Josiah Wedgwood’s gran. That’s as much as the emcee, Donn Pearlman, got out before Big John rang in. “Charles Darwin,” he intoned in his deepest matinee idol voice, the smirk of self-satisfaction expanding across his bewhiskered face with each successive syllable. Most folks in the room didn’t know who Josiah Wedgwood was, let alone who his grandson was. All I could wonder, beyond how John knew the answer to the question before it even got asked, was what other knowledge was kicking around inside that too-big-for-most-hats head of his.
After being crushed with disappointment with a second-place finish in 1993, John Burns and I won the ANA’s World Series of Numismatics in 1994. John felt like he’d let me down the year before, but his sourness in the hands of defeat turned to the highest high I’d ever seen him on when we won. The victory meant, to him, all the reading, all the work had been worth it, that his previously unrecognized brilliance had finally gotten a moment to shine.
Of course, all his friends already knew he was brilliant, as did most casual observers who engaged him in conversation. He knew more about coins than most full time dealers, able to talk turkey on VAMs or novodels or sestertii. He could hold his own in any discussion of history, sports, politics, movies, music (from classical to heavy metal), food and drink, cars, guns, geography, or a million other topics. About the only topic John lacked a mastery of was entrepreneurship. He could never quite monetize his brilliance, much to his frustration. He once mused to me that “intelligence is not a skill.” He was always happy to rail against the “slab boys” who could buy and sell his net worth a dozen times in a summer afternoon with no more knowledge than what might be found in a typical Grey Sheet. More than once I encouraged him to try out trading, under the guise of joining them if beating them isn’t in the cards. But John had no love for trading, and one thing about John was that he only did what he loved.
John loved mastering knowledge, both foundational and trivial, and that meant John loved books. He loved their weight and tactile sensations (even if he did spit curses at every loading dock he ever saw). He loved how they were gateways to things he’d never own and places he’d never visit. He loved their ability to serve as an equalizer, as a repository of that most final of weapons, information. Of course, John also loved a big steak, a nice whiskey, and a cold beer. He loved just about everything about a woman that a woman had to offer, and a wink or a hug could turn him into a massive pile of sweaty smiles and blushing. John loved his dad and adored his friends. He loved his friends’ friends and his friends’ families. He loved chatting, at his booth at a show or on the phone.
Its no wonder John did so many coin shows. The people he found there were his kind of folks: clever and funny, maybe a little awkward or odd, generally very smart and very sincere. He was forever inviting himself into dinner groups where he thought good convivial conversation could be had. John identified with a line I’d heard from a mutual friend of ours years ago, that most coin folks were misfits and loners. Of course, though John was an oddball and spent most of his time alone, he was really neither a misfit nor a loner. He loved being with his gang, and he fit in just perfectly in the world of numismatics.
Now that he’s gone, there’s a pretty big void in the fabric of our odd little world. Professionally, there won’t be a blue collar bookseller at coin shows from Raleigh to Monroeville anymore. Personally, there are a whole lot of us who are going to miss our very frank, very funny, very honest, entirely unique, and always surprisingly well-informed friend.
John and I were both Pennsylvania boys. We were both goys in Jewish fraternities. Over the course of 25 years of friendship, going back to our days attending small local shows in the middle of Pennsylvania, we found lots of common ground. He loved my wife from the first time he met her (which may or may not have had something to do with a ribald quip referencing Chaucer that passed her lips and wowed his ears) and asked me to clone her personality into a somewhat larger sized version. He called my mom Mom.
The last time we spoke was at the FUN show. John was propped up on a stool in the back of the bourse near the men’s room. We talked about the recent loss of his mother, which yielded to an unusually theological conversation on the nature of the soul. John offered that he thought the soul was made of memories, nothing more and nothing less, and that memories were what we took with us when we left. He hoped that his mom was reliving some of her happiest memories, moments full of joy and youthfulness, alive forever exactly as those who loved her most remembered her best. I hope he’s right, for her, for himself, and for us all.