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A Place of Honor

Why a gift given in jest now overlooks the sofa

By Erick Gordon

There was a popular book about teaching that came out a handful of years ago called Teach Like a Champion. It was one of those quick fix, education books that claimed to have all of the answers, that made it all appear so easy. Total cheese, actually.

John and I used to make fun of the book’s premise. Of course there’s nothing easy about teaching. It’s the hardest job in the world, at least when you do it like John did.

We used to send each other little jokes about the ease of teaching like a champion (we even sent the Queen song back and forth a handful of times).

What’s funny, though, is that John Browne actually was a champion. Truly. In the way that a champion fights for other people. With humility and absolute devotion. Over his lifetime he was a champion to thousands of people, actually. The truth is I’ve never known anyone as dedicated as John was to his family and friends. And to the thousands of students that were blessed to have known John as a teacher or a professor, he was a champion—a teacher that knew when to lead from behind, when to hold hands, and when to give a little shove. And a persistent advocate when he needed to be; generous with every fiber of his being.

There are countless stories I could share to illustrate John’s presence. Stories about his kindness and fierce loyalty to the people in his life. I could talk about John’s devotion to his family, about how he would do absolutely anything to care for his daughters. Stories about the look on his face when he talked about his granddaughters. That incredible shine of joy and pride.

But I’ll keep this short, and share only one story with you, one of my favorites that I’m literally reminded of every day.

For eight years John and I shared adjoining offices at Teachers College; he was a full-time instructor, and I was an instructor working on a doctorate. I got to know John’s humor—that booming laugh that could be heard halfway across the College.

John and I had a thing for giving each other gifts. Usually gag gifts left anonymously on each other’s desks—a half eaten apple or a pair of chattering teeth that quoted Shakespeare. Or the VHS copy of the three and a half hour movie, “Titanic” that he left on my desk with a note about Monday’s lesson plan: “Just remember to hit the play button—it should cover the next few weeks’ of curriculum.” He signed that one: “Your friend and mentor, John.”

When we celebrated his 40th year of teaching I gave him an antique lapel pin from an award. It was a little enameled brass pin from a school in the 1920s that said, “Award for punctuality.” I made a big deal out of it—put it in a velvet lined ring box and wrote a letter about how impressive it was that he had at least been punctual for the last forty years. How he had at very least been able to show up.

But of course for John it was so much more than just showing up.

The best gift by far was the one he gave me when I finished my doctorate. He built it up for a while; telling me that he’d found the perfect present and he couldn’t wait to give it to me. And then at the graduation party he gave it to me: a four-foot tall poster of John himself, taken by a professional photographer, his face a deadpan stare into the camera’s lens.

What was funny—and ironic—was that John is one of the more humble people I’ve ever known. And here he was giving me a gigantic picture of himself.

Unbeknownst to me John had waited in line all day to take part in a large-scale participatory art project in Times Square in which the French artist JR invited strangers to take self-portraits in a specially designed photo booth, and then print out the photos as black and white posters. Some of the posters were then pasted to the sidewalk, and some the subjects kept. In one of his adventures in the City he stumbled into the middle of this scene and decided that the joke of giving me the photo was worth the wait—and he waited, by his reports over four hours—to give me that photo. And I imagine he thought he would get a good laugh out it, and then I would likely tuck the photo away in some closet and forget about it.

So now, years later, hanging above the couch at my home is a four-foot tall framed portrait of John. It’s a close up of his face, stubbly beard and big piercing eyes. It’s got this dramatic white matting around it, and it’s in a bright orange wooden frame. And every morning as I sit with my coffee, it greets me, staring at me with a deadpan smile, reminding me of his giant presence in my life.

It’s hard to imagine a world without John in it. But I know that his presence—that colossal smiling face and booming voice of his—will stay forever with those of us whose hearts John touched.

And to all of the people that loved John—all of the people that felt like he was their champion—we could fill Yankee Stadium right up to the cheap seats.

TC alumnus Erick Gordon founded the College’s Student Press Initiative 

Published Monday, Feb 13, 2017