John Mandes, college professor, playwright and former PGN editor, died Sept. 30 after a 12-year battle with cancer. He was 55.
Mandes, a native of Hershey, was born June 30, 1953.
He graduated from Hershey High School in 1971 and got his start in journalism as a writer at the York Dispatch and later wrote for the York Sunday News, National Public Radio’s Albuquerque affiliate and the Albuquerque Tribune; served as a copy editor and theater critic at the Albuquerque Journal; and founded and headed the Albuquerque Arts Reporter.
Mandes returned to the East Coast in September 1991 to become PGN editor, a position he held until January 1993.
Al Patrick, whom Mandes hired as a reporter and who succeeded him as PGN editor, said Mandes took the paper in a new direction and brought to it “industry-wide standards in design, writing and reporting.”
“When John came to the paper, the gay community, putting the issue of AIDS aside, had made great strides. And I think John perhaps felt it was time for us to step back, take a breath and look at the way PGN looked. It would have been almost inappropriate to put serious thought into design prior to that period,” Patrick said. “John smartened it up, made it easier to read, prettier to look at and just made it look like the other weeklies on the newsstand at the time.”
While at the helm of the paper, Mandes also instituted Mark My Words, the weekly column by PGN publisher Mark Segal, and steered the paper through its coverage of the AIDS crisis while it was at its peak.
“It was more important than ever that gay people had a strong voice, and John used the paper to shine a spotlight on the suffering of those with AIDS and HIV,” Patrick said.
According to Segal, “John continued the tradition of great editors here at PGN and, during his reign, brought this paper to new heights in journalism.”
Previous PGN managing editor Tommi Avicolli Mecca said Mandes’ journalistic integrity helped to generate well-balanced and professional coverage.
“John went after stories that were hard stories to write but that needed to be told,” Mecca said. “Even though it was uncomfortable for our own community to read some of these stories and there were a lot of controversies along the way, in the end the paper was better for it.”
Willie Colón Reyes, Mandes’ former partner, said Mandes — an avid cook and a “tech guy” who loved buying new gadgets and computers — approached all facets of his life with the same intrepidness he brought to his work as a journalist.
“He was really fearless, which caused some problems sometimes. He wasn’t afraid to tell people exactly what he thought, which sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. He was really honest and what you got was all John. There wasn’t any BS.”
Mandes left PGN in 1993 and later settled in Denver, where he attained his master’s of arts degree from the University of Denver and became the editor of Out Front, a biweekly LGBT publication.
Mandes went on to teach journalism classes at a community college in Denver, and immersed himself in the arts as he directed local theater productions and expanded his own collection of plays.
But on June 30, 1996 — Mandes’ 43rd birthday — he was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Mandes’ brother Jim said that “in typical John fashion” he learned all he could about the disease and eventually had a mastectomy, which put the cancer in remission for years.
Mandes moved to Palm Springs, Calif., to continue to pursue his combined passion for writing and teaching, and in August 2000 took a position as a professor of communication at the College of the Desert in Palm Springs.
In 2003, the college awarded Mandes its Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year award.
“Teaching was his God-given talent that enabled hundreds of students to learn the value of public speaking and journalism,” Jim said.
While he was in Palm Springs, however, Mandes’ cancer resurfaced and spread to his lymphatic system and bones.
A 2005 story in The Press-Enterprise relayed that Mandes’ fellow teachers rallied around him as his health deteriorated and that 17 employees donated 100 of their own sick days for him to use.
In the story, Mandes credited his students with propelling him forward through his battle with cancer.
“If I had to stop teaching, I’m not sure I would have survived. It really has saved my life,” he said. “I love teaching. I get up at 5 in the morning and can’t wait to get here.”
Mandes resigned from his position in 2006 and returned to Hershey.
Jim said that Mandes’ move back home gave his family the chance to reestablish connections that had been weakened because of the distance and also helped them all to learn from his example.
“John was so sincere,” Jim said. “He appreciated every moment, every smile, every laugh, every meal, every day, every act of kindness. John helped all of us appreciate how precious each day was and how important it is to live each moment with love and grace.”
In The Press-Enterprise interview, Mandes said he was facing death with that same bold attitude with which he approached his work: “Whatever comes in the next life is so much more beautiful than here, so I’m really not afraid of dying.”
Mandes was predeceased by his father, Hugo Mandes, and is survived by mother Barbara, sisters Theresa Cain of Mechanicsburg and Gina Mumaw of York, and brothers Ted and Jim of Hershey, as well as several cousins, nieces and nephews.
A funeral service was held Oct. 11 at St. John of Arc Roman Catholic Church in Hershey.
Memorial contributions can be made to College of the Desert-John Mandes Memorial Scholarship Fund and sent to 415 W. Granada Ave., Hershey, PA 17033.
Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].