A Tribute

May 30, 2023

This is a post that I’ve meant to write for a while, and though a lot of time has passed, and I’m still struggling to find the words, there are people that I feel I owe it to- especially the Gravert family, and John himself-to say more than I’ve been able to bring myself to so far. I apologize to those who could have used them sooner.

It’s been a bit over three months since we gathered on that snowy day in Omaha. In celebration of a friend, brother, father and husband; and to mourn one of those times when life unfairly ends too soon. After sixteen hours of driving through a blizzard I arrived to stumble through teary eyed hugs, greetings and condolences, then eventually a couple of buddies and I stepped outside to talk about old times and get some fresh air. When we returned, the story sharing portion of the wake had begun, so we quietly took our seats in the back of the room.

Anyone who knew John can probably attest that he was a huge Seinfeld fan. No matter how ridiculous or mundane, life was full of moments with parallels to be found in that show. It seemed fitting then, as I looked around the crowded mortuary, that I was reminded of the episode when “Worlds Collide.” John’s older sister Jenny shared her memories of the day he was born, and other siblings and in-laws told of the trials and laughter that resulted from their upbringing and large family gatherings in the family’s small brick home on 9th Street in Tipton. Paired with the parking lot tales from moments earlier (though ours maybe not as appropriate for the larger audience) it was all very familiar and reminded of the many experiences and conversations John and I had shared in our youth.

But others provided insight to the parts of John’s story that I didn’t know so well. What came after marriage and kids, what filled his days after life had inevitably pulled us in our own unique directions. True to his unwavering fun-loving form, John continued to make a lasting impression wherever he would go. The wake was filled to standing room capacity with co-workers, church goers, and many teens and parents from Millard North- the district where his children go to school. John had become very involved in youth sports, loved volunteering as a coach, and eagerly attended any event where he could cheer on his kids and their friends. In his own exuberant way, he’d become a fixture, a memory maker and positive influence in hundreds of lives- and though I’m not surprised, I am truly proud of my friend for the impact he had on so many, his love for Erika and their children, his involvement in their lives and what he meant to their community.

I was unable to stand up and speak on that day. The invitation was certainly there, and while spontaneous public addresses have long been my passion (as is sarcasm) I was just really choked up in the moment and couldn’t bring myself to it. And I’ve regretted it since. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to fill in a little more of the John Gravert story, from the chapters when I was lucky enough to be by his side.

While I’d known John since at least second grade (we were in Mrs. Leighty’s class together) I’d say our friendship really took off one spring day in junior high. We’d kind of converged into the same group in school, sat at the same lunch table, found humor in the same juvenile antics, fandom in the same sports teams… plus we were both pretty scrawny kids, so we were always getting paired up for activities in gym class. But I was a farm boy and John grew up in town, so outside of school our lives were very different.

One Saturday after a long morning of helping my dad make fence, we’d come to the house for a quick lunch. It was planting season, always a hectic time, but I think the cows had gotten out earlier, bringing heightened urgency to the task. Dad wolfed down a couple of sandwiches as I poked at my meal then scolded me to hurry up and eat, rattling off the impossible list of everything we still had to do before nightfall. Unphased, I continued to doddle as he went outside to throw a few more rolls of wire in the back of the truck.

Moments later my dad stuck his head back in the door and said, “Son, there’s somebody here to see you…”Confused, I followed him outside to find thirteen-year-old John, with a beaming smile and sweat drenched shirt, straddling a bicycle in our driveway. While impressed that my classmate had managed to navigate the mile and a half of loose gravel road out to our farm on the skinny tires of a ten speed, I was mortified. I’d never had a friend show up unannounced, and never had company over without permission. I knew that my dad was counting on my help that afternoon, as with any other day- I simply didn’t have the same leisurely freedoms enjoyed by the town kids.

I shot my dad an apologetic glance, embarrassed for both sides as I knew I was going to have find a way to now tell John he’d have to leave… but he cut me short.

“It’s okay,” he said softly, “you go hang out with your friend.” My dad then engaged John in friendly small talk before giving us one more smile, getting in the truck and heading back out to the field.

“Hey,” John said, the two of us now standing alone in the driveway.

“Hey,” I replied.

That afternoon was the first of our many adventures. I took John all over my family’s land, roaming up and down the hills in the pastures, climbing trees, jumping in the creek. We had a blast. By supper time John was still there and found a welcome place with my family at the table, where he’d come to be at minimum a weekly presence throughout junior high, high school, and into our college years. (Even when I’d later move out of state, he would pop in and visit with my folks on a regular basis.) It was probably close to ten o’clock that night when we loaded John’s bike into our minivan so my mom could drive him safely back to town.

