This is not an obituary for John McGowan of Vernon. Because he didn’t want one. He even made us promise. So, let’s just call this a story instead. The story of a boy born in 1943 at Keesler Air Field in Biloxi, Mississippi to a sharp, young military couple named Jack and Dorothy. He spent his childhood missing free throws in gyms across America as he and the family followed his father’s career in retail. But when the time came for college, he put down the basketball for good. Why? Because he went to Seton Hall and let’s face it, he was never good enough to play ball there. So, he embraced his “Animal House” tendencies and became a TKE instead. But the fun came to an abrupt halt when his draft letter arrived in the mail. “You’re going to be sad if I die over there anyway, so marry me and you’ll at least get some money” was his proposal to a young coworker named Jennifer. She knew he had a point and agreed. Yet after a year in the jungle in Vietnam he came back a changed man. If you lived it too, you understand. So, we’re going to gloss over this part of the story and pick it up in 1978.
By that point, a six-year-old strawberry blonde named Hilary was in the picture. In search of a better school system, the family landed in Vernon. And stayed there. For a really long time. John had the full Vernon experience. From shoveling his 180-foot driveway after every epic snow, to a stint as security at Action Park. From being emcee of the St Patrick’s Day Parade to finally giving up learning to ski on his 40th birthday. From sitting at a card table in front of the A&P to gather signatures for…whatever…to passing out frozen turkeys to teachers for Thanksgiving. In his prime, he never missed a Viking football game, basketball game or lacrosse match – even if he didn’t understand that last one. He was Vernon. And never more so than when he was sitting behind one of those long tables in Lounsberry Hollow’s library on a Thursday night. John was a member of Vernon’s Board of Education for 31 years. Yes, it was that long. He loved nearly every minute of it. And he has a closet-full of blue and gold clothes to prove it. He never missed a Back-to-School night, Work Session or a chance to speak at a graduation. In fact, if you grew up in Vernon, he probably handed you your high school diploma.
But about a month ago, the story took a sad turn. John slipped and fell without his rescue buzzer around his neck and it all went downhill from there. His TV was on 24/7, so it’s rather fitting his story came to an end like one of those ubiquitous commercials.
This is where we’re supposed to tell you about the people he leaves behind – like Jennifer and Hilary. There’s also his kid sister Kelly McCoy and her husband Jim. And beloved nieces Molly and Eliza and their families. John also leaves behind a bunch of friends and family whose phone calls he only managed to return sporadically. No, John wasn’t good at keeping in touch, but if he bumped into you while he was out and about, he’d buy you a cup of coffee.
John didn’t even want an obit, remember. So there sure won’t be a funeral. But we may sneak in a memorial at some point around football season when we think he’s not watching us.
And flowers? Of course not! But perhaps consider donating in his name to the Vernon Township Rotary Club’s Scholarship Fund, 5 Oak Hill Drive, Sussex, NJ, 07461. Or the Vernon Township Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Bandshell Project c/o Vernon Township Clerk, 21 Church Street, Vernon, NJ 07462. We think he’d like that he’ll continue to be part of Vernon’s future.
And we’ll leave you with this: if you happen to see a shadow leaning against the fence near the scoreboard at a Vernon football game or hear a voice screaming at a ref from the back bleacher during a basketball game – smile. Just smile. Because that means John’s story continues.