My Memories of John X. Jamrich


I arrived at Northern Michigan University in the fall of 1969 and had a front-row seat of the John X. Jamrich administration. In later years I had the privilege of becoming his friend as University Historian and then writing his biography. Over the years I found him to enjoy history and had an intense ongoing love for NMU. As a result I have many fond memories of him which I will share.

During World War II, Jamrich was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska as a meteorologist who provided weather information to Soviet pilots ferrying planes from Alaska to the battlefront in Europe. The Army used him for this position because as a youth, although born in Muskegon, Michigan he grew up in Slovakia and spoke Slovak, a Slavic language like Russian and thus could give the Soviet pilots technical weather information without the need of a translator.

In April 1945, Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, V.M. Molotov was flying to San Francisco, California for the first meeting of the United Nations. Soviet weathermen working with poor equipment told Molotov he could not fly through Alaska to San Francisco and would have to miss the opening sessions. Jamrich, using more sophisticated equipment and given his weather expertise, told the Soviets that they had a 6 hour window of good weather and Molotov made it to sign the UN Charter.

The “X” middle initial came about when he needed an initial when he signed up for the US Army. He took “X” as filler with no meaning or connection.

Jamrich’s use of bow ties started after military service. The one he wore to all 45 commencements is in the collection of the Beaumier Heritage Center on campus. He amazingly appeared on campus twice that I know of out of a suit and bow tie. Once was coming from a tennis match and he needed to stop by his office, and the other time was in retirement when he came to campus in the summer.

John Jamrich loved music and was an excellent pianist. For a decade he played concerts five days a week between 11:30-12:20 in the lobby of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. He pointed out that he played more concerts than any other musician. Although arthritis brought regular piano playing to an end he continued to play until he was 99 in the rest home.

He and June wrote numerous compositions. They produced one for the NMU centennial. They wrote two for me. One when my daughter, Emily and I ran a half marathon in Jacksonville and in 2014 an elaborate piece at the time of my retirement.

On numerous occasions I relied on his rich memory to get answers about events during his administration. He always emailed that he was doing “homework” for me. Back in 1998 when I was working on the NMU Encyclopedia, I needed a title. I asked him and his immediate response was “A Sense of Time,” which fit very well.

On a personal note, when he heard we were running in Jacksonville in 2013 he provided me with detailed–and I mean detailed–weather reports and even wrote a short song for Emily and I. He and June waited three hours in the cold for me to finish the race and then he invited me to their home for breakfast which he cooked.

It was an honor to be invited to write his biography, John X. Jamrich: The Man and the University. He played an important–although at times controversial–role in developing the University campus following President Edgar Harden. Harden had been told by state legislators to either expand the campus and its community connection or close it. Jamrich continued to implement Harden’s work. Buildings went up but he also promoted programs. Native American studies were promoted and he funded the Nishnawbe News (1971-1983), one of three national Native newspapers at the time.

During his administration it was amazing the number of national leaders in a variety of fields who were given honorary degrees. Many of them were Native Americans and Black Americans.

Sometimes he would surprise you with his knowledge of campus life. When former President Gerald R. Ford came to campus a group of us were waiting for breakfast. Suddenly he turns to me and says, “Dr. Magnaghi, would you tell President Ford about the UP?” It was off-the-cuff and I filled in five minutes without a problem.

Throughout his life, Jamrich possessed a central European sense of graciousness and hospitality. He and June frequently invited students to their home for parties, and when Vincent Price who was best known for performances in horror films visited campus he was given a fine dinner at their home. Even in retirement he had summer parties and banquets for former administrators and myself. I was the lone faculty member representing the faculty during his administration. 

After his retirement in 1983, he continued his love for Northern Michigan University. He followed the course of the University through reports he received, newspaper accounts – the Mining Journal online or letters and then e-mails. This lasted until his passing.

It is interesting to note that over the years he retained at least one dislike. In one of the last emails I received from him in the fall of 2021, he rather boldly complained that the American Association of University Professors was holding up the completion of a contract and not acting in the best interest of the University. So after some 56 years he still did not like the union and that was his closing remark.

It is little known that he was a religious man and regularly attended services at Messiah Lutheran Church. On a number of occasions that I know of, he intervened and helped faculty members that were having employment problems on campus. When we discussed this he told me that he was following the golden rule to love your neighbor.

Around 2012, he was on-campus and visited me in my office. He was 92 and I asked him if he planned to come to the dedication of Jamrich Hall. He answered in a strong affirmative which surprised me. Then he continued he would be there in person or looking down from Park Cemetery.

For an interesting look into the life of John X. Jamrich, go to Park Cemetery in Marquette and check the unique gravestone of he and his wife.

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Russell Magnaghi

Russell Magnaghi was born in San Francisco in the middle of World War II, but has lived in Michigan's Upper Peninsula since 1969. Magnaghi received his education at the University of San Francisco (BA 1965) and at St. Louis University (Ph.D. 1970). Magnaghi has had a 45-year teaching career at Northern Michigan University and also served as director of the Center for Upper Peninsula Studies. He has written many journal and newspaper articles and books and has given talks on local heritage and regional history.


  1. Kerri Durnell Schuiling on June 8, 2022 at 9:46 am

    I always know it is going to be a fascinating read when your work comes along. Thank you so much for the work you do as our University Historian!

  2. Thomas Ahonen on June 8, 2022 at 2:25 pm


    Thanks for your writing.

    My fondest recollection of Dr. Jamrich, was at my graduation in December, 1979. We knew each other a little from my student involvement in CUP, the Arts Chorale, and President Ford visit, but it wasn’t like we were close. But when I walked across the stage, expecting a quick handshake to keep things moving, he stopped me , grasped my hand firmly and said a few encouraging words. I’ll never forgot how gracious he was in that moment.

  3. Sandi Spieles on June 8, 2022 at 2:26 pm

    My husband, Pete, probably walked across the stage to accept his Master’s degree with Dr Jamrich in attendance, and we also probably also heard his music comforting people at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville as we dealt with pain and fear. Thank you for this article to honor a man whose positive impact on lives made the world a better place.

  4. Dr. C. Douglas Graves on June 14, 2022 at 12:20 pm

    I was a professor at NMU 1967-1987 during the tenure of President Jamrich. His distaste for the American Association of University Professors is understandable if you knew all the facts involved in the AAUP’s overturning Jamrich’s plan to cut faculty (including tenured faculty members). The only way that would be possible was to eliminate programs and plead that it was necessary because of a financial exigency. The AAUP studied the situation and proved that there was no financial exigency. Therefore the programs were resumed and faculty positions reinstated. I was pleased to return the pink slip I had been given–I was fully tenured and a full professor and my specialty retained.

  5. Dr. Thomas Cornell on December 28, 2023 at 9:01 am

    It was very interesting to read Dr. Magnaghi’s story about Dr. Jamrich. I fully appreciate and admire Dr. Magnaghi’s contributions to the history of the upper peninsula. As a former graduate of NMU and a student of Dr. Magnaghi’s, I look back on my years at NMU with gratitude and appreciation. I still have my research paper on the history of Green Island from Dr. Magnaghi’s class. Although I did not know Dr. Jamrich personally, I do remember his great dedication to the university, his dignified demeanor, and of course his infamous bow ties. I also served on the Bicentennial Commission as a result of Dr. Magnaghi’s and I appreciated the experience.

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