Lehigh students, faculty, staff and community members filled the Asa Packer dining room Friday evening to remember John Pettegrew, the beloved chair of Lehigh’s history department, who died May 29 at the age of 58 from cancer.
A total of 14 speakers painted an affectionate picture of Pettegrew, describing his humility, patience, kindness, experience and determination during the 90-minute memorial celebration.
Tamara Myers, associate professor of history and Pettegrew’s wife, was the first to speak, highlighting both her late husband’s professional and personal side.
“There are a few things that everyone knows, or should know, about John,” Myers said. “That he was utterly committed to a rich intellectual life that led him to doggedly pursue a kind of solitary or autonomous existence. But in contrast to that, he was highly social and shared an infectious enthusiasm for life and its pleasures.”
Until the very end, Myers said, Pettegrew “was still sinking his teeth into life.” She recalled Pettegrew’s oncologist telling him that if he were faced with such a diagnosis he would quit working, but Pettegrew looked at Myers and shook his head, indicating that was not an option. He was in the middle of many different things, Myers said, as she joked about the three offices Pettegrew kept.
Pettegrew had just seen his son Nick begin at Lehigh, while his daughter, Helen Keetley, entered high school. Myers said Pettegrew was looking forward to his parents getting accustomed to a new hometown as he continued to settle into a solar-powered home with her.
Next to speak was Seth Moglen, professor of English, who focused on Pettegrew’s community involvement in his remarks.
“John moved as naturally as anyone I know between the world of books and the living, breathing community around him,” Moglen said.
Moglen, who described Pettegrew as “feminist to the core,” remembered the silent march in Bethlehem against gun violence, the Iraq war teach-ins and public forums he organized, as well as the South Side Initiative, which Pettegrew co-founded and co-directed from 2007-2014.
One of Pettegrew’s former students, Jonathan Hagel, now with the history department at the University of Kansas, remembered having met Pettegrew in the fall of 1996 when he enrolled in one of Pettegrew’s classes.
“From the first day, John brought an unmistakable sense of fun and play to the classroom, and history classrooms are not known for fun and play,” Hagel said.
Julia Maserjian, digital scholarship manager at the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, Nitzan Lebovic, associate professor of history, Ziad Munson, associate professor of sociology, and Dirk Hartog, of Princeton University, all followed Hagel.
Munson relayed a story that demonstrated not only Pettegrew’s eternal optimism, but also his love of food. Pettegrew hosted Munson for what Munson called “a glorious feast” that featured a grilled duck breast as the centerpiece to a salad. With the grill down a flight of stairs and on the other side of the house from the kitchen, it was not continuously under supervision. On one trip to the grill, Munson found it in flames, called for Pettegrew and began thinking about how to save the house. Pettegrew, unfazed, got baking soda and a tarp to put out the fire.
“Then there were these hockey puck looking things on the grill, and I thought, ‘That’s OK, the salad will be good or we could order pizza, or whatever,’” Munson said. “But no, John’s an optimist, so he said, ‘This is going to work.’ He brought the hockey pucks upstairs where he sliced it, put it on a beautiful salad and I said at the time, it’s not just in retrospect, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in my life.”
Barry Kroll, professor of English, rounded out the scheduled speakers by recalling their conversations together while enjoying another of Pettegrew’s loves – fly fishing.
After the first eight speakers, the floor was opened, and an additional six attendees, including Pettegrew’s brother and sister, community members and former graduate students, expanded on his “exploding laughter” and profound impact on the community.
His brother, Jim Pettegrew, reiterated John’s love of food but added the outdoors, family, friends, music and movies to the list of things he enjoyed most.
When all who wished to speak finished, guests were invited to watch a video tribute, compiled by one of Pettegrew’s former students, on loop in the adjoining Osborne Room. The video contained additional fond memories of Pettegrew from a number of former students and colleagues.