From that day on in our journey through adolescence, John and I were inseparable. He was welcome at the house anytime and really became part of our family (he was always such a good-natured and outgoing kid- my parents both loved him.) This did have occasional drawbacks… more than once John would show up at the wrong time expecting an afternoon of fishing or shooting hoops to instead find himself roped into sorting cattle or baling hay, but he always kept an upbeat attitude and was happy to help. We continued to take all the same classes in school and participated in the same sports. I still have a scar on my leg from a weightlifting practice our freshman year of football when I rushed to help John who was struggling to put away a 45-pound plate. (He dropped it too soon, pinching my thigh between the weight and the rack.) Like I said, we were kind of a couple of pip-squeaks, but made a spontaneous and mutual decision to switch to cross country the night before two-a-day practices began the following year and found the running sports to bring us much more enjoyment and success.

We worked many of the same jobs too. A season or two detasseling corn, carry-outs/ stockboys at Family Foods, and later we both spent a summer helping my uncle paint houses and barns. John was a hard worker, and even if his goofy demeanor got us sidetracked at times, he always managed to stay in everyone’s good graces.

Of course, these times weren’t without their mischief… and one of our most notorious escapades- the one I still catch flak for- was the time we rode mopeds to Iowa City. It was our sophomore year of high school (we were both 15 and didn’t have our drivers licenses yet) and Tipton was playing Regina in football one Friday night. My main non-parental mode of transportation at the time was a 1988 Yamaha Razz moped, top speed about twenty-seven miles an hour- but sometimes I could bury the needle at 30 if the wind was right and I was going downhill. John didn’t even have a moped (he was still cruising around on that 10 speed) but he could borrow one from a friend. So we wanted to go to the game, I got the idea, one thing led to another, and as soon as school let out we topped off our tanks for like fifty eight cents and headed west on Cedar Valley Road.

For those not familiar with the area, Tipton is about 30 miles northeast of Iowa City. The most common route to get there is by way of Interstate 80- but even we weren’t dumb enough to try that. Instead, we took the side roads, and puttered along the two-lane Hoover Highway that leads through West Branch. While safer than interstate, it is a bit winding and hilly in places- and certainly not a great place for a couple of kids on mopeds- especially after dark. But we were street legal and invincible (those little orange flags would protect us, right?) and without a second thought we were on our way.

The ride over went fairly smooth. As you might imagine, it was basically like a scene straight out of Easy Rider and after an hour on the open road we pulled into Iowa City feeling pretty cool. This sentiment was heightened by a buzz amongst the Tiger crowd in anticipation of our arrival. I’d worn my letter jacket with a big patch that said “Tipton” scrawled across the back, so we had people passing us, honking, and giving fist pumps out their window the whole way.

“Was that you guys on the mopeds?” people would ask and laugh.

Yes it was.

On the ride back though, the other motorists weren’t so friendly. It started just outside of Iowa City. John was in the lead by a few car lengths as we rode in-line, our meager single beam headlights illuminating a four-foot-wide swath of darkened roadway and slicing through the cool night air. Out of nowhere a carload of Regina kids raced up beside us and started swerving and trying to spit on John. He instantly developed ninja-like riding skills- braking and accelerating in anticipation of the flying loogies- and somehow managed to dodge their attempts. In the meantime, I, mostly helpless, remembered that I had a handful of apples in the basket of my moped. So I twisted the throttle hard, trying to catch up, and started whipping fruit at the back of the car. (And honestly, I don’t know what I thought that might accomplish, nor do I know the point of sharing this part now. I just know that if nothing else, our fifteen-year-old-selves would have hoped that one day our valiance in battle would be noted…) Unfortunately, my aim wasn’t much better than theirs, and I quickly ran out of ammo. The kids tormented us for a couple of miles (that’s four to six minutes in moped time) before turning back around.

A bit later, somewhere approaching Springdale, we had a scarier encounter. We were riding hard trying to make it home before my curfew when a grain truck flew past us doing at least 70 mph, and didn’t bother to merge into the passing lane. The wind from the trailer threw me off balance, I swerved onto the shoulder and crashed. John was a little behind at the time, and from his vantage and how close the truck had passed, he thought the semi hit me. I scraped up my leg pretty bad and cracked the fiberglass on my front fairing, but after a few attempts to restart it, the moped was still ridable. We were both shaken but managed to get home without further incident.

