In Memory of John Dreyer

In Memoriam

This memorial for John Dreyer has been a work in progress for months. He died last summer, before the most recent academic year began, and those of us who knew him and loved him have struggled with his absence and wrestled with how to articulate how much he meant to us. This post is one small hint of how much he meant to us, what we could put into words. These words speak truths about John and about what he meant to us, but they can never tell the whole story.

We made it through this academic year without him here. But he was missed all the time, and he will continue to be missed.

Frank Van Nuys, Professor of History

When our colleague, Dr. John Dreyer, passed away suddenly on July 9, 2022, at the age of 44, we were all shaken to the core. It was nearly impossible to fathom how our academic and social lives would endure without him presiding at the head of the conference table on Donut Fridays; sitting in the back of the room at department meetings and presentations; working in his packed office surrounded by hundreds of books and collectibles with the Ohio state flag nailed to the wall; holding forth at Dakota Point or in Haley’s backyard gatherings; accompanying his beloved daughter when it came time to order Girl Scout cookies. From here on out we have to wrestle (a term I choose deliberately in honor of his devotion to professional wrestling) with this heartbreak.

John arrived here at SD Mines to teach Political Science in 2009. To be honest, unlike many others who come to the Black Hills and decide they never want to leave, John always longed to return east, particularly to his incomparable northwestern Ohio. I grew up in the southwestern part of that state, which I suppose made me alright in his book. He even gave me a Pete Rose-autographed baseball not long after he came here. I used to needle him about his “Ohiophilia,” referring to Toledo as “Paris-on-the-Lake” and his office as our “Ohio Embassy.”

There were so many facets to John beyond his love for Ohio. He was a brilliant colleague, a true friend, a loving father and family man, and a consummate storyteller. To honor John, we offer the following thoughts from his colleagues in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences and others from around campus.

Farewell, friend. Be at peace.

Christy Tidwell, Professor of English & Humanities

John was my friend for 10 years, one of the first people to be my friend in South Dakota. He welcomed me there, and he showed me the good liquor store on our first outing (important information). He was always ready to sympathize during bad times and to celebrate good times with a happy hour. We had so many happy hours, the last one just the day before he died, and we had so many hallway chats at work. Being on campus without him still feels surreal.

He loved the things he loved so much: lake boats and Alien; Clutch and Ohio; hats and military history; his cats, his friends, and his family. I still find things I want to send him, that I know he would love, and I miss our weekly happy hours. He was loyal and funny and weird, and I miss him so much.

John in the back, with Kayla Pritchard, Christy Tidwell, and Laura Kremmel in the front. Taken on a work trip to Washington, DC, in early 2020.

Kayla Pritchard, Associate Professor of Sociology

Neil Armstrong, tanks, and boat butts. John loved all three. I remember the first time I met him, during my interview. We sat in the couches behind the fireplace in Surbeck and he waxed poetic about the types of students on campus. I thought, “This guy is weird. I like him.” I have great memories of conversations at work, plotting at Independent with Christy and King, and him in a uniform, waving a fake gun over his head in front of his house on Halloween. He is missed greatly.

Laura Kremmel, Former Assistant Professor of English

John was my good friend. The first person I connected with when I interviewed at SD Mines. His office was right next to mine for four years, and I talked to him every day. Always ready to commiserate about our shared frustration with SD or politics or stupid school stuff or mental health. Always kind and generous, even when we rolled our eyes at him. He made me laugh a lot. Always had a hat or a recipe for every occasion. Happy hours were a life saver for me, and he was at the center of them. Always supportive and generous. He is/was deeply loved by his friends, and I hope he knew that. I think of you often, friend.

Created by Laura Kremmel for John, featuring one of the lake boats he loved.

Haley Armstrong, Director of Bands and Associate Professor of Music

John’s support and friendship was never wavering. Head of the table and always there when we needed you. I’m going to miss you and I wish you were going to be here to be the first to call me Col-Dr.

