CHAMPAIGN — John Edward Severns went to visit St. Peter at the pearly gates Wednesday, April 3, 2019.
Through good, clean living and also skill and knowledge of the game, he celebrated 92 birthdays prior to accepting the alternative (he knew you can’t win ’em all).
John was born Oct. 21, 1926, in Chicago, to Clifford and Maude (Thompson) Severns. After graduating from Chicago’s Hyde Park High School in 1944, John enlisted in the Army and was assigned to calculate weapons trajectories for the 189th Field Artillery Battalion. Lucky for us, the war ended shortly after John arrived in France. Afterward, John attended the University of Illinois and earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in architecture.
While attending the U of I, John met Joan Zagar at a Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity party, when she flung her coat at him to hang it up. He was smitten, and they were married in 1952.
In 1953, John was awarded the UI’s Plym Traveling Fellowship. John and Joan spent nine months driving all over Europe studying architecture and having adventures. Throughout their lives, they would recount numerous stories from this trip to their friends and family. In 1958, John became a partner in a Champaign architectural firm specializing in educational buildings.
John leaves a legacy as an early UIUC campus planner. He and his partners made countless contributions to the built environment, both in Champaign-Urbana and across the county. John’s firm was responsible for the design of most of the early residence halls at the UI, as well as the original Newmark Civil Engineering Building, the Underground Library, Hydrosystems, the original Digital Computer Lab, the original Micro-Nano Technology Center, Morrill Hall and over 400 other projects on campus. Contrary to common lore and a local song, it was not the engineer’s recommendation to locate the Undergraduate Library underground; that inspiration came from the architects.
John was the consummate gentleman and treated all others with respect. He was a mentor to all who worked with and under him. He preferred to avoid publicizing his firm’s name in the media, because he felt the project owner and the project were more important than the ego of the designer. John retired from Severns, Reid and Associates in 2001. For several years afterward, he continued providing pro-bono architecture work for folks in need.
John and Joan raised three children, Karen, Jonathan and Christine, in a midcentury modern house that he designed. John loved the mountains, hiking, camping, sailing and cross-country skiing. He also loved reading, playing with words, the Sunday ads and bargain shopping. John was a build-it/fix-it man, tinkering in the garage and creating cheap but nifty solutions to household problems. He supported Joan when she got into local politics and then became the mayor of Champaign. John was also a wonderful dad, providing thoughtful guidance and love but also reminding us that we should always hit 'em hard at school/work and that it was important to be good kids ... most of the time.
John was preceded in death by his wife, Joan Zagar Severns, and his son, Jonathan Severns.
He is survived by his sister, Beverly Giegler; his daughters, Karen (Koichi Mori) Severns and Christine (Terry) Severns-Williams; and his grandchildren, Brittany, Sarah and Tearra Williams and Alexander Severns-Williams.
In the future, you can find John, Joan and their dog, Sev, at the Elliot Ridge trailhead in Colorado getting ready to take a hike in the Gore Mountain Range.
Memorial donations may be made to either the Alzheimer’s Association (alz.org), the National Parks Foundation (nationalparks.org) or to whatever organization is close to your heart that betters the world. Helping other people was very important to John.
A New Orleans-style shindig to honor and celebrate his life will be at 4 p.m. Saturday, July 20, at Farm Lake, 2502 N. Cunningham Road, Urbana. All are welcome to join the celebration.