YAM Notes: May/June 2020

By Marty Snapp

Sad news, classmates. We have lost two more of our number: John Czaja and Francis McGovern.

John died last September 21, survived by Carol Fishman Czaja, a childhood friend and the mother of his children Ian and Jason and his grandchildren Ben and Nik; and his wife of 25 years, Brenda Stevens.

He was a musical prodigy, especially on the trumpet. He could play anything, but his greatest love was jazz and the blues. He was already giving music lessons to others by age ten, and in high school he played every weekend with an adult band, as well as the New Hampshire Symphony.

He kept making music at Yale, playing in both the football band and the concert band. “John played trumpet in the Yale Marching Band during the years when a salacious performance was de rigeur,” says his roommate, John Crowley. “And he had a beautiful singing voice,” adds Joe Cohen, a fellow Saybrugian. “He was soft spoken but a really nice guy.”

“He was a very personable guy and an excellent cornet player, a stalwart of the Yale Band’s strong brass section,” remembers Mike Orlansky. “I recall some nice talks with John on bus rides to away football games, sometimes about his beloved home state of New Hampshire. John’s roommate and close friend was Brian Smith, captain of the cheerleading squad. Together, John and Brian were a lot of fun and brought a great Yale spirit to those long-ago football Saturdays.”

At Yale he fell in love with psychology and continued his studies at Connecticut College, where he was a research and teaching assistant. These experiences gave him the foundation for his future research as a psychoneuroendocrinologist (one who looks at the impact of hormones on the physical functioning and behavior of animals) and demonstrated to him the importance of faculty mentors, grant writing, and undergraduate research experiences.

He got his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and taught at several colleges before winding up in 1985 at Miami, where he was a professor in the Psychology Department and Associate Director of what is now the Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship. In addition to helping faculty write research proposals, John was responsible for university animal care, patents, and the development of a computer network. Over time, his focus shifted to facilitating grant writing, faculty mentoring, and developing programs for undergraduate research experiences

So just how did he pronounce his name, anyway?

“John went by ‘Saja,’ says John Crowley. “But, he explained, the correct Polish pronunciation was ‘Chyah.’ Because he figured that Russian must be like Polish, he gave it a try. It was very unlike Polish. Like me, he graduated from a public high school, and so did another of our roommates. We knew that ours was the first Yale class to have a majority – however razor thin – of non-private schoolers. This mattered in an intangible way.

“Our roommate Brian Smith was a lover of bridge, and he taught the rest of us, including Tom Beard, the fourth in our quad room, how to play. Before long, we all became bridge addicts, sitting cross-legged on the floor (for lack of a table) and dealing hand after hand well into the night. John and I were partners.

“After graduation, I saw John only once more: twenty-five years ago at Miami of Ohio, where he was an administrator and I was a job candidate. He drove me to Cincinnati one afternoon, and we came back to his house for more conversation. It was glorious, and I hoped so much that we would be reunited there. But I was the runner-up.

“How to capture John’s essence in an image? He was fundamentally feline in his graceful sinuosity. He had the smile of the Cheshire cat in John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. I can see him grinning and maybe hear him purring right now.”

When John was a boy, he loved spending time with his family at the lake – swimming, boating, and, especially, watching the loons, which he could do for hours on end. And his love for those beautiful, graceful birds never left him. Before he died, he requested that in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory be sent to The Loon Preservation Committee, a center and wildlife sanctuary dedicated to the protection and preservation of this ancient and threatened species.

Francis McGovern passed away on February 14 after a fall in his home. Almost immediately, heartfelt tributes began pouring in from law schools all over the world where he taught as a visiting professor, especially Duke, his home base, and the University of California’s Hastings College of Law.

“The students whose lives have been immeasurably broadened and enriched by Francis McGovern are not limited to those fortunate enough to have interacted with him in law school,” said a statement Duke released. “They include other academics, mediators, lawyers practicing throughout the United States and abroad, and many of the esteemed members of the federal and state judiciaries. Francis was not content simply to teach the law; he spent countless hours working with lawyers and judges to help them test the limits, applying and improving the law, to resolve intractable problems with cutting-edge solutions.

