John H. Kavalos discussed euphemisms for death with his AP Art History class days before he entered eternal life, crossed over Jordan, or, in the words of Ancient Egyptians, “went to his ka” on Monday, January 11, 2016 in Neptune, NJ. He chuckled, listening to all the different but polite expressions for dying that his students were offering. “Kicked the bucket is my personal favorite,” he added with a grin.
As one of his students and an avid listener to his philosophical lectures, I am blessed to have learned many valuable lessons from Mr. Kavalos—also known as “muse befuddled” or “phidgyboy” on his social media accounts—who, at first, seemed like an enigma. After three months of daily lectures, we were finally able to piece together some details of his personal life: he commuted everyday from Long Branch, New Jersey, had his own art studio in Cranbury, adored cats, and once studied at the Yale School of Art with Philip Guston, a well-known abstract expressionist. From his never-ending arsenal of knowledge, opinions, and sarcasm, we could all infer that the life he had led had not been average in any sense of the word.
John Kavalos was born on April 8, 1953, in Houston, Texas, to Nora and Harry Kavalos. After receiving his PhD, he taught at several universities before choosing to become involved with Princeton’s school district. At the high school, he was either everyone’s favorite teacher or everyone’s most eccentric teacher. A typical class began with Metallica and ended with a marching band’s rendition of Adele’s “Hello.” From a family of opera singers, he enjoyed music as much ashe enjoyed art “It is rumored that Mr. Kavalos auditioned for and was Bruce Springsteen’s second choice for the drummer position for the E Street Band,” Patrick Lenihan, Supervisor of Visual and Performing Arts, told our class. “It was between him and one other guy.”
In my sophomore year, I had the pleasure of visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the Studio Art and AP Art History classes alongside Mr. Kavalos. Students from the Studio Art classes, myself among them, wandered aimlessly around the great galleries of the museum—a stark contrast to the AP Art History students who seemed engrossed in their surroundings, pointing out familiar works of art. “[The experience was] really different.” Noel Xie ’15, a former student voiced as she compared looking at actual works of art with looking at pictures in a textbook. “It was very meditative and … personal,” she adds, “Mr. Kavalos could tell us [all] about the [art] pieces.”
Mr. Kavalos made a lasting impression on everyone he encountered, openly sharing with his students the books and artworks he held most sacred to him. After coming back from an extended leave of medical absence, he spent an entire class period reading from what he deemed his favorite text: a copy of the Iliad that had notes falling from every page. He taught his students to appreciate art, have opinions on everything, and always ask questions. “Why does religion exist,” I wrote in my notebook after listening to his lecture on the first day of school— thus beginning a lifelong Kavalos-inspired path of inquiry.
He is survived by his sister, Maria Kavalos of West Long Branch, NJ, and his two nephews, Peter and Paul Palumbo, of Pawtucket, RI, and Waretown, NJ, respectively. To honor John Kavalos’ memory, donations can be made to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A memorial service will be held on February 26, 2016 at 5:30 p.m.–8:00 p.m. in rooms 172 and 174.