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John A. Works Jr.

Died: January 9, 2020

John Works died peacefully on January 9, 2020 at his home in Saint Louis. He had long lived with heart disease but succumbed after a two year decline in health.

He was a committed academic, a valued and respected teacher, and a man of lifelong learning. But he was equally known for his joy in life, his many friendships and devoted family members, a bon vivant and raconteur, and for his service to others.

John was born August 25, 1944 in St. Paul, MN, the first child of John A. Works, Sr. and Sarah Lorraine (Cumming) Works. He attended Saint Paul Academy, a private military school, in his hometown, then entered Yale University. He was a member of Timothy Dwight College, majored in History, and graduated cum laude in 1966. During his undergraduate years, he was President of the Yale Christian Fellowship and served as University Deacon. He continued his study of history, with a Master’s and Doctorate in African History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He spent the major part of his US teaching career as an award-winning, tenured Associate Professor of African History at University of Missouri-St Louis.

But the counterpoint to this teaching was his unique academic experience in Africa. Starting with a Fulbright Fellowship, he began tours of Africa not only for research and teaching, but also building foundations of native education. For example, in 1977 he became a founding faculty member of the University of Maiduguri in Borno State, one of Nigeria’s premier universities.

When he found teaching difficult in English, he learned three native languages (Hausa, Fulani, and Igbo) so that he could better reach his students. Over the years he picked up another six languages. He traveled widely during his Africa years in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Congo, Senegal, and Morocco. While in Africa he completed a book, Pilgrims in a Strange Land, Hausa Communities in Chad.

Some of the flavor of his experience is found in his quote on West Africa: “The villages and markets, mosques and churches, universities and people are very much a part of my identity.”

When presented with the opportunity for early retirement in 1977, he took it. It seems there were things to do in life beyond teaching in St. Louis. He used this freedom to continue visits to Africa, often on mission projects sponsored by Trinity Episcopal Church in St. Louis – including service in the troubled Zaria region torn by Christian/Islamic discontent.

Keeping his home in St. Louis, John spent large amounts of time at his family farm in Northern Wisconsin. There he maintained five large garden plots and hosted legendary house parties for an enormous number of friends from around the world. He became a highly skilled fisherman, chef, and raconteur. John’s sly wit, academic gifts, and global sense of style set him well apart. His family and friends remember him for his graciousness, kindness, with love and vivid memories.

James S. Roberts


Bruce Reynolds remembers:

John Arthur Works was my roommate in our senior year, on the fourth floor of Timothy Dwight College. We had met in sophomore year, when I was rooming with Anwar Fancy. I recall that John and Steve Clement held an agape meeting – a service I suppose – in that room, although Anwar was not there and I didn’t myself quite know what to make of it.

But late in junior year, on the sidewalk in front of Mory’s, I ran into John and in a quite impromptu way we agreed to room together. We were quite different souls – and I was not very good at really getting to know other human beings. And so in that last year, we were more like ships passing in the dark than roommates.

But we staged a memorable spring party – an afternoon affair – on the TD roof.

John sprang from northern Wisconsin, and southern Wisconsin was our summer home, on a lake north of Milwaukee. So five years or so later, John visited me there. He had spent time in Chad – at least one year. He described his Wisconsin home in ways that made it sound intriguing. But as so often happens, we let the relationship lapse.

At last, somewhere between 2000 and 2010, my wife and I drove up to that home. It was indeed quizzical: on a lake, on a lot of land, in the boondocks, architecturally unique: towers, passageways, some grand common spaces. I’m glad for the visit, although again, we didn’t really connect.

As I write, I recognize that other classmates are far better equipped to memorialize John. Indeed, they likely have done so already. I’ll go to the class homepage and find out.