I wish I could say that the story ends there. You know how it’s often said today that us Gen Xers were fortunate to have grown up in a time before social media, which allowed us to get away with so much more than kids can now? Well, that didn’t really apply in smalltown Iowa, where everybody knew everyone’s business- almost in real time. Somehow word got back to Tipton, and to our parents, that same night- much quicker than our mopeds could travel. John’s dad just laughed and called us a couple of “dumbasses.” My parents, on the other hand, were livid.

I think I’m technically still grounded for that one.

During our high school days, we also developed our love for everything outdoors. Along with our friend Matt, we spent most nights and weekends just hanging out and finding whatever adventure we could on my farm, or on camping trips to northeast Iowa. John loved trout fishing, and Little Paint Creek in Yellow River State Forest was always a favorite place to go.

Our college years brought some of the typical antics. We all went to Kirkwood, and Matt and I got our first apartment on the southeast side of Cedar Rapids. John wasn’t on the lease, but he was there as much as either of us. We had the usual Midwestern mix of bonfires and dorm parties, underage attempts to get into bars, went to Cubs and Hawkeye games and lots of concerts. Together we saw many of the big acts of our time- the Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Toadies and the Smashing Pumpkins to name a few. We had serious plans to start our own band and make it big, but those kind of fell apart because none of us could actually play an instrument. Or sing.

Through the years we always managed to maintain our own unique style, happier to be wading through a stream somewhere than trying to navigate the career paths and social scene of our early twenties. John and I had a tradition of skipping class every Friday afternoon to go and gorge ourselves at the all-you-can eat Bishop’s buffet in Westdale Mall. There we’d sometimes sit for hours, discussing frustrations with school and work over stacks of empty plates until inevitably the conversation turned to talk of just building a raft and going Huck Finn style down the Cedar River to escape it all. While we never actually followed through on that, we did start to travel and shared many road trips across the American West. South Dakota’s Badlands and Black Hills were our first major expedition, followed later by an epic trip to Yellowstone and the Tetons- which would stand as John’s favorite of the places we visited. All told, I believe he and I journeyed through all but five of the contiguous states west of the Mississippi together, stopping to enjoy many national parks and ski resorts along the way.

It's funny how time works; how it feels like we can pack an entire life into what really amounts to six to eight formative years between child and adulthood, while decades also pass in the blink of an eye. Somewhere in this mix John met Erika, and I knew from the first time he described her that my friend had found true love. I had my own dreams of moving to the mountains, and as she entered his life John became the only of my close buddies that I didn’t try to coerce into moving to Montana with me. It went unspoken even if once seemingly unimaginable, but we’d come to that fork where our paths had to part. His life was with her, and the beautiful family they would eventually build together.

Of course we still kept in close touch, and a couple years later I was asked to submit my tuxedo size so I could serve as a groomsman in John and Erika’s wedding. I was out in the Flathead Valley by then, and also clueless about my measurements, so one spring day I stopped in a boutique in Kalispell to get properly fitted. I still remember how the teen girl who was working there smacked her bubble gum and gossiped to an associate about who was wearing what to prom, as she hastily strung a tape and scribbled down my dimensions. A few days later I got a call back from John.

“Erika wants to know if you measured for your tux yourself?”

“No, why?”

“I guess her Mom got a call from the rental shop. They just asked if you’re… normal…”

Now that was a loaded question, but I assured John that I’d been professionally measured, and we left it at that. Standing in a tuxedo shop back in Iowa a few weeks after, however, revealed the reason for concern. I was handed my tux and stepped into a fitting room to try it on. The shirt and jacket fit great, and the waist of the pants was even right, but the legs only came down to about an inch above my knees.

I turned pale, put my jeans back on and stepped out of the dressing room to reveal the unsettling reason why all eyes might not be on the bride the next day. Summoning the store clerk and whispering that I thought there was a problem, I held the little person sized pants up to my leg for demonstration. John looked over, pointed, and let out one of his classic cackling laughs that must have echoed all throughout downtown Sioux City.

That was John though. He took absolutely everything in stride and could find joy and humor in any situation. (Fortunately, the shop had another pair of pants in my size so I could laugh it off too…) He was also always up for spontaneous fun, even in stressful moments, as evidenced prior to the wedding ceremony itself. Standing outside the sanctuary nervous and jittery the next afternoon, somehow one of us discovered that there was an open basketball court and unlocked ball cage in the church basement. With that, moments before the bridal procession began the entire grooms party could be found in full dress, laughing and hucking up half courters like we were in the closing seconds of two-beller recess back at Tipton Elementary. Maybe not the most appropriate behavior and perhaps a few eyebrows were raised when we rushed to our lineup all red-faced and sweaty, but honestly, given John’s personality and approach to life, I can’t think of a more fitting way to have broken the tension and sent our friend off to happy matrimony.