Carlie Herrick, Instructor of English

John started at SDSMT a year or two before I did, so when I started at Mines, I learned quickly that he was a person to ask where to find the EEP Building and how to emotionally cope with the few scathing student evaluations each semester. When he took the corner office, two doors down from mine, I was relieved that I could stop by on the way to the office to chat about life. He was approachable, and his sarcasm matched mine; although I don’t call Hill City “Hill Shitty,” he made me laugh. When the fall of 2020 came along, we opted to teach hybrid, which had its challenges. We coped together with the dwindling attendance and ghost town feel of campus. We commiserated about how many students were getting Covid and if life would “return” to what it was in 2019.  During 2020 through spring of 2022, I was especially thankful for his friendship.

In general, I miss pretending to step on his late papers that were sometimes lying on his office floor. I miss the jokes about mornings and lost keys and the sarcastic comments about who made the coffee in the faculty lounge. He was a friend and colleague, and I will always remember how approachable he was.    

Arana Peters, Senior Secretary in the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences

John was one of a kind. I will miss our conversations and I hope he’s hanging with the Great Lake Freighter crews!

Carter Kerk, Professor of Industrial Engineering

I always enjoyed talking to John. I ran into him a few times and visited his office a few times. I was very impressed with his passion and knowledge for history and reenactment. I was also pleased to see how he interacted with our Military Science folks. I advise a large number of students and many have commented on how much they enjoyed his classes (as well as yours)!

Mike Ray, Communications Manager and Mines Alumnus

Dr. John Dreyer was a valuable asset to our little campus community.  As an expert in history and politics he was a frequent guest on local media who could offer civil analysis and perspective on modern events while providing valuable insight on a wide range of history. His expertise and passion for his fields of study elevated us all. He is greatly missed. 

Olivia Burgess, Former Assistant Professor of English

Thanks, John, for being one of the most genuine and enjoyable colleagues I’ve worked with. You gave me some grief sometimes, but it was always in a spirit of comradery and support, and I loved it. I wish I’d had years more to get to know you.

Bryce Tellmann, Assistant Professor of English

A quote from John: “My guns are sexier than yours.” (said to student hooligans who interrupted his Ukraine presentation).

To me, John was a model of how to be sincerely interested in something. Whether it was lake boats, military uniforms, or foreign policy, it’s not merely that John wanted to tell you what he knew—he was eager to share what he had learned, purely because he found it so fascinating. Merchant marine galley menus were the song in John’s heart that he loved so much that he couldn’t help but sing. And I’m a little richer because John shared his interest.

Johnica Morrow, Nanoscience and Biomedical Engineering Program Coordinator

Dr. John Dreyer was a wonderful colleague who I was lucky to get to work with for the first time during the Spring 2022 semester. I was serving alongside John as a member of a search committee for the philosophy position now held by Dr. Paul Showler. As the outside of department member of the committee, I was a tiny bit apprehensive. I knew the names of those on the search committee (it is a small campus, after all), but I hadn’t really worked with anyone on the committee just yet. Most of our committee meetings were held via Zoom, which can feel distant, especially when you hardly know those you are meeting with. The members of the committee were all very kind and welcoming, so my apprehension faded fairly quickly early on in the process, and I ended up genuinely enjoying the time we all spent working together. I remember John going above and beyond to make me feel welcome as part of the team. He would always be on the Zoom calls a few minutes early (as would I) and he made it a point to ask about how things were going. I don’t know that he felt like he was going above and beyond, he seemed to be a naturally welcoming and chatty kind of guy, but it meant a lot to me that he treated me like he had known me for years rather than someone he had never even met in person.

