When I graduated from college a year ago it occurred to me that I hadn't thought seriously about life after NCAAs that year. Now that it's time (or a little past time) to consider what kind of adult I want to become, I've started keeping my eye out for role models. That's how I found John Lavery.
I've run into John almost every morning this summer at Potomac Boat Club. He's 79 and rows 8 miles six days a week. The first thing he told me when we sat down to talk was that I should be interviewing somebody who's actually fast. Well, I've never actually seen him row- I have no idea how fast he is. I'm impressed instead by his positive attitude and the obvious joy he takes in daily rows. I still have to fill in the gaps between 23 and 79, but for now John's got me aspiring to be a grandma-athlete someday.
It turns out that rowing is among the tamest of adventures John's taken on in his life. It seems he's always been active and creative. He joined the Air Force as a teenager and fought in Korea. He earned notoriety for his weekly cartoon, "Less Wright," that was published in the Air Force Newspaper. After the war he spent a few semesters at Wayne College in Akron. He's still smarting from being replaced in a remedial English class. 60 years later he not only remembered the assignment for the final paper, but even recited a beautiful excerpt he had written about his favorite city, Tokyo. The paper inspired the teacher to tell him that in fact he did not belong in remedial English. Soon after he dropped out of college deciding reading on his own would be as effective. John has recently completed his first novel and is looking for a publisher.
At 21 John landed a job with National Geographic where he worked for the next couple decades. The job brought on several more adventures. He recalled soaring over Detroit in a helicopter, mapping the city with an infrared scanner he'd modified to function as a camera. "I love flying. If it'll stay airborne I'll say, 'Let's go!'" He managed National Geographic's book department and worked in marketing. You know that yellow rectangle? John helped create that. He personally took National Geographic's record production division from grossing $100,000 to $2.3 million. John also entertained a car racing hobby until "crashing got rather expensive."
Rowing came into the picture rather late. "I was 57 when I started. I guess you can say I really was a Johnny Come Lately." He had been staying fit on a rowing machine and a friend decided to sign him up for lessons. John stuck to it and even won a masters national championship. His more recent adventures include becoming a sculptor, a novelist, and teaching his teenage grandson how to row. "I told him if you don't enjoy this don't do it for me or anybody- do it for yourself."
I should say that John never directly relayed his accomplishments to me. He seemed uncomfortable talking about himself and folded stories of his successes into stories about the friends and family he most admired. But again, it's less his accomplishments that impressed me- it's his courage to love what he does, enjoy people, and continually take on new challenges that inspire me. "Doing something that's easy- what's in that," he said. "I believe in bare hook fishing. Throw it out there and see what you catch."
Lavery in an old school JL Turtle Shell. John remembers meeting Joline Esparza in the eighties when she was just starting JL Design Enterprises.