In Memoriam: Don De Grazia

I was in the middle of the master’s program at Columbia College Chicago circa 2007 when novelist, professor, Windy City expert, punk Buddhist and all-around kind soul Don De Grazia agreed to be my thesis advisor.

Don and I first met at an official school function where there were drinks. We drank a couple of those, then immediately hit the bar. And for the rest of my time in Chicago, this was our way. I remember our time together as one long night at the bar, an ongoing conversations that stopped when we went home, read our books, wrote our stories and resumed when we next saw each other.

Don and I had enough in common to get us in trouble. I was Greek; he was Italian. He had deep roots in the Chicago punk scene; I had deep roots in the Detroit punk scene. He’d worked at the Metro. I’d played at the Metro in the 1990s with my band.

He was ten years older than me, but I’d known guys from his generation in the scene back home. It was like we knew each other before we knew each other.

He had already published his great novel, American Skin, when he was just thirty. I’d read it before we met, of course. And we hit it off instantly. There was the flowing booze, of course, something we were both experts at with our punk rock pasts, but also a mutual reverence for writing and especially reading.

Our meetings to talk over my thesis inevitably took place at the bar, but we barely ever talked about the thesis. He was a wise enough teacher to let me go make my mistakes (and I did, a lot of them), but to always give me an avuncular look when I was drifting off course.

Instead, we talked about everything else under the sun. Music. Movies. Journalism. But mostly books, especially the classics. We argued about them, debated their merits. We both loved the great Russian novelists, but instead of talking about the actual books, I recall a conversation about samovars, mostly Don explaining to me how he came to possess a samovar, which I thought was just about the coolest thing ever.

And this was all before I was ever in a classroom with him.

When I finally did have a workshop with him, I was slightly surprised to see the great punk rock novelist of the Windy City arrive in the classroom in nice gray woolen slacks, the kind my grandpa wore to church. “Nice pants,” I ribbed later.

He chuckled his inimitable shy-guy chuckle, then gave me a look and said something like, “If you wanna be taken seriously out there in the world, sometimes pants matter.”

This was good advice to someone also recovering from a sideways punk rock youth. I was thirty then and wasn’t sure if I would allow myself to ever wear nice pants. Don showed me it was fine.

While in his class, I worked on a story about a washed up, alcoholic rock and roll guy roaming the streets of Chicago. I was trying to be as outrageous as possible, trying to impress my new cool older brother professor with all sorts of shocking scenes. Don got a kick out of it, but he also gave me a very important note on the story, advice I took to heart – and still use.

“This is bordering on the burlesque,” he told me. “If you’re not going to take this guy seriously, the reader won’t either.”

We’d both grown up around large characters living outrageous lives, big voices telling crazy stories. I thought all I had to do was transcribe. But Don’s advice was filled with wisdom – that no matter how outrageous and shocking the behavior, if it’s not delving deeper into the softer places where people hide their true feelings, where we think things out, where we’re allowed to be scared, then it’s going to be nothing but a skit, a vaudeville act. Or in Don’s language, a “burlesque.” That in writing, I needed to get beyond the gruffness, the masculine displays of attention-seeking behavior. That a story needed to sink into the true depths of things.

And I think of Don that way, too – that he was tough, funny, even a hardass sometimes, but beneath all that there was sensitivity and vulnerability. He showed me it was all right to be that way in stories and, more importantly, in life.

Circumstances moved me away from Chicago and back to Michigan when I graduated. I stayed in touch frequently with Don for those first five or so years after I left. We’d exchange emails. I’d share news about what I was writing. I was working as a crime reporter in northern Michigan and we talked about journalism. With pride, I told him how the story I wrote in his class was accepted by the Chicago Reader for its Pure Fiction edition. He also introduced me to another wise soul, Rob Jackson, the publisher of the Great Lakes Review where my wife Meredith and I edited a few editions.

Then a year or two went by. I got busy. I’m sure he did, too. And then a couple more years went by. Then a couple more. And then the other day I found out my old mentor, teacher and friend had died suddenly at the young age of 56, leaving behind a wife and a little baby.

For the past year, I’d been meaning to reach out to Don to share some good news about a short story collection that I have coming out, but I put it off for too long. (On a practical note, REACH OUT TO THAT PERSON IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW.)

When I heard the news about Don, I immediately recalled my master’s degree graduation ceremony, wherein both Don and were decked out in full ridiculous academic regalia, mortar boards and gowns, two recovering Midwest punk guys trying to make it in a world of gray slacks.

As I prepared to cross the stage to accept my diploma, I got a text from Don.

“Don’t trip.”

And I will say the same thing to him as he crosses that stage into the Great Beyond.

Don’t trip, Don. Peace be with you and your family.

(Here’s a way to help Don’s family.)

Editor’s Note: Original Link to John’s In Memoriam