Once we got to the stage of bringing the final candidates for the position to on-campus, in-person interviews, John and I were assigned to have breakfast with each of them. Each breakfast was a unique adventure with topics of conversation ranging from classic cars to outdoor activities in the Black Hills to video games and even where to go for military surplus shopping. The routine was for me to meet with the candidate at the Alex Johnson and walk them over to Tally’s, where John was usually already waiting with a full mug of coffee and some random anecdote or quip that would get a conversation going before we had even sat down at the table. We drank coffee, ate a hearty meal to start the day, and had lovely conversations getting to know three excellent and interesting philosophers. John was so engaging with the candidates that there was never a lull, awkward movement of silence, or boring moment at those breakfasts. He seemed to have a knowledge of or hobby interest in just about any subject that came up. I learned as much about him as I did about the candidates at these delightful morning events! But he was more than just a man who liked to talk. He was adept at the art of conversation…always pulling in commentary from the others at the table. He made sure to include me in every conversation by asking for my opinions or teeing me up to speak when he knew I had something to say about a particular topic. My most distinct memory of him is that for all three candidates he, at some point during the meal, said, “We like Johnica,” referring to his department and saying it with a big, kind smile. It was another way that he made me really feel like a valued member of our group and not just another person who was needed to round out the committee.

He had an incredible sense of humor and an impressive knowledge of an astounding array of topics. He loved military history and cars and video games and coffee. He was well-read and articulate. His wit and sarcasm were always on point. His laugh was infectious. I wish I had been able to get to know him better and to work with him more, but I am grateful for the brief time that we had together. I will cherish the fond memories of those three blissful mornings at Tally’s laughing, chatting, and trying not to scare off the candidates with our bad jokes and big personalities.

Erica Haugtvedt, Associate Professor of English

When I think of John Dreyer, I think of a good friend. I don’t so much mean that I was extremely close with John as much as mean that he was good at being a friend. I think John would have liked to have described himself as a tough guy, but he actually wasn’t. He was dedicated to defending whomever he perceived as the downtrodden, but he was a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve. He was definitely a big personality. I will miss seeing him sitting at the head of the conference table in the department for years to come. He was always welcoming, especially if you had any association with his beloved state of Ohio. John was the first one to invite everyone to happy hour, and he’d always be the person who showed up most consistently. It was about the beer, but it was also about the company.

As time rolls on without him (how can time be going on without him?!), I find myself reminded of him often. John loved hosting the annual Halloween party at his house, where the department faculty would take our young kids to go trick and treating in his neighborhood. John loved dressing up, in general, so Halloween was peak for him. I still remember him doing his Chernobyl impersonations.

John was generous. He loved sharing his gigantic collection of books, digital and print. He was wide-ranging in his interests and happy to talk about them or, at the very least, his cats.

Our community is poorer for the loss of John. He was taken from this world too soon. He is profoundly missed.

John with his newborn daughter Briony. As many have noted, he was a devoted father who loved her so much.

Matthew Whitehead, Director of Apex Gallery and Lecturer in Art

We are collectors, scavengers . . . hoarders.

We care about the history of things; the untold stories held within. We assign meaning, value. We consider the hands these things have passed through and the lives they have touched. We connect to the history, the stories, and we create our own.

Our hands hold, our hearts love, and our minds wonder – – and time takes.

John, I will miss our connection in this life. See you on the other side.

Evan Thomas, Assistant Professor of English

The last time I saw my friend John, he was worried about me because I was completely exhausted from parenting responsibilities and gearing up for a long two-day drive back to Ohio. Not all friends show that level of care: There were about a dozen people in our party, but John was the one person who actually took the time to check on my well-being during a trying time. John was like that – he always took time to visit, especially with a friend, and he made fast friends with many.

John’s motives for checking in on me were not, however, absolutely altruistic. John had long floated a fantasy about doing a big road trip with me in the style of the Blues Brothers: “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.” He was endlessly imaginative about adventures he could take, especially in his beloved Subaru Forester. John was also interested in the trip I was taking because I was returning home to Ohio, which was also his home state. John came from Elmore, a small town in the area of Toledo: I come from Kettering, a suburb in the area of Dayton. When I first arrived in Rapid City, John was elated to have more Ohioans near him. He had already proudly hung a full-scale Ohio flag on the wall of his office, and had a smaller image of the state with Elmore’s name largely emblazoned across it. He wanted everyone to know where he was from, because to know where he was from was to know him.

I think that this revealed one of the most endearing and indelible qualities about John: John knew precisely who he was, he made no airs about it, and this gave him an effervescent charisma to engage fully and sincerely with others. John had his vices, but he would tell you candidly about his vices and the next thing you knew you’d be laughing with him about your vices over a drink.

