For over four decades, John Garvey (1944–2015) was Commonweal’s “elemental” columnist. Under the title “Of Several Minds,” his entries covered a range of topics relating to culture, politics, and theology, and were invariably both readable and challenging. Those columns, as well as his occasional articles and book reviews, served for many as a veritable ballast for these pages. Whether writing about the hot-button issues of racism, euthanasia, abortion, birth control, or gay marriage; or discussing the novels of Philip Roth, the poetry of Richard Wilbur, or the paintings of Mark Rothko, John invariably ended up dealing with essentials: with first and lasting things, of this life and of life eternal. Year after year John was awarded the “Best Column” prize by the Catholic Press Association. It got to the point that David Toolan, SJ, an editor at both Commonweal and America, remarked the prize should simply be renamed The Garvey Trophy. “As a writer,” a contest judge once noted, “Garvey has wit and style; as a thinker he has depth.” John’s writing was suffused with a deep and hard-earned Christian faith, but never an unquestioning one.
John was born in Decatur, Illinois, in 1944, the oldest of nine children. Soon thereafter, his family moved to Springfield, Illinois, where his father and an uncle founded Templegate Publishers, a small Catholic book firm that continues to this day. The Garvey family lived on the outskirts of town, and as a boy John used to cross the road from the house and climb a tree that towered over adjacent fields. From up in its branches he could scan as far as the Midwestern horizon allowed. One day, a violent windstorm kicked up just as he reached the top of the tree, and he had to cling on for dear life. Many years later, John wrote that this experience had been formative: it opened an expansive philosophical and theological sensibility that never left him.
John’s schooling at St. Agnes Catholic School was interrupted at age seven, when he developed a rare blood disorder and nearly died. He missed school for over a year, but his convalescence allowed him to become an avid reader. He was especially attracted to comics, Norse mythology, and science fiction; once back in class, he read the school library’s sole sci-fi novel thirteen times. (When his mother awoke him one morning with news that the Soviets had launched the first satellite, John’s immediate question was whether it was “conical or spherical.”) After grammar school, John attended an all-boys Catholic high school. Like so many Catholic boys at the time, he seriously considered becoming a priest. (One of his uncles was ordained.) It was during this impressionable time, when John was fifteen, that the Garvey family suffered a catastrophic loss: the sudden death of John’s eighteen-month-old sister, Grace. Her death had a profound and enduring effect on him, shaping his understanding of life’s fragility.
In 1963, John entered the highly selective general-studies program at the University of Notre Dame. Returning to Springfield the summer after his freshman year, he decided to look up Regina Carbonell, whom he had briefly dated during high school, and who had remained in Springfield to study music at the community college. Though John was entertaining the possibility of a monastic vocation, when he returned to Notre Dame in the fall, he began corresponding with Regina. The subsequent exchange of letters changed their lives. As John later recounted, somewhat shamefacedly, he found himself standing in a chapel praying: “If You want me to be a monk, Lord, You have to make it really clear.... I don’t seem to be heading in that direction.”
For John, the general-studies program proved the right fit, its great-books curriculum coupling independent study with extensive expository writing assignments. Studying under such legendary mentors as Frank O’Malley and the priest-theologian John Dunne, he perfected his talents as a voracious reader, note-taker, and budding raconteur. In June 1967, immediately after graduation, Regina and John were married. He was twenty-three and an objector to the Vietnam War. The following year, he taught literature and theology at a Catholic high school in Mishiwaka, Indiana, not far from South Bend. It was during this period that he and Regina became friends with Henri Nouwen, who had just arrived at Notre Dame (John would later edit an anthology of Nouwen’s writings for Templegate). And it was here that the Garveys’ first child, Maria, was born. Two months premature, she endured a life-or-death struggle for survival. John would later write about the revelatory nature of this experience: how it disclosed a love that can make you willing to give up your life for another.
The Garveys then returned to Springfield, where their son Hugh was born, and where John worked as an editor for Templegate, while Regina taught piano. It was in Springfield that the young family was befriended by the feisty Chicago Catholic editor and publisher, Dan Herr. His Thomas More Press would publish John’s first book, Saints for Confused Times, and Herr’s magazine, the Critic, began printing John’s articles. By 1973, John’s writing had come to the attention of the editors of Commonweal, who first asked him to write reviews and articles, and then, in 1976, to join the ranks of the magazine’s columnists, which included the likes of Thomas Powers, now a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, and Abigail McCarthy, wife of Senator Eugene McCarthy, also a Commonweal contributor.
Writing for Herr and for Commonweal provided John with little more than “oatmeal” money. So he began working in the public-relations office at Sangamon State University, then shifted to part-time work at Springfield’s famed Lincoln Library so that he could devote more time to his writing. In the mid-1980s, he applied for a staff position with the Republican membership of the Illinois State Legislature. He got the job—thanks in part to a senior member of the hiring staff who admired his Commonweal column. The nonpartisan position involved writing papers on the fiscal impact of legislative proposals, a task requiring sharp research and analytical skills. Decades later, asked to write a critical report on the finances of a troubled eparchy of the Orthodox Church, John said it was his number-crunching for the Illinois legislature that gave him the wherewithal to do it.