Category → Good People
Here is why I will always remember.
Originally posted on 11 September 2006
Let me tell you about John Michael Griffin, Jr.
Griff, as he was known in high school, was a friend of mine.
Late in the first half of our lives, he stood up for me physically and philosophically, for being a science geek. John’s endorsement was the first time I was ever deemed cool for wanting to be a scientist.
Griff died an engineer and hero in the collapse of one of the World Trade Center towers five  years ago today.
We lost touch almost twenty years before, but his kindness and friendship formed not only one of the cornerstones of the scientific life I have today, but in the person and father I have become as well.
At a northern New Jersey Catholic high school in a predominantly Irish town, being a gangly Polish boy from two towns over was not the formula to cultivate one’s popularity or self-preservation.
Throwing the curve in biology and chemistry classes didn’t help either, nor did being a David Bowie fan in a place where Bruce Springsteen was as revered as St. Patrick. That’s probably where the nickname, “Zowie,” came from – the name of the glam rocker’s first child.
Worse, I had skipped a grade in elementary school, and being a year behind physically was not compatible with self-preservation during high school gym class.
But, it was a very simple gesture, sometime in junior year, when one of the packs of scoundrels had me cornered, slamming me against the wall and throwing my books down the hallway. I believe that the offense was that our biology teacher had taken to buying me a Pepsi every time I scored 100 on one of his exams, and I had been enjoying yet another one.
John, already well on his way to his adult height of 6′ 7″ or 6′ 8″, stepped in and said, “Hey, lay off of Zowie. He’s goin’ places.” And with that, the beatings stopped.
I didn’t play sports, at least not any of the ones offered by our school. At that time, soccer hadn’t taken off in the States but I was a huge player and had met John at Giants Stadium in the NJ Meadowlands where I had season tickets (Section 113, row 7, seat 26) for the relocated New York Cosmos. At just $4 a ticket for kids 16 and under, I could afford season tickets to see some of the greatest international soccer stars of the late 20th century: Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, Italy’s Giorgio Chinaglia, Yugoslavia’s Vladislav Bogiçeviç, and, of course, Brazil’s great Pelé.
All accounts of John as an adult include his devotion to the Giants, NY Rangers, and NY Yankees, but few recall those soccer days. John’s family were long-time Giants season ticket holders and probably got their Cosmos season tickets three rows behind me as some sort of promotional giveaway. I recall that John was surprised that a science dork such as I would be cool enough to know about soccer and come to games myself, my father dropping me off outside the gates so he could go home and watch his beloved football games.
But, we Jersey boys loved soccer at a school where American football and basketball reigned supreme. Many Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent at the massive stadium during soccer’s American heyday of the late 1970s, with crowds of 50,000 – 75,000 that have yet to be matched today.
Among John’s gifts was the ability to make anything fun and to make anyone laugh. I recall sitting with him in a ski lodge in Amsterdam, NY, as I was recovering from frostbite during an ill-prepared class trip ski weekend. He pulled me into an imaginary board game with a napkin dispenser, where he pretended each napkin contained a message as to how to proceed during each turn. We looked at each other in horror when the waitress came unannounced and cleared our table of the napkins.
As a teenager, John was a physical caricature, handsome but a goof, self-effacing but self-confident, and had a clever and caustic wit, both of which he carried into adult professional life and fatherhood. His 15 Sept 2001 missing notice in the Bergen (NJ) Record noted that schoolkids called him, “Barney,” to reflect how they flocked to his presence.
No one was safe from John’s good-hearted and bombastic comedy routines. My father was nicknamed, “Groucho,” by John due to the resemblance of his thick mustache to that of the 1930′s comedian – John would burst spontaneously into seemingly classic Marx Brothers riffs, but with the content imitating my father carrying on about some printing press mishap.
My last remembrances of John are half a life away, from the impromptu high school graduation party he called at my house to his pride at finishing his engineering degree and managing facilities for a million-square foot building in Manhattan.
Perhaps he protected me as a kid because he knew that way deep down, he was destined to become an engineering geek himself. And a hero, a much bigger hero, in protecting the lives of others in a very real way.
On the glorious fall morning of 11 Sept 2001, I was fixing coffee for my wife who had been sleeping in when the newsreader on my pager announced that a jet had struck the south tower of the World Trade Center.
I had missed my recent 20-year high school reunion and had not known that John had only months before been appointed director of operations at the WTC by Larry Silverstein’s, Silverstein Properties.
I did not learn until two weeks later that John had facilitated the escape of dozens of workers, handing out wet towels so people could breathe on their way down the stairs. In the 102 Minutes book by New York Times writers Jim Lynch and Kevin Flynn, John is immortalized in the corroborated account of the elevator rescue of 72-year-old Port Authority construction inspector, Tony Savas.
