Sunday, September 27, 2015

John Symons, A Voice of Peace

John Symons, a dear friend of ours, died recently. 

John and Ann Symons, Victory Day
Moscow, Russia - 2008

We met John and his wife, Ann, in Juneau, Alaska - over twenty-five years ago - when we all worked for the Juneau School District. We knew them, then, more in short greetings, "Hi, nice to see you. How are things going?" than in conversations. It wasn't until Drew, as director of the Anglo-American School of Moscow/St. Petersburg, asked Ann to interrupt her retirement and come to Russia as upper school librarian, that our relationship deepened. John came along as "Supportive Spouse," having retired a few years earlier. Ann's two-year contract at AAS extended, year by year, to six -- as ours did to seven.

In a city of 13 million, give or take a few million, we spent more time with Ann and John in Moscow than we ever did in the midst of Juneau's 30,000. Expatriate life tends to do that, bring people together quickly and cement them cohesively, in the absence of family and familiarity. The casual grocery store greeting in Alaska developed into toasts of friendship over Thanksgiving tables in Russia.

At our home in Arkansas this week, I found the basket of paper cranes John gave us.  He folded thousands of them during our time together in Moscow, pulling a square of origami paper from his bag whenever he had an idle moment.  The crane became, for John, an outward symbol of the cause he carried so passionately within -- peace.

I remember the day he opened his bag and gave handfuls of cranes to students….

John, Ann, Drew and I were chaperoning a group of AAS high school students on a trip to Egypt. On a ten-hour bus ride from Cairo to Siwa Oasis, a town about 30 miles east of the Libyan border, we stopped at El Alamein museum and cemetery. As adults, we knew little about the World War II battles that were fought in the heat and desolation of the North African desert. The students knew even less. They listened respectfully to the guide explain strategies and point out troop movements with his pointer, but we could see the "Why did we come here?" expression in their faces.

It wasn't until we stopped at the Commonwealth Cemetery that they began to make human connections… because of John. As each student stepped off the bus onto sand, he handed her/him an overflowing handful of paper cranes. "Place these on graves, and as you do, read the names and ages of the soldiers," he said. The students walked slowly, quietly among rounded headstones, reading. Within minutes, the tan landscape was dotted with color.

"They were so young."
"One soldier was only three years older than me."
"They died so far from home."
"What did they die for?"

--- reflections in journal entries shared by students


Wanting to remember and honor John in some meaningful way, I selected a blue crane from the basket this morning and took it to the labyrinth in our yard. As I entered and circled toward the center, I thanked John for his devotion to peace, his voice of reason, for the good he brought into this world. I left it at the entrance, beside the cairns. Whether it decides to stay and dissolve into the earth, or fly away, its spirit of peace will spread…..along with John's.

NOTE:  Shortly after posting this story, I received an email from Ann. Another of their friends - Holly Pruett - in Portland, Oregon, also, posted a story about John and his paper cranes on her blog -- today!
Serendipity, indeed!!




  1. Twylla, you captured John's sense of peace perfectly. I too remember all his paper cranes and how wonderful for him to figure out a way for students to make a sometimes tough connection at the war cemeteries in Egypt. It took me back to when I visited them and was hit with reality at the Australian/New Zealand cemetery.

  2. Thanks, Nola. We were all so fortunate to experience John's quiet, yet powerful "sense of peace."

  3. A lovely story, Mom. John certainly made an impact in his own creative way.


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