John Versnel was a lot of things. He was loud, goofy and playful. He was thoughtful, intelligent and a hard worker. He was an avid prankster. He was a math geek. At 6 feet 3 inches and about 215 lbs, John was an imposing young man who wasn’t afraid to give big bear hugs. He was a multi-faceted character who charmed his way into the life of anyone he met.
Among John’s favorite prank targets was his roommate and longtime friend, 21-year-old Alex Beck. During their sophomore year at Loyola, John hacked into Alex’s Facebook. He changed Alex’s status to state that it was National Alex Beck Awareness Day and that in honor of this very important day, everyone should change their profile pictures to one of Alex. Alex said he didn’t see the post until an hour later, after about 10 people had already changed their pictures.
“I think he took a lot of pride in that one,” said the senior business sports management major, “People do not let me forget about that one.”
John, a math major and economics minor, died of electrocution on Saturday, Sept. 15 after falling headfirst onto the third rail of the train tracks at the Loyola El stop. He was 21.
For as many pranks John was known for, he was just as well-known for his sweet side.
“The one thing I loved about John was … he was just a mix of oxymorons,” said Peter Deguzman, a 21-year-old senior visual communications major.
“He was the instigator, he was the problem-solver, he was the intelligent one, he was the goofy one. I never thought that someone could be all those things wrapped into one.”
“He was very, very, very, very goofy but he could be serious in an instant … whenever you needed it,” said senior Loretta Truman, one of John’s roommates and his friend since their freshman year.
When Loretta broke up with her boyfriend, John was by her side in an instant. He came back to their apartment with ice cream, the movie The Vow and a bottle of wine.
“I used to joke that John was one of my best girlfriends,” said the 21-year-old psychology and international studies double major. “He had the crazy wild side of him and then he had the side of just the sweetest, caring … for any one of his friends he would drop everything and be there.”
John, a Seattle, Wash., native, entered Loyola as a freshman in 2009 and quickly formed a circle of best friends on the 16th floor of Mertz Hall, where he lived. That circle rapidly expanded as his years at Loyola became more colorful, in the way only John’s life could be.
One of his favorite things to do was to go to the IC … to socialize.
As he and his friends made their way through the IC to find a study spot, John would stop at every table in his path to say hello to someone he knew.
“I would always be like, ‘John, how the hell do you know this many people? You make me feel like I have no friends,’ ” Loretta said. “He just was somehow connected all over campus.”
But it wasn’t all fun and games for John.
He was an officer of the math club and chief organizer of math tutoring services. He had just received an internship at Merrill Lynch, a financial management and advisory company that is the largest brokerage in the world. He was also accepted into Loyola’s masters program for math and was already filling out paperwork to join Teach for America after his masters. He wanted to be a math teacher.
He had also been working on a research project with Loyola’s math department for two years.
Math Department Chair Anthony Giaquinto and Assistant Professor Aaron Lauve chose John as one of three students to help them with a research paper. After two weeks, John was the only student still putting in the hours, meeting the two professors twice a week for the next two years — including summers.
“I’m sure not every student here would be so kind to do so,” said Giaquinto at John’s memorial service Monday night. “His desire to explore was wonderful.”
The trio’s findings are set to be published in the Research Mathematics Journal in the next few months, and John’s name will be on it. The findings are also going to be presented at a conference in California in January, which John was planning to attend.
According to Director of Campus Ministry Lisa Reiter, about 550 people attended John’s memorial service on a cold and rainy Monday night. Director of Sacramental Life Fr. Patrick Dorsey, S.J., led the service, opening the ceremony by saying how fitting it was to celebrate John’s life on a rainy night, because John loved the rain. The service was followed by a reception, which took on a celebratory tone with a slideshow of pictures set to some of John’s favorite songs. Friends and family shared their stories of John in small groups, and the room was soon full of little pockets of laughter.
John’s mother Suzzane, her sister Frannie Galley and friend Jackie Brandabur flew in from Seattle for the service. John’s father, John Versnel III and younger sisters Margaret, 19, and Annie, 16, stayed in Seattle. Another service is planned for Saturday, Sept. 22 in Seattle.
Beyond his academic interests, John also had a strong attachment to dogs. He worked at Rogers Bark Pet Salon, a local grooming salon for cats and dogs.
He and his two roommates, Alex and Loretta, were fostering a dog for the last two weeks. John took the lead, filling out all the paperwork. On Friday afternoon, after a lengthy discussion, John and Loretta decided they would adopt the dog, Bentley.
“He loved that dog to death,” Loretta said. “He’d come home and . . . it was all about Bentley, ‘Bentley! I luh you! I luh you Bentley.’”
John would cuddle with Bentley and nap with her on the couch. Loretta would often have to fight with John to be able to sleep with the dog for the night. They were scheduled to pick Bentley up and officially adopt her Saturday afternoon. John died early Saturday morning.
“He wanted a dog for a long time so that was really nice that the last couple of weeks we had one,” Loretta said.
Friends say they have had tremendous support from the Loyola community. Director of Ministry Lisa Reiter met Loretta, Alex and another friend and Loyola alumni Brock Peiffer at the St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, Ill. at around 1:30 a.m. as they were waiting for news on John’s condition, said Loretta. Campus Ministry staff escorted the friends back to their apartment, where a large group of friends had already gathered to offer their support.
“I know these next few weeks will be the toughest thing I’ve gone through in my life,” said 22-year-old Kelly Wright, John’s girlfriend of almost one year and friend for three years, “but I am so blessed to be surrounded by his roommates and his friends who meant the world to him.”
Campus Ministry staff also had pizza delivered to the apartment so that the friends did not have to worry about cooking. Since then, the staff has been dropping by the apartment to check up on them everyday and working closely with them to help plan John’s services.
Loyola will miss seeing John, walking through the IC wearing a soccer penney with swimming trunks and flashing a big goofy, charming smile at dozens of fellow students. Loyola will miss his roaring laughter and the hugs he gave with all his heart.
“No one gives a hug like John,” Loretta said, “He would just kind of wrap you up in his arms and it would be okay then.”
“He was larger than life,” said 21-year-old Jeff Duggan, a senior physics major, “He was the only person I ever felt truly connected to.”
**Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that John’s memorial service was led by President Fr. Garanzini. It has now been changed to note that the service was led by Fr. Dorsey.
by Tahera Rahman