John Gardner at Home

Memories from Jeff McMahan

Dear Jenny,

Your email has reduced me to tears more than once, which is perhaps surprising, as I never knew John well. I think my desolation derives from the great admiration I have had for him both as a thinker and as a person – an admiration that was much increased by the fortitude, cheerfulness, and determination to live well with which he responded to his illness. I was more deeply impressed than I can possibly express by the manner in which he conducted the seminars I attended this past term. I am so grateful that I was able to attend some of them and regret that I missed the ones that occurred before I learned from Raquel that I would be welcome to sit in.

As I wrote to John after his cancer recurred, although he was younger than me by about a decade, I always looked up to him as someone in a way more ‘senior’ than I am and certainly more intellectually formidable than I could ever hope to be. I felt humbled in his presence. I was also deeply impressed by his exceptional kindness and generosity to his students, and indeed to everyone else. He and I co-supervised a couple of students and occasionally had meetings with the two of us and the student together, so I was able to observe how he treated his students and to hear him comment on their work. On all matters pedagogical and philosophical, his judgement was unerring and his manner kindly and reassuring. Both students often spoke to me of their great admiration for him and gratitude to him. I do hope he knew how highly I thought of him.

You and your children have my deepest sympathy for your great loss. I too will miss John terribly. The tragedy of his death was, I am certain, vastly mitigated for him by your wonderful love and support.

What I wrote to Raquel:

I have not known what to write to you because I have no words of comfort. I don’t cry often but I wept on receiving Jenny’s email announcing John’s death and wept again whenever I reread it. This surprised me because I was never close to John. It may be because he was so young, in the fullness of his powers, and had not long before begun a new life with Jenny, the children, and All Souls. His future seemed so promising. It may also have been seeing him so physically reduced but in other ways undiminished and even elevated and enlarged by his calm determination to live well during whatever time remained to him, which turned out to be less than anyone imagined it would be. I had a profound admiration for him at all times in his life, both as a thinker and as a person, but never more so than in the last months of his life. I am deeply grateful to you for inviting and encouraging me to attend his seminars. It was an honor to me to be there and I hope he understood my presence as the expression of homage that it was.