John F. McDermott was introduced to Truro in the summer of 1971 by his colleague Rosalyn Baxandall, with whom he taught at the State University of New York. He had just secured a permanent teaching job after two decades of study and political activism. Finding kindred spirits on the Outer Cape, he returned every summer for the next 50 years.
John died at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge on April 8, 2022. The cause of death, confirmed by his wife, Frances Maher, was pneumonia. He was 89.
The son of Martin and Mary (Donlan) McDermott, John was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1952, and while working a series of jobs — from driving a school bus to teaching high school math — he pursued a Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia University at night. He planned a dissertation on Friedrich Nietzsche.
In the 1960s, John’s passion was political activism against the Vietnam war and in support of left-leaning causes. Kay Gallagher, whom he married in 1959, supported him in that work. They divorced in 1964.
In 1965, John married Carol Brightman, and they co-founded an influential newsletter, the Viet Report. John and Carol traveled to North Vietnam to report on the Russell Tribunal, an effort to end the war by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. John and Carol divorced in 1972.
In July 1969, the New York Review of Books published “A Special Supplement: Technology: The Opiate of the Intellectuals,” in which John argued, “If religion was formerly the opiate of the masses, then surely technology is the opiate of the educated public today.” He found the idea that technology could solve any social problem worse than foolish.
John criticized the hiring of Ivy-League-educated professors at universities across the country in “Laying On of Culture,” published in The Nation in 1969.
In 1971, with his dissertation still unwritten, he was hired as professor of social sciences at the SUNY College at Old Westbury. He went on to chair the labor studies department from 1981 until his retirement in 1990.
After retiring, John moved to Providence, bought a fishing boat, and started a new life. In 1991 he met Frances Maher; they married in 1994. She had two children, Sarah and Matthew, from a previous marriage. The couple spent every May to September renting in Truro. John moved his boat to Pamet Harbor and was proud to claim mooring #1 there.
John was an excellent bluefish fisherman who enjoyed taking his friends’ children out to try their luck. He often took his catch to his friends Irving and Hope Shapiro’s house to clean the fish and then distributed them to friends and neighbors in Truro and Wellfleet, where he often played in Sunday community softball games.
Every July 14, he gave a Bastille Day party, and every Aug. 6 he participated in the Wellfleet or Provincetown commemoration of Hiroshima Day. He was a mainstay at many other peace demonstrations over the years.
Truro was John’s most consistent home. In the early 1970s, he became friends with Steve Nelson, an important figure in the Lincoln Brigade that fought the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. After Steve died in 1993 and was buried in the Old North Graveyard across from the Truro police station, Frances said, John used to joke that he was there “to keep an eye on the police.”
In retirement, John’s mind remained active. He published Restoring Democracy to America: How to Free Markets From the Corporate Culture of Business and Government (Penn State University Press) in 2010, and Frances said that he left an unfinished manuscript on how the current discourse on rights has served to obscure increasing inequality in the United States, titled Rights Over Equality.
A memorial service in Cambridge is being planned. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to peaceaction.org.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this obituary, published in print on April 21, gave an incorrect date for the death of Steve Nelson. He died in 1993, not 1975.
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