John Rozdilsky, parks activist, museum collections manager, and longtime member of Salmon Bay Friends meeting, died at age 68 in September 2009 in Seattle, Washington. John’s warmth, good humor, and generosity of spirit were an anchoring presence for the meeting, and his last decade of struggle with heart problems never diminished his willingness to serve the meeting in a variety of outreach roles and to be a good friend and caring presence for the many F(f)riends who will miss him deeply.
John was born in August 1941 in Bridgeport, Connecticut—the oldest child of John Sr. and Maria Paraschula Rozdilsky. He grew up in Bridgeport with his two sisters, Diana and Ruth, and graduated from Harding High School there in 1959.
John was always an artist, painting and drawing from grade school forward, but when it came time to go to college, his parents insisted that he study engineering. He chose to study math as a more esoteric middle ground. He started at the University of Bridgeport and earned his bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Connecticut in 1964.
After graduation John worked briefly as a longshoreman, then taught at Cherry Lawn, a boarding school, for 18 months until friends in Seattle talked him into moving to the West Coast. He arrived in Seattle in 1967 and got a job at an insurance company. At this time he started attending University Friends Meeting after getting draft counseling there. Insurance work bored him, so he decided to get his master’s in math at the University of Washington. He got a job at the Burke Museum, thinking it would help pay his way while he was a student. He wound up staying there for 33 years.
At the Burke, John worked in the exhibits division, then transferred into the zoology division, where he worked as collections manager in mammalogy for many years. He had a special interest in the cetacean (aquatic mammal) collection and made many important contributions in that area. He retired in 2004.
John did a lot of work in support of Seattle area parks, including editing the newsletter for Friends of Olmstead Parks for a number of years. He served as president of Friends of Gasworks Park during the time that the group sued the city and stopped it from privatizing the park for profit purposes.
John met his first wife, Mary Lou McCorkel, in Seattle and they married on Aug. 31, 1968. Their daughter Melina was born on Jan. 20, 1971. Mary Lou was a birthright Friend, and the family was active at University Friends Meeting. John continued as an active attender after he and Mary Lou divorced in 1985, but he never completely gave up his Russian Orthodox roots. He celebrated Russian Christmas and Russian Easter, keeping the Christmas tree up until February so the carolers would come, and bopping eggs.
While working for the Burke, John decided to act on his passion for landscape, and he apprenticed himself to Chico Narro, the head pruner at Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum. For a time he had a small pruning business, and he entered the UW master’s program in landscape architecture. In 1991, Kristi Barnes —who knew John through UFM and shared John’s enthusiasm for landscape—called him to ask his advice on the subject. He soon asked her out, and the two quickly became a couple. John finished his master’s degree in landscape architecture in 1991, and he and Kristi married in 1992. Their legal marriage took place on Feb. 28, with Genjo Marinello officiating, and they held a marriage ceremony under the care of Salmon Bay Friends Meeting on July 18.
Kristi’s sons from a previous marriage, Drew and Peter Barnes, were then 13 and 12, so John got to experience parenting again. He was very nurturing to both boys, so much so that when Drew turned 18, he chose to be adopted by John and took his name.
Meanwhile, John’s daughter Melina had grown up, and the family celebrated her marriage to Steve Hebert in 1994. They subsequently welcomed her four sons—James, Samuel, Francis and John—into the world. John doted on all of them, and he and Kristi visited the Hebert family in Houston as often as they could.
In 1995, John decided to become a member of Salmon Bay Friends—the first time he had chosen membership after years of attending Friends Meetings. He served Salmon Bay in a variety of ways over the years, including being on Oversight and Nominating Committees. He was known as someone always willing to do whatever needed to be done, and Friends appreciated his thoughtful, often witty but always heartfelt vocal ministry. John was as likely to find a Quaker message in a Beatles lyric as he was an important experience from his own life. But he never failed to inspire with his gusto for living, his sense of connection with those around him, and his deep insights for how the spirit was working in the world.
John and Kristi packed a lot of living into their 17 years together. They traveled widely, and every trip became an adventure. They went to France, where they got lost and vowed to stay at the first place they found. They wound up at a magical inn in the countryside beside the Bridge of Dreams. It was closed, but the owners let them stay there anyway, sealing the deal in broken French since no one there spoke English. They went to Japan and stayed with friends who took them to many off-the-tourist-trail places. And they went to Greece, where they stayed with relatives they’d never met from John’s mother’s side of the family, relatives who treated them like royalty. John’s mother was able to accompany them for a portion of that trip.
In 1999, John had his first incident of ventricular tachycardia and subsequently had the first of many surgeries. He and Kristi learned that he had an electrical problem in his heart that caused arrhythmias, both atrial and ventricle, and a valve that was malformed. For the last 10 years of his life John had recurrent heart problems, but continued to live as active a life as he could. He and Kristi continued to work on the house and grounds they loved, and constantly welcomed visitors who stayed for periods ranging from overnight to several months. Among those visitors were Drew and his wife, Melissa Buss, who had married in 2005. John welcomed their son Graham, born just last May, as his fifth grandson.
It says a great deal about John’s fortitude and generosity of spirit that during most of the years with his heart problems, he continued to serve on Salmon Bay’s oversight committee giving outreach and support to others.
John spent the last night of his life, Sept. 25, at Quarterly Meeting in Ellensburg, where he had a chance to visit with old friends. But the following morning he didn’t feel well, so he and Kristi headed home. By the time they reached Seattle, John was worse, so Kristi took him to Virginia Mason Hospital. Despite the efforts of the doctors there, John died at 3:30 that afternoon.
When he heard of John’s death, his old friend from the Burke, Arn Slettebak, wrote to their colleagues, saying that if John could talk to them, he would likely say, “Be kind to each other.” His large circle of family and friends would agree, but would add a number of other things that John also would likely say: “Play with your children, and while you’re at it, play with some adults too”; “Be silly, be irreverent, shock people once in a while”; “Ask the question that everybody wants to know the answer to but is afraid to ask”; “Accept people for what they are. Don’t judge.” In life, John took his own advice on all those matters.
He is survived by his wife, Kristi; his daughter, Melina; his stepsons, Drew and Peter; and five grandchildren.