At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Aaron Stephens and Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg took time to remember East Lansing resident John Kloswick, who died Monday afternoon due to complications from pancreatic cancer. John would have turned 77 this coming Saturday.
John was a native of Edwardsburg, Michigan, a rural community just over the border from South Bend, Indiana. He earned his bachelor’s in English from the University of Notre Dame and thought about going into teaching but found that what is now called attention deficit disorder made that career choice too difficult.
Instead, he earned a master’s degree in library science from Western Michigan University. He worked his entire career as a librarian for Michigan State University, at the main library. Raised in a conservative Catholic family and having become a steady political progressive and nonbeliever, the center of John’s life was East Lansing.
I believe him to have been the only unaffiliated citizen who came to virtually every City Council meeting in the last six years. All the other regular characters were there for some kind of work: they were on City Council, or on the videography team, or on City staff, or on ELi’s reporting team. John was there not because it was a job. He was there because it was his way of living an ethical life.
When I asked people who knew John for notes of encouragement when his cancer first landed him at Dobie Road, ELi Community Advisory Board (CAB) member Thasin Sardar wrote, “Kindly let John know that he will be in my thoughts and prayers, and his relentless service to the city is a source of inspiration for me and, for that, I owe him gratitude for any act of service I do, and will do in the future, for the city.”
In his remarks, the mayor said something similar, noting that when he joined Council, “I wanted so much to have community input or just even eyes on the table when we were making decisions, but there was not many who could take the time. John was there. He was always there.”
It was not surprising to me that when the nurses at Sparrow Hospital would ask John what day it was, he would figure it out relative to Tuesday – the day Council meets.
When I founded ELi’s Community Advisory Board (CAB), John was the first person I asked to join. For years, he had been acting as a one-man CAB to the ELi government reporting staff, particularly me and Chris Root. John literally had our backs as we often sat in the front pew of the court room on Tuesday nights and he sat right behind us.
Before Jessy Gregg ran for Council, she was a government reporter for us, and she came to know John that way first. When I told her about John’s terminal illness, she recalled about those Tuesday nights at City Hall together, “We would often meet in the hallway afterwards to compare impressions. These weren’t long conversations but not infrequently he would call my attention to a significant detail that I had missed.”
My experience was exactly the same – and in fact, I had the habit of asking John after every meeting, “Besides the obvious, what mattered tonight?” My reports frequently reflected his keen observations.
A newer Council member recently suggested in a meeting that some citizens need to approach Council with a better “tone” – with less suspicion and bitterness. When I heard this, I was reminded of something John wrote to me after the recent pair of Council resignations: “I have long noted our city council’s success in socializing would-be reformers . . . into its own way of thinking.”
It was that kind of smart, dry remark that made John such excellent company year after year, Council after Council. When I was left frustrated, bewildered, and even attacked by members of the government, John provided me a steady witness, a guiding hand, a true comfort.
It was my privilege to return that favor when he and his surviving sibling asked me to be his durable power of attorney and healthcare proxy as he faced the dual challenge of cancer and the pandemic.
As John’s health worsened rapidly over the last two months, when he was in distress, I could often give him some comfort by reading to him from ELi or the City Pulse or by walking him verbally through the campus gardens and our city. We looked together at photographs he had taken over the years of the weeping cherries near the MSU library, and of the construction of the colorful parking structure downtown.
So many people helped me help John, and I am so grateful for that community generosity. When the pandemic hit and John was without a way to watch Council – he had always gone in person, and for internet access he always walked to a library – I tapped LightSpeed founder Jason Schreiber for help. Jason connected me with MetroNet’s Tim Lebel, who not only brought an internet connection to John’s apartment but gave him a computer and made sure it was set up properly.
When I needed help accessing John’s apartment and collecting his mail, Colin Cronin of DTN connected me to the right staff. When I struggled to get the nursing aids at Dobie Road to hook up a radio I’d gotten John so he could listen to WKAR, a call to County Commissioner Mark Grebner quickly resulted in support.
My own staff took over work for me as I ended up spending John’s last ten days at Sparrow Hospice with his very good friend Marillyn Owens and devoted sister Helen Kloswick. I am particularly grateful to Emily Joan Elliott, who seamlessly took over as Managing Editor for me as I became emotionally and physically spent by watching the cancer take him.
I kept thinking about whether I even wanted to go back to Council without him. It felt so much the end of an era of my life. In Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg’s words, “John was a steady presence at almost every meeting, quietly following the proceedings and providing the continuous observation that is sometimes needed to keep elected bodies accountable. When we are finally able to meet in person again as a Council, it will be shocking to look out into the public gallery without seeing him there.”
Former mayor Mark Meadows recalled to me, “During my time on Council, I came to know John as a true gentleman and an avid citizen of our community. I would look for him in the audience every meeting and check on his expression after every vote. Sometimes an arched eyebrow would send a message! I knew there was trouble on the horizon if he shook his head.”
A rare instance of public comment to Council from John came on May 7, 2019, after the City fired Troy Williams, who had blown the whistle on multiple health and environmental hazards at the City’s wastewater treatment plant.
John told Council, “it is a disgrace that the reward for prodding our City to protect the health and safety of its employees by simply complying with the law could be the loss of one’s job and even the loss of medical insurance that might help to ameliorate chronic conditions due to the City’s misconduct.”
John urged the Council “to pass a resolution thanking and commending Mr. Williams for his efforts to get our City to obey the law.” He told the City Council that it would be more moral to pay people’s medical expenses than to pay lawyers to challenge their rights, a reference to the City fighting nine workers who said they were harmed at the plant.
His words did not move that Council. But they certainly did move Troy and me.
Although he lived on a fixed retirement income that was not large, John was enormously generous towards nonprofit causes. He was among the top five donors to ELi, and I suspect he gave the highest percentage of income of any ELi donor.
I spent a lot of time at his bedside thinking about what moved him to do that. I ultimately concluded from our conversations that he understood it this way:
What local news does is unite and empower the people who believe that democracy is a moral act.
We need watchers to make democracy work. And we just lost a very fine one.
If you want to honor John’s memory and what he did for this community, I know what he would say: Please, go vote. And then watch for yourself what those elected do.