Almost a year ago, in the midst of the excitement of fall football, with the campus at the peak of its countenance, I met John Gruner. John was gaunt. His clothes hung loosely on a frame that had lost much of its muscle to cancer, significantly altering and slowing his gait. He wore a necktie printed with dollar bills that seemed like a gag gift from a holiday gift exchange. His eyes shone brightly behind large horn-rimmed, soda-bottle glasses. He was excited to meet the dean of his college, he told me, a college that had launched his career more than 40 years ago. He also proudly announced that the dollar-bill tie was a sign that he was ready to make a planned gift to the college.
Trajan Dubiel, development officer in the college, and I took John to lunch. He talked about his health and the various treatments. He reminisced about his travels, talked about sports teams from his hometown of Cleveland and about MSU football and basketball. But it was his experiences as a student at MSU that he recounted with great delight.
After graduating from MSU, John worked on small newspapers. He then joined the Cleveland Plain Dealer where he was an editor for more than three decades. Being single and frugal, he saved much of his income. And when his brother died, John inherited his estate and ended up with sizeable assets.
At the root of John's allegiance to his alma mater is his affection for one of his professors, Mary Gardner. Much like all of us, John arrived on campus with a hope and a dream and unsure of his future. He went through the motions, taking classes and doing what students do, until he arrived at Professor Gardner's advanced reporting class.
Professor Gardner is a mythological figure among journalism alumni. A legion of students talk proudly about the battle scars from her class. They groan at the mention of her name, yet in the same breath concede that her course, more than any other, was most beneficial to their careers. By the end of the conversation, they express fond gratitude for her dedication to her craft and the success of her students.
Rare these days, Gardner was the quintessential writing instructor from a bygone era. She was demanding and tough, frugal with grades and routinely flunked students on assignments for misspelling a proper name. But above all, she was dedicated to her cause and her students. Three rewrites of each part of a four-part series was required, and each version was returned with detailed edits and references to previous versions. She also would not tolerate absence from class or tardiness.
One day, after a long overnight's work on election night at the State News, John arrived late for Gardner's class. He was mortified and came prepared to bear the punishment that was in store. To his surprise she let him off easy. This simple act of kindness had a profound impact and to this day John recalls that incident as a flashbulb memory. By the end of the semester, John had a 3.5 out of 4.0 in Gardner's class, which he considers to be one of his major accomplishments.
More than four decades later, here was John ready to make an endowment in Mary Gardner's name.
Though John is the protagonist in this story, Trajan's role cannot be underestimated. He had encountered John at a brunch that John drives four hours each way in one day to attend every year, and cultivated a friendship that was not transactional. Trajan had no idea of John's intentions to give or his potential capacity.
A year later, as we prepared for our lunch meeting, Trajan cued in me that John was ready to document a gift in Mary Gardner's honor. The timing couldn't have been more perfect. We had dreams of building a state-of-the-art newsroom and we pitched to John the possibility of naming the future newsroom after Gardner. After some discussions, he warmed up to the idea.
With John's investment as the seed money, we were able to leverage other resources to fund the project. This summer, Trajan and I visited John in Cleveland to thank him. With great zeal and joy, he took us on a tour of his city. He seemed to know every restaurant, street, and short-cut. Though the roads he traveled were in Cleveland, his heart was very much green and white. His 1998 Toyota Corolla with more than 250,000 miles proclaimed his allegiance. “My only concession to vanity is my GO MSU plate,” he said with a grin.
John is doing well for now. His treatments have been successful. His razor-sharp memory has not diminished and he can recount the granular details of many events in his life. He completes every sentence, each beautifully formed and delivered in rapid succession as he flits from one thought to the next, all of them stitched together as a rich mosaic representation of a life well lived, without fanfare, without grudges, but with gratitude.
Two weeks ago, Trajan and I met with John at a pre-game brunch. He had left Cleveland early in the morning to arrive in East Lansing by 9 a.m. After brunch, we brought him to our building to show him the newsroom he had helped fund. His face lit up with joy. The pupil had finally made good to his teacher who didn't take him to task on the day he was tardy for class.