These thoughts and more flooded my mind as I sat at the wake, as they had the days prior and have countless times since. Sometimes you don’t realize how intertwined your life was with somebody, especially someone that you came of age with, until they’re gone and literally anything can trigger a memory tied to them. I’m grateful… but it’s hard.

And as I looked across the crowded room, at all those worlds coming together- the lives that John had touched, I realized how wonderful it was that each of them carried hearts and minds full of their own chapters spent with him. While the times and tales were different, what we all shared was having known moments blessed by the infectious joy John shined on this world, and into our days; along with the grief of loss, and one question in common.


Why did a life so vibrant, so giving, meaning so much to so many of us… why did it have to end so soon? Even after John’s stroke when he fell into a coma, I never doubted that he’d make a full recovery. I remember hearing how a doctor had been skeptical when the overnight nurse first claimed to have seen early signs of movement. They didn’t know him, I thought- they didn’t know his fight. I wrote of how I’d texted John a video from a sunrise in the Tetons last summer, and how confident I was in returning to show him the site in person one day. I fully believed that would happen. I can still picture the smile he’d have on his face…

At the funeral, several of John’s siblings came up and thanked me for being such a good friend to him- and while I barely found words beyond a tearful nod, what I should have said was “thank you for sharing your brother with me.” Because that carefree kid that awkwardly showed up in my driveway one day turned into one of the best friends and most important people I ever had in my life. He truly felt like a brother to me too. And in all the emotion of his passing, one thing that I struggled with was the guilt in some of those earlier comments- in my confidence that everything would turn out fine. Had I been overly naïve? Had I underplayed the severity of things?

John’s death was difficult to come to terms with, not just because it was untimely or because he was so well loved, but also because he’d shown such signs of progress. John was a fighter, and in those months that followed his stroke, he made great strides. With that I think came some anger and confusion after he passed, at least with me personally- and I know that’s a sentiment shared by some family members and others I’ve confided in. In the weight of our grief, it was just one more reason his loss felt incredibly unfair. We watched his recovery and viewed it in anticipation of things to come. It felt like we were out of the woods. We didn’t think we were actually going to lose him.

But maybe we were looking at it wrong all along. Maybe the continued rehab, the future trips and conversations reliving his journey to heal were never actually in the cards. Maybe he was fighting for something else. Because a hard truth in life is that no matter how badly we want something, how much we want to do or how desperately we try, we all have just a limited time. John’s body was giving out on him. While most of us didn’t know or want to accept it, he wasn’t going to shake this off as he had past complications with hydrocephalus. Maybe it wasn’t possible for him to fully recover- maybe he wasn’t ever going to make it back to the Tetons in physical form- but what he could do was fight like hell to give something far more important to many of his worlds.

One more.

One more afternoon surrounded by family. One more squeeze of his sister’s hand. One more time saying I love you to Erika and each of their children. One more outburst of laughter. One more smile for an Iowa score. One more happy update on his Caring Bridge site. One more day of love and hope.

In the months following John’s stroke he fought to give us lots of one mores. It was never going to feel like enough- I know it wasn’t enough for him either. We always want more time with those we love and who add so much to our lives and hearts. But we have to realize that his comeback, and all of those one mores that we did get, is something pretty special. It’s pretty rare. Not many people get that extra time- but I think John fought hard for those three bonus months so he could give this to us all.

I know that I feel very blessed for the extra opportunity this afforded me. Passing through Omaha last December, I was able to stop and visit John at the rehab facility. He wasn’t speaking yet at the time and he was mostly unresponsive for the hour or so that I was there. However, when at his sister Joyce’s suggestion I moved closer and took off my mask, you could see the light of recognition flash in his eye. I’ll never forget the profound connection we shared in that moment. He began moaning, attempting to communicate, and I was able to tell him how proud I was of him, and that he was doing so good. Then his gaze fell for a very long time on my son Caden, standing over my shoulder, and who John was seeing now in person for the first time. I could read my friend like a book- always could- and I know as it registered to him who this little boy was, that his heart and mind reflected on many of the same stories that I told you above.

It still hurts like hell, but I am grateful. For this, and for every moment that we got to share.

I love you buddy. Go Hawks.

Posted in Life.