When he returned to 78, Greg Trapp saw a group of three Port Authority employees at work on the doors to the elevator where Tony Savas, a seventy-two-year-old structural inspector, was trapped. Trapp peered into the small gap and saw him, a man with thinning white hair, seemingly serene. One of the workers grabbed a metal easel, wedging the legs into the opening, trying to spread the doors from the bottom, where they seemed to have the greatest leverage. But their efforts had the opposite effect at the top of the doors, which seemed to pinch tighter.
At that moment, John Griffin, who had recently started as the trade center’s director of operations, came over to the elevator bank. At six feet, eight inches tall, Griffin had no problem reaching the top of the door to apply pressure as the others pushed from the bottom. The doors popped apart. Out came Savas, who seemed surprised to find Griffin, his new boss, involved in the rescue. Savas seemed exhilarated, possessed of a sudden burst of energy, rubbing his hands together, or so it seemed to Trapp.
“Okay,” Savas said. “What do you need me to do?”
One of the Port Authority workers shook his head. “We just got you out-you need to leave the building.”
No, Savas insisted. He wanted to help. “I’ve got a second wind.”
John and Mr. Savas stayed behind.
John’s wife, June, sweetheart of the class behind us, was quoted in John’s NYT, Portraits of Grief:
“He was at the back of about 30 people they were evacuating,” his wife, June Griffin, related from the accounts of survivors. “He had been in fires before — he should have gotten out.”
Mrs. Griffin speculated that her husband, instead of running for the exits, headed for the fire control center, where his training as a fire safety officer would have directed him. “He was an engineer,” Mrs. Griffin said. “He must have thought, ‘Buildings don’t just fall down.’”
John also left two daughters, both now teenagers, his parents, a younger brother and older sister, and literally hundreds of friends.
Not just any friends, either – anyone who knew John still says that when he talked with you, it was as though you were the most important person in the world.
Leaving New Jersey in the mid-1980s and running on the tenure-track treadmill 1,600 miles away caused me to stop living life and lose track of a great many friends. I am deeply saddened not to have known John as an adult, a devoted husband and, by all accounts, a remarkable father.
Since John’s death, we’ve all found a little more time in our schedules to make time for one another. As the father of a little girl conceived in the months after the terrorist attacks, I try to respect June’s privacy and just send little gifts for the girls every so often. I cannot imagine how they and nearly 3,000 other families deal privately with the most public of tragedies.
I finally worked up the guts to go to Ground Zero [seven years and] two months ago for the first time. Despite all the bickering about what the memorial should look like, there is a small memorial area set up in the interim. John’s name sits at the top of one column of names on the placards commemorating those lost.
He’ll always be at the top of my list.
This picture also appeared in 2011 when John’s younger daughter, Julie, now 20, was interviewed for the Waldwick (NJ) Suburban News by Jody Weinberger.
Julie’s memory of the events that took place on 9/11 is spotty. She was a fourth-grader at Crescent Elementary School when relatives came to take her and Jenna home.
“It was kind of chaotic,” Julie recalls, sitting on a stool in her kitchen. “Even though people were saying things, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t know what terrorism was and not even adults could really grasp what was happening.
“My grandpa came up to me and told me bad people did something to where my dad worked and that’s all I could really grasp at the time.”
After discussing her father’s rescue of Mr. Savas, Julie shared more of her mixed feelings:
“But then I think he actually went back to help more people and I think that’s when the buildings collapsed,” Julie said. “I was kind of angry knowing that he went to go save other people instead of thinking about coming home to his family. That bothered me but now I know he’s a hero.”
As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Julie thinks about just some of the many moments she’s missed not having her father around.
“People think that it’s just the anniversaries, birthdays and holidays, and it’s true, those really are hard times, but every day [you have to] keep your head up and think positive,” she said. “It’s little things like learning how to drive and applying for college, or my first day of college that you just kind of wish he was there for, and you just have to keep going, I guess.”
Julie feels that by going after her dreams – which currently means graduating from the University of Tampa and pursuing a career in elementary education – she is making her father proud.
Next Friday, September 20th, many of us are gathering in Rutherford, New Jersey for Griff Rocks On, a fundraiser to honor our fallen hero at our alma mater, St. Mary High School. My sister, Sandi, Class of 1985, designed the announcement for this now sold-out event:
One of science journalism’s expert voices, author Maryn McKenna, will be the guest on this Thursday’s ACS Webinar Joy of Science series at 2:00 – 3:00 pm Eastern time.
Free, as always, you can sign up to participate at this link.
McKenna’s book, SUPERBUG: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, is a thorough and accessible investigation of the reemergence of lethal bacterial infections while new drug development lags.
The book, now in paperback, received the 2011 Science in Society Award from the the National Association of Science Writers.
McKenna had spent much of her career at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as the only U.S. reporter assigned full time to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, her first book, Beating Back the Devil, detailed her experiences with CDC’s Epidemic Investigation Service (EIS), the team dispatched anywhere in the world that’s experiencing an unusual infectious disease event.