“A true man for all seasons, Francis relished every intellectual or physical activity in which he engaged. He loved traveling and discovery, he loved lively discussions, he loved reading, and he loved music and theater, even writing and performing in plays and musicals at his beloved Bohemian Grove. Francis was a man of complexity and vitality, and he relished life on virtually every level, pursuing each to the fullest. Francis McGovern was, and will remain, an icon for multiple generations of professionals, colleagues and friends.

“Deeply respected and loved, Francis will be remembered by all who knew him as a brilliant, engaged, yet humble and respectful man. With an ever-present sparkle in his eye, Francis never raised his voice, he never treated anyone with disrespect, and yet he was relentless and would never give up. His unconditional love, strength and devotion for his wife Katy, his children and his grandchildren reflect the legacy that Francis truly valued most. He was a devoted and caring husband, father and grandfather, teaching his children and grandchildren and leading them, and all of us, by example. There never was and never will be another Francis McGovern, and the world is a far, far better place for the time he was with us.”

UC Hastings responded by calling him “completely irreplaceable.” Chancellor David Faigman said, “He was one of the most erudite people I’ve ever known, in a profession replete with erudition. He was one of those rare individuals who actually deserved the term Renaissance Man.” Law professor Rick Marcus added, “He was a legend. He deserved to be. He was both an academic and a highly talented negotiator. But far beyond that, he could dig in, get his hands dirty, and make a positive contribution to resolving these impossible-to-resolve cases. That’s certainly why judges will mourn his passing, for he could work magic to untangle the Gordian knots they encountered too often.”

One of Francis’ most famous cases was the time he brokered a settlement after a nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island in 2003 that killed 100 people and injured 230 more. The Providence Journal wrote, “As special master, he met with each of the victims and their families, reviewed their medical records and work history prior to the deadly fire, to assess each person’s situation, losses and physical and psychic suffering. He then devised a point system for awarding damages to distribute the settlements of the lawsuits stemming from the fire.” (Francis, of course, donated his services.)

”He wasn’t afraid to look at us,” Gina Russo, who suffered near-fatal smoke inhalation and third and fourth degree burns that left her permanently disfigured, told the Journal. “We were very used to people not being able to look at us. I don’t think, without his help, it would have gotten resolved when it did. What an awful, awful loss to the world. He definitely will be greatly missed.”

“He was one of the most interesting people I have ever known,” says his college roommate, David Harvin. “A true son of Virginia, he was an immaculate dresser and a person of varied interests, from golf to horseback riding. The son of a distinguished physician, he always assumed he would be a doctor. But to do that, he had to take organic chemistry, which unfortunately met at 8 a.m. up on Science Hill. Because he knew there was no way he would get there on his own, he arranged for some friends with a car to pick him up and take him to class. The first day of class, his friends were downstairs on Elm Street outside our room at Trumbull honking the horn and calling for him. Still in our bunk bed, he rolled over and said, ‘I am going to law school.’ And, after a detour to the Marines, he did – at UVA.

“As a lawyer, he participated in some of the most important products liability cases in Texas history. From there he moved into the academic arena and developed a unique niche in the management and resolution of mass torts. As a special master or mediator, he was able to resolve some of the most difficult products liability problems in American law. He was in great demand – as a teacher, lecturer, mediator or special master. To these weighty issues he brought not only great intelligence, but an ability to relate to all parties, a sense of humor, and a humility that enabled him to bring intractable parties together.

“He was married to a lovely lady Katy, and he had four great kids whom he treasured. Notwithstanding his professional success, he made time for all of them. And he remained a unique personality: full of life, humor, intelligence, curiosity, admittedly some B.S., but always in a winning and charming way. We, and the world, will miss him. God grant Francis a place in his heavenly kingdom – but be prepared for a lot of chatter.”