Decades ago, in his youth, islander John Croan wanted to be taken more seriously. So he started referring to himself as “Olde John,” deciding to spell it the Old English way.
His tactic worked. Croan, a West Point graduate who served in the military for two decades, obtained the rank of major a few years before most people achieve it.
But that was not the only time the islander referred to himself as “Olde John.” It’s a name that stuck with him for life — right up until his death on Friday, Nov. 8 at the age of 94.
“I think it was endearing even when he wasn’t too old,” said Croan’s daughter, Jonelle Loranger. “It did differentiate him, for sure. People knew who ‘Olde John’ was.”
This past week, family and friends close to Croan remembered him during a service at the Presbyterian Church, of which he was a member. They also recalled his life as a father and devoted volunteer to the community in interviews with The Beachcomber.
“He loved Vashon; he loved serving the people of Vashon and he did a lot of it,” Loranger said. “When he recovered from the surgery that caused him to retire, he found a new purpose in life … and that was volunteering and serving. He was a busy guy.”
Croan’s daughter was referring to two brain aneurysms Croan suffered in the mid-1980s that wiped out his memory of a 17-year career at Boeing and left him “not employable,” according to a 2011 interview Croan did with the newspaper.
After getting out of the hospital for his brain operations, Croan checked into Kirtland Alcohol/ Drug Care Center for three weeks to deal with his alcoholism, he said in 2011. That experience changed him and sparked a new inspiration for his life.
“I felt my life had been turned around and I needed to give back,” Croan said.
And he did. Part of his community service involved being a mentor for Alcoholics Anonymous, according to his daughter.
“It was part of his life before he started doing all of this stuff. He recovered from alcoholism and he started serving and it was beautiful,” Loranger said. “That’s one of the things I’m really proud of him for.”
He also served at Vashon Community Care, where his roles included meeting with residents one-on-one, providing Bible Study and even “laughter class,” according to Pamela Schubert, a VCC activities coordinator.
“Either you wanted to laugh with him or you wanted to run away,” Shubert said somewhat jokingly. “He got people to relax.”
Kathy Evans, a resident of VCC, said Croan would give speeches to residents. He had a fondness for patriotic holidays like Veterans Day and the 4th of July.
“He would talk about what the day really means,” said Evans, who immigrated to America from Germany. “I learned more about this country from him than I did from the books because he made it so exciting.”
Evans said Croan had an easy-going and sympathetic demeanor dealing with seniors; he was their age, after all.
“He did not make fun of us,” Evans said.
With the VFW, Croan organized essay-writing competitions for public schools on Vashon. The one for McMurray Middle School is called “Patriot’s Pen”; Vashon Island High School’s is called “Voice of Democracy.”
Greg Allison, principal of McMurray Middle School in 2004, had worked with Croan over the years on the essay contest.
“I think he was real keen on help folks and students, in particular, I think, appreciate the service of our veterans,”Allison said.
But Croan was involved in more than just organizing an essay contest, according to Allison. He’d participate in the middle school’s Veterans Day ceremony and speak to the students in their classrooms.
“I think his big quote was, ‘who you are makes a difference,’” Allison said. “It seemed to me that he was hoping that people’s best selves could come out.”
In fact, Loranger said, Croan would hand out buttons to people with his saying.
“He believed in people and encouraged them to make a difference in the lives of others,” she wrote to The Beachcomber.
Croan didn’t just have a strong work ethic, family and associates said. He had a personality that stood out from others around.
A friend, Roy Bumgarner, said Croan was a “very outgoing person who always had a repertoire of corny jokes to tell.”
“He was outgoing — almost painfully so,” she said with a laugh.
Croan’s pastor at the Presbyterian Church, Leigh Weber, said Croan “had a radiant kind of presence,” a “very infectious kind of spirit” and a great laugh.
“You knew his laugh from another room because it was just a very big laugh and a very recognizable laugh and he was always smiling,” she said.
Evans also said Croan was known for his laugh.
“The voice was so good and loud you could hear him all the way down to Puyallup,” she said.
Loranger said she learned the importance of hard work through her father.
“Especially in these last 30 years of his life, I learned a lot about generosity and sharing yourself with others,” Loranger said. “He was a wonderful man and I’m glad he was my dad.”
Croan suffered an almost debilitating stroke several months ago that made it difficult for him to perform basic tasks and communicate — but he could still smile.
“He would always smile and be happy to see someone,” Weber said. “I saw him about a week before he died and he smiled from ear to ear when I walked in the room.”
Weber said when he was able to communicate, Croan spoke about the fullness of his life.
“He talked about the fact that he lived a good life and he was ready to go,” Weber said. “I think he felt very at peace about dying and he had a very peaceful death.”
Weber called Croan “a giant on the island” — and in church.
“He’s certainly going to be missed,” Weber said. “We all knew he was in his final days, final weeks some time ago. There was a sadness among the congregation when he died.”