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Jon-Henri Damski
(March 31, 1937 - November 1, 1997) USA

Jon-Henri Damski

Essayist, columnist, poet, activist


Jon-Henri Damski was known for his double-thick lenses, Cubs baseball cap and T-shirt & tie combinations as he walked the neighborhoods in Chicago, gathering news for his columns. His vision had been marred from the start of his life - as a premature birth in 1930s Seattle, he was also not even expected to live; yet Damski wrote about this in later years as a positive thing: it freed him up from all the pressures put on his older brother by his parents.

Damski wrote often about having a dyslexia so serious that reading books was often next to impossible: his father read aloud to him all of his schoolwork until he was 9. Despite problems with his eyesight, he nevertheless had been given regular piano lessons and had some promise, though he suddenly gave it all up when he realized he wanted to be a baseball pitcher - his number one dream from 9 until 17.

Damski attended Lakeside Academy for Boys in Seattle, where he was first tutored in the Classics - the Greek and Latin languages and history. Damski's parents would split-up in the 1940s, with his mother moving to Palm Springs, California (the home of a new lover) and his father remaining in Seattle. His parents would date others and get married; Damski later wrote that he had learned from his maternal grandmother that step-families taught one how to let go of the past and how to get along with additions to the family.

At eight years old, Damski was given a choice of which parent to live with, and chose to live with his father. He later recalled the painful letter he had to submit to the court. His father's lawyers had coached him on what to write and later say in court apparently without success. The result was an odd joint custody, with the young Damski "bounced on my own every six months from Seattle to California and back."

While in California, Damski spent two Summers in the Desert Inn, and others in San Francisco. His parents would eventually reconcile and become lovers, again - but not marry again; for Ruthie was off to an engagement in Japan for 2 years. While gone, Damski's father died, and when she eventually returned, it was with sole custody.

Damski attended Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington from 1955 to 1959, and he was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in 1959. He chose Brandeis University because of Herbert Marcuse and its History of Ideas Program. Damski's masters thesis was a collection of 10,000 epigrams.

He returned to Seattle in 1962, where he became an account executive. He would soon begin writing documentary scripts for the KING-TV NBC affiliate's King Screen Productions. While doing research on Seattle street kids, Damski first heard rock and roll from The Beatles, Janis Joplin and "my neighbor, Jimi Hendrix." Damski became swept up in the new music: he used his TV money from documentary writing to travel up and down the West Coast following other rockers: The Rolling Stones, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix; he saw "the Stones more than 15 times in 10 different cities."

In 1967, Damski began attending the University of Washington for graduate work in the Classics, where he worked on a Ph.D. from 1967 to 1974. While some sources show Damski completing the Ph.D.—even he writes that he had problems getting to the finish, with, again, no sources available which definitively say why. We do know from University of Washington records that Damski earned the Masters of Arts, and completed the coursework necessary to become a Ph.C. (Ph.D. candidate).

From 1970 to 1973, Damski lectured at Bryn Mawr College in the Classics department. Damski also led a seminar at the Aspen Summer Institute on Socrates. He returned to Seattle in 1974, where work continued towards his Ph.D. and he lectured at Whitman College.

In 1974, Damski traveled to Chicago. There, Damski wrote daily in his typed journals, using a portable typewriter and the Newberry Library as his base. He started with impressions of Chicago and continued with epigrams and then poems. The output of poems between 1976 and 1978 and the discovery of two complete, yet unpublished manuscripts—along with a fistful of rejection letters.

Damski soon found employment with Truman College, one of Chicago's city colleges, where he taught in its Senior Living program. Damski would teach his seniors in nursing homes for the next fifteen years—providing him with a modest, yet steady income, while he began to devote his literary output to the gay press, working for $10 a pop until the end of the 70s.

Damski worked with Ralph Paul Gernhardt and Dan DiLeo on Gay Chicago . Damski's "Nothing Personal" columns were known for their forthright observations of the Chicago lives who had begun to come together in the 1970s and recognize in themselves a nascent community. In mirroring what he saw, Damski regularly used "street language," (to the dismay of some readers) and wrote with a mix of styles reminiscent of New Journalism combined with a dose of Boyd McDonald, the chronicler of same-sex encounters whose columns in the Boston press had been influential on Damski and early Chicago publishers Damski worked with.

In 1982, Damski moved his column to GayLife , where it appeared on the front page and he got a "substantial pay raise." But best of all, he would later write, he began to work under the editorship of Albert Williams. Williams encouraged Damski to expand his columns to cover more about Chicago politics, including the divisions within the gay community between supporters of Mayor Harold Washington and former Mayor Jane Byrne, as well as the efforts by members of the gay community to win support from the politically divided Chicago City Council for passage of a long-pending gay rights bill.

Gay related immune deficiency (GRID) - what was later to be renamed AIDS - was first written about by Damski while at GayLife. He also continued his unsparing critique of Chicago's mainstream press accounts of any and all things gay and lesbian. And he continued to write with humor, insight plus a little Classics scholarship thrown in.

Damski began writing for Windy City Times in its first issue, October 3, 1985 under the heading JHD. He remained with the paper after the 1987 death, from AIDS, of his friend Bob Bearden. He stayed with the publication almost ten years, until being fired abruptly late in May, 1995, by publisher Jeff McCourt.


Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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