From her book’s website:
I was following a group of disease detectives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, through an investigation of bizarre skin infections in Los Angeles. The CDC wanted to know where men were picking them up. I wanted to know something more fundamental: How could a minor problem — something that the victims all described as looking like a tiny spider bite — blow up into massive infections that ate away at skin and muscle, put people into the hospital for weeks and drained their health and their bank accounts? Where had it come from? And if it could do that, what else was it capable of?
Maryn’s one of the best science writers in the world in terms of mastering her subject and making it widely accessible.
Of course, her webinar will be of interest to anyone concerned about the proliferation of drug-resistant infectious diseases and how to design drugs to stay a step ahead of evolution.
But she’s also a great model to emulate for anyone trying to make their scientific work more approachable to non-experts. You might even learn a thing or two about telling a gripping story.
And, thanks to your American Chemical Society, dialing into the webinar is FREE. Go here to register.
You don’t even need to be an ACS member!
You can thank me later.
The webinar will be archived but you can also hear from Maryn McKenna on a regular basis at her Wired Science blog, Superbug and on Twitter @marynmck.
As I alluded to earlier on this index page, I was fortunate to score the cover story the January 9th issue of the Research Triangle’s alternative weekly paper, INDY Week. Therein, I told the story of Robert J. Lefkowitz, MD, the biochemist and cardiologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2012 with his former cardiology fellow, Brian K. Kobilka, MD, of Stanford University.
In this first edition of pixels that didn’t make it to the final article, I want to follow on the moments after I took this photo after interviewing Bob for the article. He was kind enough to bring in his original Nobel medal and diploma for me to see and photograph (he’s currently having a replica made of the medal so that he doesn’t have to carry around the real one.).
I was fortunate to be able to tell the story of Duke University biochemist and cardiologist Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz in the 9 January 2013 issue of the Research Triangle’s award-winning alt-weekly, INDY Week.
Even with editor Lisa Sorg graciously offering 3,000+ words for the story on one of the 2012 Nobel laureates in chemistry, some terrific bits of my interviews with Bob and major players in his story didn’t make it into the final version.
Over the next few days, I’ll post some of these gems. This page will index the running list of those posts.
The Nobel’s Great, But Take a Look at This! – Lefkowitz reveals where Duke men’s basketball sits in his list of priorities
I sauntered over to Duke University this morning to sit in an auditorium and watch the Nobel medal award ceremony via nobelprize.org with some fellow researchers and writers like Anton Zuiker and Eric Ferreri.
As I’ve written ad nauseum, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to watch the goings-on with half of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2012 with Duke’s Dr. Bob Lefkowitz. Lefkowitz shared the prize for the chemistry behind G-protein coupled receptors with his former fellow, Stanford’s Dr. Brian Kobilka.
Among my delightful experiences at Duke last Wednesday with the laboratory of Bob Lefkowitz was a particularly humorous moment I witnessed when two scientists burst out from the lab’s reception and one said, “Back to lab. We have to win the second one!”
I had to chase them down the hall to ask a few questions.
They are Seungkirl Ahn, PhD, (left) and Arun Shukla, PhD, (right) both Assistant Professor of Medicine (Cardiology) in the Lefkowitz laboratory group.
It’s unedited but I had a good time talking with these gents.
* yes, I know, I made the picture worse by having them stand under the light.
How many of you could say this about your laboratory group?
In the hall outside the champagne reception for Bob Lefkowitz’s lab on Wednesday at Duke University Medical Center, I had a chance to catch up with Marti Delahunty, PhD. Delahunty is a research scientist in a connecting building but worked in the Lefkowitz group from 1998 until 2006.
This brief chat brings to mind Carmen Drahl’s post about one’s laboratory being your second family.
PIs, trainees, technicians, and administrators: Tell me if you’d be able to say the same about the environment of your laboratory.
As discussed in my previous post, I took a personal day off from work yesterday to bask in the excitement of a university community celebrating a Nobel prize for one of its most beloved researchers, Dr. Robert “Bob” Lefkowitz, MD. He joined Duke in 1973 when, he says, “it was not the powerhouse it is today.”
Lefkowitz will share the prize with his former trainee, Brian Kobilka, MD, now at Stanford University.
I had the honor of joining his laboratory’s champagne celebration in the morning and the Duke University press conference in the early afternoon. (The full 47-minute press conference streamed live and is archived here at Duke.).
I live barely three miles from Duke and had no idea when or if I’d ever have the chance to be so close to such an event. The Lefkowitz prize is particularly meaningful to me as he is a biochemist physician-scientist who also considers himself a pharmacologist. So, I write this not so much as a journalist but rather — as Duke Research Communications Director Karl Leif Bates put it — a fan boy.