startling, but it drove him to be a pursuer of dreams, and he himself learned that that radicalism and a fanatic heart is all you need to get through life smiling.


And now we come to Chris—

Many of us noted a change in John as Chris became more and more a part of his life.

I guess some thought he was just mellowing out a bit and wanting to settle down more

But there was, we know, so much more to it than that. Chris, your presence in John’s life brought him not to a new level of peace, but brought a whole new dimension of peace into his life. And, I think, his presence also did that for you.


Some time ago I came across a short story writer whose theme was that death cancels out individuality. No. Nothing could be further from the truth. Each of us will carry the little rich pieces of our encounters with John forever, since those encounters, in turn, will effect our encounters with others who will be here long after we are gone. The circle will not be broken. The ripples flowing forth from John’s life will not abate.


From the prophet Isaiah we learned that if you do away with the yoke, the clenched fist, the wicked word, if you give your bread to the hungry and relief to the oppressed, your light will rise in the darkness, and your shadows become like noon. John’s shadow contained an abundance of the light, and it was a very, very long shadow. Those of us fortunate enough to stand in it, however briefly, were blessed and enriched.


And finally, what of this idea of shadow and light? We know from our astrophysicist friends that when we see starlight our eyes really are registering the light of dead stars. But it is that light that so often causes us to dream, that stirs our memories of the good things, that gives us hope. And so our star is not dead, since his light has caused us, and others, to live as better persons, and it will do so unto eternity.