Remembering John English

John English holds a book at a desk in an office around 1984.
John English is shown sitting in his office, ca: 1984. He is holding the book "When Men Were Boys: An Informal Portrait of Dean William Tate," a book he co-wrote with Rob Williams in 1984. (Photo: Grady College Archives)

Remembering John English

January 08, 2024

Editor’s Note: It seems only fitting that Dr. John English, art aficionado, world traveler and writer of obituaries, would pen most of his own obituary, which was published when he died Jan. 3, 2024. English was a journalism professor at Grady College from 1970 to 2000. According to “Centennial: A History of the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia” by E. Culpepper Clark, English was instrumental in partnering the college with journalism programs at Columbia, Northwestern and Southern California thanks to a $3.2 Pew grant, as well as encouraging domestic and international travel for students.

We send heartfelt prayers to his family.

John English’s obituary, in most of his own words, can be read below:

John W. English was an art lover, a University of Georgia journalism professor, a wallower in the world of ideas (his words), a freelance journalist, a global citizen, a part-time conceptual artist, a father, husband, friend, and neighbor. He lived a life out of sync with his peers. He traveled all the way around the world at age 24. He became a father at 53. His most fulfilling job was his first one, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sabah, Malaysia from 1962-1964, and on the Peace Corps’ staff in Washington from 1964-1966.

John reveled in being a bundle of contradictions. Though named English, he identified strongly with his Italian mother’s gene pool. An Oklahoma native, he considered himself a part of the local landscape of Athens, GA where he made his home in 1970. He was a rabid consumer of both local history and avant garde global culture. He loved Victorian houses and contemporary art. He became a family man in his 50s, refuting a reputation as a confirmed bachelor.

John was born on Oct 5. 1940, in Junction City, Kansas. His father, Raymond Wesley English, worked for the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad, and his mother, June Mourglia English, was a homemaker. His early years were spent in Monett, Missouri, amid an Italian protestant community, which sparked his life-long affinity for “the old country,” as his grandfather Giovanni Mourglia called Italy.

In 1962, John got his bachelor’s degree in journalism from The University of Tulsa. During college, he became an editor of a suburban weekly newspaper. After his stint in the Peace Corps, John earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1966. He later began doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he held a teaching assistantship and worked as a pop-music, film critic, and copy editor for the Wisconsin State Journal.

From 1970 to 2000, John taught magazine writing and arts journalism at UGA’s Grady College. During that time, he held three visiting professorships in Asia at Hong Kong Baptist University, Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang and the National Institute for Multi-Media Education in Tokyo. He received a doctorate in cultural communication at Union Graduate school (Antioch College), and his dissertation (“Criticizing the Critics”) was published as a book of scholarship. In the mid-1990s he and UGA business professor Gerald Horton received a grant to launch the National Arts Journalism Program, which helped mentor mid-career arts critics. For 16 summers, he and Drama professor Stanley Longman conducted a six-week program in Parma, Italy, and London, England. He also taught several summers in Avignon, France and Paderno del Grappa, Italy.

A prolific writer, John wrote and edited six books, three feature film scripts, multiple cultural documentaries and Asian media studies for academic journals, and several hundred articles for magazines and newspapers. He authored three Fodor’s Travel Guides—Georgia, Cayman Islands, and Malaysia. He was the first UGA faculty member to go to China in 1975, about which he wrote a series of articles and made a documentary for Georgia public television. He also wrote travel pieces about both Asian and European destinations for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times Travel section.

In 1978, John moved to the Cobbham Historic District and under the tutelage of historian Phinizy Spalding, became involved in the Athens historic preservation movement. He renovated eight houses and, as the president of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation, spearheaded the passage of local ordinances to protect historic properties and neighborhoods. He was very knowledgeable about Athens history, and loved to serve as tour guide for visiting out-of-towners. He would often say how remarkable the people he met in the Athens community were.

John was a lifetime lover of the arts. Among the cultural experiences he treasured were Paolo Conte in Italy, the Bolshoi in Moscow, butoh in Tokyo, Pavarotti at the Met, La Scala in Milan, Cecil Taylor on piano and Richard Foreman theatre in New York, the Chinese Orchestra in Hong Kong, Robert Wilson theatre in Berlin, Grateful Dead in the Haight, Pink Martini at Atlanta’s Chastain, R.E.M. in Athens and new music at Ojai and Big Ears festivals. He loved attending the Biennale Art Exhibition in Venice, Italy, which he said often worked as inspiration for his own art, which was always both whimsical and political.

John never made a bucket list of things to do. His range of activities was broad. Outdoors, he scaled the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, Kinabalu, hiked 90 miles across Borneo, water-skied barefoot on Grand Lake, rafted the Chattooga in North Georgia, skied in the Italian Alps and ran a zipline in Chiapas, Mexico. Among the world attractions, he visited were Jerusalem’s Holy sites, the pyramids at Giza, the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall before and after its fall, the Taj Mahal in India and Patpong in Bangkok. In his dotage (his words), he switched from khaki pants to black Levi jeans, drank Lavazza coffee, read The New York Times daily, listened to National Public Radio and contemporary classical music and jazz. Even though he preferred the arts to sports, he liked to watch the Atlanta Braves and Georgia Bulldogs. He also wrote obituaries, including much of this one.

After three episodes of cancer and several tough battles with aspirational pneumonia, at age eighty-three John died peacefully in the hospital, surrounded by his loving family on January 3, 2024. He is survived by his wife, Karen, and two children, Evan and Gemma. His sister, JoNelle Ralls, predeceased him in 2023. The love and joy of his family, he said, sustained him for the final portion of his life.

John was a lover of life, and he will be missed dearly by many people all around the world. “I’m grateful for the good fortune of being able to indulge in my passions and through journalism to share those experiences,” he said. “I had a great run.”

A celebration of his life will be planned for later in the spring.

Editor: Sarah E. Freeman