My cousin, John Varkonda, has died. It was sudden, unexpected, and inexplicable. As I understand the reports, he collapsed in the morning on December 31st, 2013, was being rushed by LifeFlight to Massachussets General Hospital from his home on Martha's Vineyard, but did not make it to the operating room that might have saved him. The original diagnosis was an abdominal aneurism. This is a huge loss for all who knew him, especially for the entire community on Martha's Vineyard, but I would argue that losing a person like John is just a loss for the entire world. We all need more people like him around in any era.
I haven't interacted with John much the past few years, since he moved away from Ohio to the East Coast, and I moved to Florida and later Georgia. But we occasionally exchanged Christmas cards, and commented on each others social networking posts. But I have always admired him. He reminded me so much of his father, also named John. Uncle John was a wonderful, boisterous, hard-working family man, and his son took after him in all of these particulars. When we were kids, John Junior was known to everyone in the family as 'Johnny Jay'. He was a few years older than I was then, and in the cohort before me and my younger sister. But among the 'older kids', Johnny Jay was a wonderful person to be around. He had an infectious smile and an explosive laugh, and I remember fondly visiting his parent's house over Christmas or New Years and seeing him joking with his father and his sisters Lynn and Amy (another pair of great joyful spirits, it seemed, in those days.)
In recent years, I admired John from afar. He moved away to follow his passion. He loved the forests . . . taking care of the trees. At the time he died, and for many years before that, he worked as the primary, and lately, only, caretaker of the state forest on Martha's Vineyard. My sister Holly visited him and his family last summer and had a wondeful time. I think she found a kindred spirit in the adult man we had known as children. My sister and her family saw his forest, with their trails, their wildlife, their all-but-disappeared coastal sandy forest clearings, their rare frost bottoms, and their protected heath hens. I admired his gentle environmentalism. He was one of the few people I ever knew who actually invested to install solar panels on his own home. He put his money where his beliefs were.
I admired his position as manager of the Manuel F Correllus state forest of Massachussets. The state forest on Martha's Vineyard is relatively young, where these sorts of state and federal parks are concerned, only established in the early-to-mid 20th century. The island almost lost this natural beauty, as overdevelopment in the 1920s and 30s threatened to wipe it out completely. But it was saved with the guidance of a single man, and the sponsorship of the state of Massachussets. John was only the second person to hold the position of forest manager here. He was selected to it by the previous forestry manager, the man who did the most to save this forest . . . Manuel Correllus. In 1987, with the retirement of Mr. Correllus, the domain became John's to husband. To have been selected by such a man demonstrates amply how others saw John, and how valued he was by those around him. They saw what we saw as kids, and learned as adults; John Varkonda was a solid, honest, hard-working, gentle, life-affirming, nature-loving man who could be depended upon to protect that which is important. He was a true caretaker of the earth and the creatures that live on it. There's a lot more detail about the forest and John's work there in a great article from Martha's Vineyard Magazine back in 2010.
And unlike most who live where he lived, he wasn't wealthy. As I understand it, he lived on the island in order to take care of the trees. His wife's position with the local community and his own work for the state allowed them a home there, one of the few truly working class families left on the island. This latter point may not be totally accurate, but that was my perception, and I admired them for working so hard to protect the land he loved.
From my sister's reports about her time visiting him last Summer, he was a devoted and great-hearted father and the rock around which his family and many in the community built their lives. I can't imagine their loss, and my heart goes out to his wife Jane and his teen son and young daughter, and also to his mother, my Aunt Ruth. I hope you all realize how much everyone admired and liked this wonderful person.