My Friend the Poet Biologist

My longtime colleague, and valued friend, John Pierce, from The Old Farmer’s Almanac and Yankee Publishing, died suddenly this week at the age of 59.

In the late-1990s, after I’d worked for several years with the Yankee, John took on responsibility for the company’s websites and became my day-to-day liaison. Later it was John who convinced me to give up working with the Province of PEI and devote myself full-time to Yankee.

In addition to negotiating contracts, charting the overall course for and, and advocating for the web within Yankee, John was also my reliable source for company gossip, an excellent host for my quarterly visits to Dublin, NH, and a judicious saver of Car and Driver back-issues for me (after an off-the-cuff remark about how jealous I was of his subscription).

After reading in John’s official biography that he was once “an award-winning poet and… an accomplished student of botany” I took to referring to him has “my friend the poet biologist,” and although it was in jest, it also accurately reflected the breadth of John’s interests, his wit, and his willingness to engage in passionate discussion about the minutiae of almost anything.

Several years ago, for example, on one of my regular visits to Yankee, we ended up discussing some obscure aspect of the U.S. ZIP code system. While it was tangentially related to the real stuff of our work, it was ultimately a minor, albeit interesting, curiousity. But with John’s blessing and encouragement I headed off to the Dublin Post Office to consult with the town postmaster to get to the bottom of it.

John would happily talk to me for hours about how Wal-Mart manages its magazine inventory, how solar activity affects the weather, the merits of open source vs. proprietary software, the Indian caste system, or why there is a position of Measurer of Bark on Dublin Town Council. That said, he was neither a pedant nor someone who would “hold forth:” he was simply a curious man who appreciated the curiousity of others.

To say nothing of his dry wit and ability to trade in sarcasm. After once reading that John Irving had gone to Phillips Exeter Academy, John’s alma mater, I asked him whether they knew each other. It turns out that Irving was a little older, but their time there did overlap:

We passed each other in the “green room” of a Denver TV station a few years back and I had the chance to say “John, how are you? I haven’t seen you in years.” He just looked puzzled….

John once related to me the story of how it had come to pass that our colleague Steve Muskie (Steve is the guy who originally brought me to Yankee back in 1996) came to be involved in a helicopter crash while on a photography assignment for Yankee:

And for some reason he’s [Steve] still upset about the time the helicopter crashed while he was shooting aerial photographs of the Thimble Islands.
He had called me the day before that to ask if he could rent a helicopter. The conversation went something like this:
“How much will that cost, Steve?”
“They’re all around $1200 to $1400 per hour.”
“We can’t justify that,” I said, “But if you can find something for about half that we could spring for an hour.”
The next day he found one for $700 per hour. We just forgot to ask if it would stay in the air for the entire time.

What was perhaps the zenith of our curiousity-trading relationship came in 2004 when I decided to immerse myself in that year’s U.S. Presidential Election, from New Hampshire Primary in January to Election Day in November: John took on the responsibility for explaining it all to me, and became a sort of electoral spirit-guide. We seemed to take equal pleasure in the prospect of hearing John Edwards speak in a bowling alley in Merrimack (with special guest Glenn Close), and more pleasure still when Edwards was late and we both left early. And in November John invited me down around the back of Dublin Town Hall on Election Day to watch him vote.

More than anyone else John understood how important the sheer improbability of Yankee is to the success of the enterprise. He was able to simultaneously understand that it made no sense at all to run a national publication with a circulation of 4 million from a rambling campus of cobbled-together old buildings in rural New Hampshire and also to celebrate that very fact as being integral to the spirit of the place.

While more a polymath than an eccentric himself, John certainly appreciated the eccentricities of others (a good quality to have working at Yankee, of necessity a company made up almost entirely of eccentrics — how else do you find staff equally skilled in begonia planting schedules and the position of the moon in the astrological zodiac?).

Back in 2003 I made the case with John that it would be perfectly fine for me to relocate to France for a month, continuing with my web work for Yankee all the while. After some initial hesitation, he trusted that I’d make it work; later that year he emailed me a note that suggested he understood my motivations:

I think you want to wander the world and still be able to make living with your computer sitting in little coffee shops or town squares from Provence to Croatia and anywhere else your whim takes you. Banagalore is so wired you probably don’t even need a computer to access the Web. Just inhale and you’re on line….

It’s so rare to have a client who both understands your passions and gives you the latitude to celebrate them.

The same trust and appreciation for the improbable manifested when I proposed to solve a labour shortage on the web team by recruiting my brother Johnny into the company. Johnny, an English major, knew nothing about the web, and had never written a line of code in his life. But I told John that he was a quick study, and that we could leverage our brotherly bond to good end. John gave the go ahead, and Johnny’s been a member of the team since.

By my count I’ve been down to Dublin fifteen times in the last 5 years. And every time I made the trip John welcomed me like a long-lost relative. He and his wife (and co-conspirator at Yankee) Sherin would always have me to supper at their house, often a supper of southern Indian food cooked by John himself. I watched the World Series with them, saw their sons Jamie and Alex grow from young kids into teenagers into young men, and felt as welcomed in their family as anywhere.

John’s unexpected death — he suffered a series of strokes a week ago and never recovered — is an unimaginable loss for Sherin and their children. I take some comfort knowing that John’s love of life, his insatiable appetite for knowledge, and kindness and strength are all qualities that will live on through them.

I’ll miss John Pierce more than I can say.


Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on April 13, 2008 - 13:12 Permalink


Steve's picture
Steve on April 16, 2008 - 01:04 Permalink

Peter, your posting about John is wonderful. I’m sure that John would appreciate it. Would that we could all have such a remembrance written about us. I’m glad that I thought to check your blog today.

oliver's picture
oliver on April 16, 2008 - 06:23 Permalink

I hope it goes in the Rukapedia. Sad to learn you lost such a friend. Grieve well.

Katie's picture
Katie on April 16, 2008 - 12:24 Permalink

Peter, I am so sorry for your loss…and for that matter mine and the whole world’s loss. I did not know John — but now know that those who did were the lucky ones and the rest of us missed out.
My thoughts are with John’s friends and family,