“It was a dark and stormy night.” We know that is not the usual fare for obituaries, but we’re providing a little joy, a little twinkle of the eye, in this moment. Our Dad was quick with the wit and even quicker with the smile. His dry humor snuck up on and embraced you. That was John in a nutshell.
He brought light, joy, humility, dignity, and a fierce human compassion for everything. The final days were hard and we would ask how he feels: “GREAT, G-R-A-T-E, GREAT!” What do you do with that? What can you say about a man who brought unwavering optimism to even the most challenging times? We learned he had Covid during the height of the pandemic and had the chance to connect with him over video. We did not know what to expect and feared the worst. There he was, smiling. “Dad, how you do you feel?” “I am one notch below terrific,” and then broke into song. What angel among us? What grace – how do we understand that ability to reach out to make that moment, that very moment, a song?
We knew he grew up poor and fought hard to become who he was and with his bride, Barbara, to raise the Milligan clan. He never said that to us. We learned that through others. A lesson for all of us.
He gave endlessly to the Town of Needham. He was a Town Meeting Member for 35 years, two terms on the Finance Committee, a three-year term as the first President of the Richard P. Melick Foundation, and a longtime member of the Needham Exchange Club. Through it all he never wanted recognition or credit. He loved building community.
He had a fierce love for Barbara – and we may add for color perhaps a bit of fear of her as well. In Barbara’s last years when she was lost to dementia, he would sit with her and hold her hand and remind her of their love: “My beautiful bride” and reminisce of when they met and fell in love at “Jane’s” restaurant in Newton. In those moments, the cruel veil of dementia lifted and they were together and she viscerally felt joy. He could reach into the darkness to shine a moment of light and love.
He had a great left hook a la Tom Heinsohn. He named their boat, “Boat,” and rammed it into fixed islands with one marooning at low tide on Monomoy, baffling the Coast Guard. He was arrested for charity. He fought nobly with a large spider crab until the authorities noted he did not have a license. We called Barbara and John nearly every Sunday at 7:00 PM to make a collect call from “Anthony” – he never accepted the calls but knew that “Anthony” meant all was well. He was extraordinarily efficient like that. John “fixed” plumbing, until we were scrambling around our house with buckets and towels because he really did not fix plumbing.
He coveted the little things that were beautiful. His birds! Keeping those squirrels away from the feeders. Barbara bought him Super Soakers for just that purpose. He marveled at the knot in a tree. His birds! He was curious and kind to those who were considered “different” – he loved people’s stories and loved people for sharing them. He was curious about concepts and realities that were new to him – that meant that he could extend himself to find the grace in others and in different ways. Oh, the generosity of spirit – the angel among us.
He let Nathaniel, his young great-grandson, take him to breakfast – he knew what brought joy to others. He walked his grand-daughter Rose around the block on Christmas Eve and pointed to Rudolph (red lights on towers). Always a twinkle in the eye. These moments of wonder that he created like small, but giant, gifts.
And now he is bringing that infectious joy and fierce light to heaven. We can only imagine his embrace with Barbara, Eddie, Kathleen, and Mark. He would mostly ask questions: he was curious and generous that way. More mayor than emcee.
During one of the last times we were all together, he got tired at the end and asked us to leave so he could rest. We respectfully suggested, “Well that’s a bit harsh,” and he then serenaded us with “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow.” His favorite may have been “What a Wonderful Life” by Louis Armstrong. It brought John joy to sing those words. That brings tears to us now, but it also brings joy. His voice - these gifts.
Dad: Every day we will try to bring your optimism, good humor, curiosity and compassion to each moment. We learned from you. We love you. We are awestruck by you. And now, we will take those life-long lessons of grace and humility and try to make tomorrow and each tomorrow after that a bit better.
It was less a dark and stormy night and more a life of wonder for everyone blessed to know you. Indeed. “And then some.”
Your loving children, grandchildren, and great-children. Beloved husband of the late Barbara Milligan, and loving father of the late Mark Milligan, “Eddie” Milligan and Kathleen Milligan. John is survived by Frances “dee” Guiney of Minneapolis, MN; Michelle Milligan of Harwich, MA; Paul and Nancy Milligan of Needham, MA; Maureen Roianov of Greensboro, VT; Victor and Lisa Milligan of Pomfret, VT; and Billie Milligan of Waltham, MA.
Visiting hours will be held in the Eaton Funeral Home, 1351 Highland Ave, Needham, on Wednesday November 9th from 4-7 pm. A Mass of Christian Burial will be held in St. Joseph Church 1360 Highland Ave, Needham, on Thursday November 10 at 10am. Interment will follow at Needham Cemetery. IIn lieu of flowers, kindly consider contributions to the Alzheimer’s Foundation, 322 Eighth Ave, 16th Floor, New York, NY 10001or the Neville Center at Fresh Pond, 640 Concord Ave, Cambridge, MA 02138.