John Hubbuch and I had a good arrangement. Twice a month, I edited his column, which I always looked forward to, and in return, every other month or so he would take me out to breakfast, usually at Hemmingway’s Bistro, where we ate our birchmuesli and held court for a couple of hours on a wide range of topics — from the achievement gap at OPRF High School to philosophy to youth sports to the latest outrage from Trump to the afterlife and God to the latest controversy in Oak Park to films to Indiana basketball to our kids and grandkids.
My brain slipped into a higher gear during these sessions and I always left feeling wonderfully stimulated. His was an active life of the mind. John faithfully attended Redd Griffin’s extended-learning seminar on Great Thinkers through Triton College. When Redd died some years back, John kept the class going.
His plan, growing up in southern Indiana, was to become president of the United States (JFK was his early hero, Barack Obama later). By the time he and Marsha moved to Oak Park in 1976, he was content to serve a term on the District 97 school board in the late 1980s — though he always left the meetings by 10 p.m., saying he needed his sleep and they knew where to find him if there was a vote. He was also a longtime member of the YMCA board and served as president of the OPRF High School Huskies Booster Club for 10 years. So he did become president. And he was very proud of living in Oak Park.
“It was a place where people talked about important ideas,” said Marsha. “He was very impressed by what Oak Park stood for.”
And he wrote a column for Wednesday Journal for roughly a quarter-century. He was funny, provocative and sometimes painfully honest, a truly independent thinker. He delighted in playing the contrarian and skeptic (but never cynic) and enjoyed getting a rise out of his readers.
When I entered his name in our Search function, the following headlines popped up:
“Offended by Hubbuch’s column”
“Hubbuch’s column reveals classism, elitism”
“Get some Prozac and go to confession”
He fancied himself a curmudgeon, writing columns titled, “Confessions of a lapsed, liberal Democrat” and “Beware: This column contains alternative opinions.” But he was just too upbeat. His son Chris described him as “an optimist but a realist.” I would call him a realist whose optimism kept shining through. There was just too much sunshine in him.
I didn’t always agree with him, but I always enjoyed reading him. I admired his brevity, his wit and his refreshing candor. He knew his personal shortcomings and acknowledged them more freely than anyone I know. He started one column: “What follows are the individual, non-expert thoughts of a 71-year-old male living in Oak Park, Illinois. Although I am pretty egotistical, I do not presume to tell anyone about anything.”
The one area of his life where he was never contrarian or skeptical was family. He described himself as a “C” lawyer, a “B” husband, and an “A” parent, and that’s the way he wanted it. He made time to coach his three sons in basketball (his first love, being from Indiana), baseball and soccer. He and Marsha were high school sweethearts, and they stayed sweet on each other. And though he never got around to assigning the grade, he was an A+ grandfather, down on the floor, crawling through tunnels, sliding down slides, landing on his butt. Grandparenting was a contact sport. When the kids went down for naps, so did he. He left it all on the floor.
“John,” Marsha said, “was the heart of this family.”
His favorite moments were spending an afternoon on the golf course with his sons or watching the Bulls together in the basement during their remarkable run of six championships in the 1990s.
Every August for four decades, the Hubbuchs joined friends for a week in Watervale, Michigan. In a 2013 column titled, “Vacation: a philosopher’s paradise,” he wrote:
“This year I spent considerable time on the beach with Lily and Ava, my little granddaughters. I reveled in the moment when the waves crashed against them in my arms, and they came up sputtering, torn between joy and fear, just like their father and uncles so many years earlier on that very same beach.
“Each year I come away from Watervale with a renewed appreciation of the natural world. I am affirmed in my decision to put family at the center of my life. I grasp how very fortunate I am. Perhaps most importantly, I understand that life is filled with possibility, and it is up to me to make the most of it.”
John made the most of it. He retired as early as possible (age 59) so he could spend more time with the people he loved. When the nest emptied, he and Marsha sold the big house on the north end of Oak Park and downsized to a bungalow south of the Eisenhower. So much for being classist and elitist. He was, first and foremost, a silo-buster.
And he had his priorities in the right place.
“John always tells me that nobody has it better than him,” said Marsha last weekend trying to buoy our spirits as we hoped against hope that Loyola could work a miracle on his torn aorta. But it was too much even for modern health care and even though he was in excellent physical condition, his heart gave out, on Wednesday, Sept. 9.
For his grandkids the loss is huge. The older ones — especially his first, Lily, already showing promise as a writer — will need to remind the younger ones as they grow older what their grandpa was like, how special he was. Three-year-old Hazel calls him her best friend. So does Hazel’s father.
He was a character. He loved purple clothes, gumballs and disguises (especially his Captain Hook costume). In fact that was his entire Christmas list last year.
“He was a purple shirt-wearing, gumball-chewing goof,” said Nick, “and the smartest person in the room.”
John wasn’t afraid of death. At any rate he wasn’t afraid to look at it squarely, which he did in April this year when he wrote:
“I do appreciate the concern that everyone has for old people like me during these troubled times. But trust me, I have thought about death quite a bit as I have gotten older. I get it. I am more vulnerable to COVID-19, but then I am more vulnerable to heart disease, Alzheimer’s, the flu, falling down the steps, etc., ad nauseum. Old people always are dying.”
“If this is it,” he said, as the paramedics wheeled him to the ambulance, “it was a great run.” There was only one thing he didn’t accomplish: dancing with his granddaughters on their wedding day. Other than that, his sons say, as a father and a grandfather, “he went out on top, like Michael Jordan.”
“The most important thing he taught us,” said his son, Phil, “is to be the best parent we can possibly be.”
I will miss our breakfasts but most of all his columns. I’m more of an essayist, but John was a true columnist. Get in, hit the nail on the head, and get out. That’s how he lived, too. He made me laugh and made me think — or rather, pushed me to find out what I was thinking. But he never made me cry.
Until last week.