With heavy hearts we share the news that John Fish ’55 passed away on Tuesday evening, June 10th, at his home in Chicago. John had suffered from pulmonary fibrosis for several years but continued to work on the projects and causes that were important to him until very recently. He was surrounded at his death by his children and family. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, June 21st, at 11:00 a.m. at University Church at 5655 S. University Avenue in Chicago.
For nearly 60 years, John was an organizer, teacher, preacher, mentor, activist, and passionate advocate for justice in every community he touched, especially the city of Chicago. He organized alongside and on behalf of poor, marginalized, and oppressed people and inspired thousands of others, especially young college graduates, to follow suit. He personified the notion of mentorship and believed deeply in the power of people from different generations and walks of life coming together to create communities where all can thrive.
In 1989, John was recruited by his Princeton classmates to help the newly-begun Princeton Project 55 develop what would become and endure as its core activity: the Public Interest Program (now known as Project 55 Fellowships). John had a vision for college students and graduates to spend time working in grassroots organizations, learning about the assets and challenges of urban communities, and developing a lifelong commitment to justice. As a founding Board member, longtime Program Leader, Board President (1997-2000), and most recently Board Chair (2011-14) of Princeton AlumniCorps, John worked tirelessly and joyfully to make this vision a durable reality. Twenty-five years later, more than 1500 alumni have served as Princeton Project 55 fellows or interns in communities across the country.
Using his own extensive network of community contacts, John built the Chicago fellowship program as a model to be replicated nationally. He traveled to Princeton multiple times each year to recruit seniors to work with Chicago organizations like Bethel New Life, North Lawndale Employment Network, the Better Boys Foundation, and many others. He believed learning and mentorship were as integral to a formative fellowship year as a meaningful assignment, so he recruited dozens of alumni to serve as mentors and planned the weekly seminars that are now one of the hallmarks of Project 55 in Chicago. At every turn he encouraged all to ask thoughtful questions and listen to the voices of those who are overlooked or disempowered.
In addition to his work with Princeton AlumniCorps, John helped establish the Urban Studies program for the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, whose goal, like Project 55, was to give college students a greater awareness of inner city life and get them involved in community organizations that seek to empower local communities from the ground up. He was instrumental in assisting Northwestern University, University of Chicago, and Colorado College in establishing fellowship programs similar to Project 55. In recognition of his work, John received the Livesay Award for Social Change from Colorado College and the Princeton Club of Chicago’s Community Service Award, which was recently renamed in his honor. John himself had spent years working together with the Woodlawn Organization and wrote his dissertation on that community organization in the light of the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr and Saul Alinsky. Through his writing and teaching, as well as his daily example, John nurtured in his students a commitment to the public interest and a belief in the transformative power of collective action.
He was preceded in death by his wife of 58 years, Sally Wilson Fish, and is survived by his children John Fish, Dan Fish, and Wendy F. Naylor; their spouses Penny, Jeanie, and Tim; his granddaughters Bethany, Sierra, and Dana; grandson Shannon; and great-granddaughters Irie and Marley. In lieu of flowers, John’s family has asked that memorial contributions be made to Princeton AlumniCorps or the Sally and John Fish Scholarship at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
At a party in his honor last month, more than eighty individuals ranging in age from 22 to 82 gathered with John to celebrate his generous spirit and a life well lived. Many former Project 55 fellows spoke of how influential John had been to them personally, how he had helped them discover a new city and a life’s work, how he had taught them to see the world—and each other—in new ways. In conjunction with this event, AlumniCorps put together a book of tributes to John (click here to download the book). It is impossible to capture the fullness of John’s character and influence in a single message, but reading through the tribute book, one gets a glimpse of his reach.
John’s feisty spirit, gentle guidance, and unwavering commitment to the public interest shaped AlumniCorps and the work we do. He will be deeply missed and fondly remembered.
In Community,Kenly Webster ’55 Chair Kathy Miller ’77 President Andrew Nurkin Executive Director