John Anthony Speh

John Anthony Speh

Died December 9, 2000

John was born in Washington, D.C., the son of two Yale graduates. His father, Karl, was a 1933 graduate of Yale College, Ph.D., ’36, and his mother, Catherine, earned her B.Mus. from the Yale School of Music in 1937, one of the few opportunities open to women at Yale at that time.

John grew up on Long Island, prepared at Hempstead High School in Hempstead, NY, and spent his senior year at Philips Exeter Academy. At Yale he was a member of Silliman, majored in philosophy and played a number of intramural sports. John also played the cello and participated in a number of music groups, including the Football Band, the Neighborhood Music School Youth Symphony and the Repertory Symphony. He was also a Woolsey Hall Usher and was active in the Y.M.C.A. Boys Club.

In the fall of 1963, John embarked on what would turn out to be a lifetime of social activism when he joined 50 other Yalies in the Freedom Vote Campaign in Mississippi and was arrested (along with future Congressman and liberal icon Al Lowenstein) for his trouble. As John recounted it in the Sillimander (November 22, 1963), “Mississippi worked hard to welcome the Yale students who went there. Three of the six in my car were arrested within twelve hours.” John, who was arrested for “ loitering” – he had been driving around Clarksdale looking for a hotel. He gave his one phone call to Lowenstein who had better connnections. “ On the way out from the jail the cops told us that everyone would be better off if we stayed in the North and (left) the solutions to southern problems to Southerners.”

After Yale John served in the Peace Corps in Niger where he met his first wife, Nancy Keith, who was also a Peace Corps volunteer. They married on returning to the U.S. and moved to Baton Rouge, LA, where John trained other Peace Corps volunteers. They had a daughter, Renee. John signed up for the War on Poverty, working for the Community Action Agency in the hills of Kentucky. From there the family moved to Michigan where he worked for the Greater Grand Rapids Housing Authority, providing low income housing in Grand Rapids.

John and Nancy divorced, and in 1973 he met a VISTA volunteer named Tish Tanski. While he represented low income property owners, she organized low income tenants to assert their rights. They moved to Detroit where he worked for the Michigan Housing Authority for Low Income Housing and she worked in Michigan Legal Services. They married in 1977 and moved to Lansing where he became the director of budget for the Michigan Department of Social Services. Their first child, Kate, was born in 1982 and a second, Caroline, in 1986. With young children to care for, John decided to become a stay-athome dad while Tish continued her career as an executive in state government and nonprofit organizations.

Growing up, John had spent part of his summers on Hog Island in Muskongus Sound off the coast of Maine. The island was owned by a woman named Millicent Bingham Todd, a good friend of Emily Dickenson. Mrs Todd allowed John’s family to live in one of the two cabins on the island. There was no running water or electricity; and, since the owner did not allow power boats to dock at her pier, the only way to get back and forth from the mainland was to row. “ For John, the island represented the way life should be,” Tish says. The family moved to Maine in 1986, but Tish insisted on plumbing and electricity, so they ultimately settled in Bar Harbor. “Bar Harbor turned out to be his place,” Tish says. John was elected to the School Board and used his musical talent to become an enthusiastic supporter of the Emmerson Conners Elementary Music Program. Tish worked as director of external affairs at The Jackson Laboratory, a leading genetic research institution. While the girls were in school, John worked as a carpenter running his own business, Island Housesmith. “He found exactly what he was looking for,” Tish says, “ community and family-centered values and not a high level of materialism.”

But John was not well, suffering from stomach pains which were first diagnosed as a bacterial condition and then as gastritis. By 1998, Tish says, “ it was clear that something else was wrong.” By the time she convinced him to go to Mass General Hospital, John was in kidney failure. Exploratory surgery found that cancer had spread from his stomach and when he awoke Tish had to deliver the news. He began treatment, but “we were buying time and we knew that,” Tish says. They had been supporters of the Death with Dignity movement in Maine; and, with John now facing a terminal illness, he was asked to become the movement’s spokesman. Tish was the outgoing one in the family, the one who had experience dealing with the press, but John turned into a powerful spokesman for the cause. “ Part of that was his absolute acceptance of his condition,” Tish says, “and his inner strength. . . It was amazing to watch.”

As John continued to decline, Death with Dignity, which would permit physician-assisted suicide, became a resolution on the ballot in the November, 2000 election. In an Op Ed piece in the Bar Harbor Times, John wrote, “every competent adult should have the right to make momentous personal decisions affecting only themselves, free from the imposition of any religious or political orthodoxy. . . (W)hich one of us, when faced with a terminal illness, would not find abhorrent the prospect of an end in which we have no control and which our bodies are subjected against our will to painful and ignoble medical interventions. Have we not reached the point in our civilization that we can at least have the option of a quiet, proud death, with our bodily integrity intact?” The resolution, which was opposed by both the medical community and the Catholic church, was narrowly defeated.

John died a month later on December 9, 2000. “ At the end of his life, John was still there in every way,” Tish says. “He wanted to be the one making that decision.” At the age of 56, John died with dignity and left a treasured legacy for his community and family.

Alexander Hammond remembers:
With Bill Schwarze, I roomed with John Speh for three years in Silliman. Still a bit awed by the matter-of-fact way he took off time from classes one fall and got arrested on a Freedom Ride to Mississippi, I remember him as the only fully engaged philosophy major I’ve ever met – and probably the one least given to small or any other kind of talk. I fondly recall his parents’ patience when they, like Bill’s family, took in their son’s gadfly roommate for vacations, and am thankful for John’s letters (in long-hand on lined paper) that let me track his later career in the Peace Corps in Niger and in social work in Michigan and Maine. Over the years, we managed semiregular visits, sometimes with families, although sadly the occasion for the last of those was Bill’s and my attendance at the Bar Harbor memorial for John in 2000 after cancer cut his life short. I suspect Thoreau – another New England native with a taste for irony, a nice feel for wedging down to the foundation of things, and little patience for compromise – would have recognized in John’s too-brief time with us a life well and fully lived.

William Schwarze remembers:
John was my roommate (along with Alex Hammond) for three years in Silliman. John seldom said much, but was very thoughtful and caring. Two memories stand out: First, in 1964 John went to Mississippi for spring break to participate in the civil rights marches. This really surprised but also impressed me at the principled person John was. Second, was John’s subscription to Down East magazine, which John read religiously, though he lived in Long Island. After a stint in the Peace Corps (Niger) and a few years teaching in inner city public schools (Philadelphia), John ultimately fulfilled his dream of living in Maine (Bangor, then Bar Harbor), doing odd jobs but mainly being a house father until his untimely death (cancer). I truly regret not spending more time with John in later years – we had more in common than I realized.