The Smartest Kid Who Ever Walked the Halls
14 August 2011
I spent the better part of the summer of 1981 in a rowboat as a lifeguard at Leone Beach. I got the job from my Clout at the Chicago Park District. It was an easy gig. I would sit in small boat, get a tan and listen to the radio. Should someone go under, I was instructed to follow the protocol – Reach, Throw, Row, Go.
This particular August day as special because The Rolling Stones new single “Start Me Up” was released for radio airplay. It was on every station. If I timed it right, I could flip from WXRT to WLS-FM to WMET to B96 to WLUP and hear the song five times in an hour.
After working until 9:30 pm, I got on my bike and rode one mile up Touhy Ave to Ridge Blvd; the place where all my stuff was housed. I was off the next two days and I was looking forward to doing nothing. On my bed was a note, “Call Dana.” This referred to Dana Altman, a fellow detainee at Roycemore
Juvenile Reformatory School. We were pals during the school year. I had no idea what she wanted.
“John Goritsas died!”
I was stunned. How, when, what happened? That was my immediate response.
She proceeded to tell me the details. He was mowing the lawn with an electric lawn mower, the grass was wet and the cord was frayed. He was electrocuted. He was probably two weeks away from starting classes at Northwestern. He was going into medicine to be an Endocrinologist (suck it; I spelled it right without spell check!) He was accepted as a junior.
I couldn’t believe it, not because he was the first of my peers to die. It was because we just studied electricity in A.P. Physics not more than two months earlier. How utterly stupid of him.
To those of us who knew John, “stupid” was not a word ever used to describe him. John graduated our little school at age 16, as Valedictorian. He skipped one grade as a kid and what would have been his senior year. Every year we had an awards assembly on the last day of school, John would win almost every prize. It didn’t matter if it was Science, Math, English or History. He got them all in his three years. I think he even won Best Girl’s Volleyball Player in 1980. To prove that he was human, John would purposely take off three days in spring. He told me he didn’t want the “geek” attendance award. The smartest kid who ever walked the halls didn’t want to be known as a geek, who does that?
We met freshman year. We bonded because the previous summer I went to Greece and he was Greek. He was impressed that I knew about his homeland and I could work the worry beads. John was taller than I was, so were most third graders, and had a thick clump of dark hair. At 14-years-old, he could grow a mustache and beard. Strong Mediterranean blood I would guess. His clothes seemed to be an afterthought, as well as brushing his hair. It ranked pretty low on his priority scale.
He was an amazing kid; incredibly gifted in all areas of academics and a decent soccer player with talented feet. When it came to organization however, he was a total mess. Most of his school books would bulge from the papers folded length wise that he stuck in them. Homework for Algebra may be in a history book. There may be 10-15 pages all folded together. It could be notes, homework or an assignment, who knew. He was forever putting pens in his books. He never had one on him, always in a book. His hands had pen marks all over them. Not as if he was a writing note to himself, more like he aimed for the paper but his hand was in the way.
He was an out-spoken brainiac too. He rubbed many people the wrong way, including myself sometimes. I think fellow detainees were intimidated by his mind. It’s not like he did a victory dance when he got an A; he was cocky about it because he expected it.
Studying with him was always an experience. Whatever the subject, he got it first. He would let you copy his homework if you could read his handwriting. Trust me, it wasn’t easy. After looking at his work, he would then explain how he got the answer. It was annoying at first but after time you realized he was teaching us too. I wonder what it was like for him, he was smarter than the teachers were; he knew it and so did they.
His other great skill was debate. Not a skill one would expect from a scientist. He was exasperating as a debater too. He was loud, dramatic, confrontational and conservative. At our liberal school that put him in the minority. At the 1980 political debates that the school held, he spoke for Ronald Reagan. He must have done a good job because Reagan tied Carter in our school election.
Our school was involved in a program called State Youth & Government, a mock government program that gave high schoolers an insight into government. It culminated with the students taking over the Illinois State House in Springfield, IL. Our advisor was the incomparable Richard Davis. He taught us the finer points of debate. His method was to back up our argument with facts. He never had us prepare speeches, just facts. Debating against John was good practice for when we would eventually mix it up in Springfield.
John was emotional when he argued. He would pound on the table, talk louder and louder to be heard and hated having his point stricken down. Debate, not arguing, was our main past time. You had to know not only your argument but also your opponents. There were many times where Richard would say, now argue against it. Imagine John Boehner coming out for more taxes on “Job Creators” or Nancy Pelosi saying water boarding is not torture?
In Springfield, John was a force. Inside our delegation, we couldn’t stand him, because he was philosophically against us but once he was let loose we all loved him because he was from the Evanston contingent. The only people who had a chance against him was our delegation and we were not going to do it. We would rather best him in our tribe because only we could appreciate his frustration.
It was in Springfield that he did something that showed he was indeed human – talk to a girl. I saw him from the balcony of my room in the Holidome. He was engaged in a conversation with a girl. At the time I thought, “Good for him.” I may have kidded him about it later, I don’t remember.
I pulled out the Griffin Yearbook and found the last thing he wrote to me, “Mr. Millman, I don’t know why I like you, but I think you’re a really cool guy. J.G.” Before he graduated, he warned us all that his little sister, Anna would be joining us next school year. She would start as a junior.
The day after I found out he died, I rode my bike to his house. Maybe it was morbid curiosity. I wanted to see the yard. I walked around to the back to see the scene. There was the lawnmower and the partially mowed lawn. I dared not knock on the door, I had no right and I had no idea what to say. After 30 years, I can still see it.
His death had an immediate effect on me – apathy. I stopped caring about many things. If this brilliant kid, one whose future was assured, could be taken away just like that, why should I try, what was the point? My senior year was about having fun, making an occasional appearance in my classes, causing mayhem, going to Rocky Horror with Jeff Bramson every weekend, editing the yearbook, running for Speaker of the House in State Youth & Government (I won by a landslide in a four-way race; 265-63-50-35.) and chasing freshman Angel Landrigan around the halls. (I failed miserably but she and I remain friends.)
When my senior year started, Anna Goritsas was there as promised. She had a rough go. Instead of being welcomed, she was shunned. How do you talk to a girl whose brother just died? We all walked on eggshells around her. I asked asking a teacher about her because I did want to talk to her but I didn’t know how to start. She said, just talk to her.
One day, after school, she was sitting on a bench outside of the main classrooms in the Upper School, the place backpacks where thrown before going to the cafeteria for lunch. (Please note: I didn’t know we had a cafeteria until well into my third year, I always ate off campus). I seized the opportunity and talked to her. We ended up chatting for a few hours. I remember telling her not only the good but the bad and annoying things her brother. She wasn’t crying at all, in fact, she was laughing. It turned out that her brother at home was similar to the person we knew at school. He did the same things there that he did with us.
I wouldn’t say Anna and I became great friends. We traveled in different circles, not to say I perceived myself as better than her; rather, she was, oh what’s the word – SMART! She always gave me a look when I did something childish and immature, which was quite often. Regardless, when yearbook time came around she wound up writing a whole page! She thanked me for my honesty regarding her brother; she also spent a ½ page deriding me for being a prep.
From time to time, I think about John. I imagine him being a great doctor, a researcher who would have advocated for new technologies and treatments. I also imagine he would have been thrown out of a few places due to infuriating patients, nurses, administration etc. I could only imagine the joy he would have felt when Greece won 2004 European Football Championships.
When I was in my early 20’s I had a dream about him. We were sitting in the gallery of the Illinois House of Representatives. I asked him, “What’s heaven like?”
He replied, “It’s like down here but it’s up there.”
I hope he’s right.