As I reflect on my time with John, it’s difficult to sum up such a multi-faceted and complex individual. John was a true original, which I mean in the highest of praise. And one paradox of being such an original person was that his obvious charms could also conceal several of his less ostentatious virtues. He was a scholar with a vivid intellectual life, a political thinker with sincere commitments, a character-performer, and of course a father and a son.

There was one time when I had a surprise encounter with John out around Rapid City, and I got to talk with him at length about a book on 1970s grand strategy he had been reading when I surprised him. John’s disarming personal charisma distracted many people from this fact, but he was an absolutely voracious reader and a powerful intellectual. He was a natural generalist, with interests ranging from nuclear strategy (“canned sunshine,” as he called it) to the Great Zimbabwe Empire to Deleuze’s rhizome. You could point at any spot on a world map, name a decade, and John could immediately describe for you the strategic and geopolitical complexities of that place at that time, down to the equipment involved, the uniforms, and of course the meals. I have had the chance to clear out some of John’s books from his office, and I have been amazed at the range and assortment of John’s interests, including Hegel and Kierkegaard, Polanyi and merchant banking.

Many people knew the jovial side of John, but he was also utterly sincere in every situation of fairness. He often spoke of himself in radical political terms, he literally wore his affiliations on his sleeve, and he considered it his revolutionary praxis to help people escape fines for parking violations on campus. He was a passionate gun collector, but such a collector as to sneer and condescend to what he saw as the lower elements of gun hobbyists. John was a staunch advocate of the interests of working people – I believe his father worked at a beryllium plant in Elmore – and he sincerely welcomed the hatred of people who would resent him for it.

I think because John was so totally at ease with his own self, he was also passionate about costuming and performance. John was an avid historical reenactor. He had a steady stream of historical uniforms trickling into his collection. One Halloween, John recreated the uniform of a Soviet nuclear reactor operator and loudly taunted trick-or-treaters with abstruse references to Chernobyl. At other times, John’s schemes for adventures would fuse into these performances, such as his outfit to be a cook on a lake boat for the merchant marine – another of his get-away-from-it-all fantasies – which was also one of his academic research areas. But despite this playful attitude, John never toyed with people or with people’s feelings. He was profoundly open-hearted in his playfulness.

Something else that others might have not known was that John loved his daughter Briony absolutely. I remember the last time I spoke to him, he was passionately excited about a new piece of furniture he had bought so that he could watch movies side-by-side with her. John told us about driving rituals that they would share (in the Forester) where John would do something intense and then call out, in reference to the film Mad Max: Fury Road, “WITNESS ME!” Sometimes he spoke lovingly about how much of himself he saw in her. She was his pride and joy, and I suspect that this reflected the loving tenderness that John received from his own parents.

When I got to Ohio, at the end of the road trip that John had asked about, I had the good fortune to be able to attend John’s funeral service. As befitting his exuberant personality, John had previously regaled some of us with an impossible vision of his own funeral, where he demanded that his body should be given a Viking funeral in the waters of Lake Erie. It was a preposterous, pagan vision. Instead, John was laid to rest in a casket that I would have called gun-metal blue. In retrospect, he might have preferred to have heard he was laid to rest “shiny and chrome,” like one of the War Boys from Fury Road. I stopped by the casket and told John how much I would miss him. I was so glad to have known John, and to have seen and known a bit of Elmore, because to know where he was from was to know him. Then I had to leave quickly to drive back across Ohio to return a rental car before a deadline, turning back from the most distant edge of my long trip in Ohio last summer. It was 159 miles back to Dayton, I had a half tank of gas, it was raining, and I had two hours. I drove as John lived: with the pedal to the metal.

Many members of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, after a department lunch event: Jonathan Gibson, Danielle Brady, Frank Van Nuys, Matt Whitehead, Arana Peters, Laura Kremmel, Kayla Pritchard, Evan Thomas, Erica Haugtvedt, Bryce Tellmann, Olivia Burgess, and – of course – John Dreyer.

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