The following article was written in 2013 by Beverly Perna for the Ipswich Chronicle. Reprinted with permission.
It is true—when you become “of an age,” you start to scan the obituaries. Sadly with each passing year, I see more familiar names. If I didn’t know them, I knew of them.
I looked at the paper last week, and one entry evoked an, “Awwwww,” from me.
John “Jack” Dolan had passed at age 90. (May 24, 2013)
The news took me back several years to a summer afternoon when I resentfully pounded away on my Mac Classic working on my doctoral dissertation. My subject was a woman virtually lost to history, the principal of the Ipswich Female Seminary, Zilpah Grant Banister.
I traveled to Mt. Holyoke, Smith, combed various libraries in this state and New Hampshire trying to glean information about her, but there was only one book written about her, The Use of a Life by Lucinda T. Guilford. It was published in 1885 and was typical of the memorial books written during Victorian times, adulatory but packed with information.
The only local copy was in the Ipswich Library archives under lock and key, and I had to make many time-consuming trips to the library to take notes from it.
The phone rang. It was John Dolan.
“I have a book on the woman you are writing about and wanted to know if you’d like to buy it.”
Now, I didn’t know that John Dolan knew of me, let alone that I was writing about Banister. I had never met him. I knew of him, of course, he’d been our state representative, pioneered conservation legislation into law, and along with Harold Bowen and Alice Keenan was a rich resource for Ipswich history.
My heart jumped—I knew there was only one book written about “the woman,” and if I had my own copy, my life would be simplified immensely.
Dolan continued, “I don’t know if you can afford it, though.”
My heart sank as I calculated how high I was willing to go to buy this book. I had absolutely no idea how much the book was worth to anyone but me. Would the family object to a month’s worth of macaroni and cheese?
“You can have it for what I paid, $3,” he said, laughing.
Within an hour, Dolan was at my front door, and I had the book in my hands. A few years later, John Dolan was listed in my acknowledgments in the completed dissertation. The book is among my most treasured possessions, and I still feel profound gratitude for his seeking me out and giving me a leg-up in my task.
I have a feeling there are more stories of Dolan’s generosity out there. I also think my experience shows that Jack Dolan didn’t miss much in town.
I spoke with his family shortly after his funeral. It was clear that his son Jeff, daughter Rebecca Dolan, and his grandchildren Bronwen and Michael Penniman were feeling a bit untethered by Dolan’s death. He had anchored the family for so long.
You can prepare yourself intellectually for the end of a long life, but there is no way to prepare emotionally when faced with the actual absence.
Samuel Dolan, Jeff’s son, resides on the West Coast and is a writer and producer for The History Channel. He penned a loving obituary that detailed his grandfather’s accomplishments and interests.
Rebecca said if there was one word to describe her dad, it was “consistency.”
“You knew what to expect from my father,” she said. She added that he really loved to help people. Bronwen, overcome with emotion, nodded in agreement.
Michael echoed his mother’s sentiments saying, “He was a man of unending generosity and compassion.”
He shared a story about his grandfather taking him to visit the State House a few years after his 18 year-long tenure as our representative. He said Dolan gave him the “backstory” tour, not the governor’s office nor other elevated offices, but the offices of those he felt “made government happen,” such as the Sergeant at Arms. “Everyone knew who he was, and it was a decade after he served,” said Michael.
Jeff Dolan has lived in Arizona for the last 25 years but said he pictured being on a bow of a skiff and his dad at the tiller with a big smile on his face. He would recall going “downriver,” and visiting Dolan’s uncle Lew Kilborn on Grape Island.
Some will remember that John Dolan wrote a history column for the Ipswich Chronicle for four years.
That is how Bill George of Sofia’s Breakfast Club recalled him, as a historian who enjoyed collecting the same things George does, culling flea markets and used book shops for treasures.
Dolan served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and was active in the local VFW. Jake Burridge, enjoying his daily coffee at Sofia’s, said when he was commander of the post, he needed a speaker and enlisted Dolan.
Dolan spoke of his experiences in the military, and Burridge asked him if he could talk a little longer.
“I can speak forever,” said Dolan, and launched into stories of Ipswich history. Burridge said he finally had to give him the “cut it short” signal. “He really could talk forever,” he said.
At the onset of the discussion about the VFW, Jim Gianakakis produced a small crumpled paper bag. It contained 3 inch long copper strips engraved with names of local veterans that once appeared on a plaque that had been replaced. He said he’d bought them for .50 apiece at a local flea market.
He pulled the strips out of the bag and passed them around. The fourth one read “John F. Dolan.” It was as if Jack came to share coffee with us and to say, “I’m still here.”
Jack’s death reminds me of days when government was smaller and more responsive, when you could walk down Market Street and know just about everyone you passed, when there were folks like Jack who were passionate about town history.
His was an exemplary use of a life. I prefer to think he is not gone, he is just “downriver.”