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Remembering Professor Johanna Meehan

Johanna+Meehan+passed+away+on+Jan.+8%2C+2024.+Meehan+had+taught+in+the+philosophy+department+at+Grinnell+College+since+1990.
Contributed by Grinnell College
Johanna Meehan passed away on Jan. 8, 2024. Meehan had taught in the philosophy department at Grinnell College since 1990.

Johanna Meehan, Professor Emerita, McCay-Casady Professor of Humanities and professor of philosophy, passed away on Monday, Jan. 8.

Thought fondly of by faculty members, friends and students within the Grinnell College community, she is remembered as an intelligent, perceptive and generous person. According to colleague and friend Joseph Neisser, professor of philosophy, “she was one of the best friends you could ever have.” 

Meehan, who worked at Grinnell since 1990, is survived by her wife, Maura Irene Strassberg, her two children, Anya Jian Ring Strassberg Meehan, Sierra (Henry Avila) Ring Meehan Strassberg, as well as her grandson, sisters and other relatives. According to colleagues and friends, she left a lasting impact on the philosophy department as a strong, compassionate advocate and mentor for students. 

Ralph Savarese, professor of English, has known Meehan for as long as he has been at Grinnell — around 20 years. Savarese and Meehan, both parents of adopted children, bonded over parenting and books.

I sort of think of her as a big sister.

— Ralph Saverese

“I sort of think of her as a big sister,” Savarese said. 

When he moved to Iowa City 15 years ago, Savarese said he started spending Monday nights with Meehan and her wife so he could easily commute to work. Monday night dinners consisted of “rip-roaring discussions and gossip,” he said. “There really was this sense that they [Johanna and Maura] were not just our peer group, but our friend group. We were all on this journey together.”

“If you went to her house, you’d never see more books in your life. I say this as a writer and English professor — she has read more in my own field than I have,” Savarese said. “One of her great gifts was to be able to synthesize material from all these realms and then give it a kind of urgency based on her own life experiences.” 

Meehan’s intellect and contributions to the philosophy department, as well as the lives of her students, is echoed in the sentiments of those who knew her well. 

Joseph Cummins, associate professor of classics and philosophy who was a part of the committee that hired Meehan, said she had many interdisciplinary interests in the philosophy department, ranging from psychology, gender and politics. She also played an instrumental role in helping to establish the gender, women’s and sexuality studies department. 

“She had an interest in the social dimensions of the self,” Cummins said. “How our interactions with other people and our involvement with other people constitutes who we are.” 

John Fennell, department chair of philosophy and the F. Wendell Miller Professor of Philosophy, said Meehan’s classes were always topical and tackled subjects of democracy, memory and genocide, gender, sexuality and race. 

According to Fennell, Meehan believed that “philosophy has to touch people, especially young people, students — make contact with their lives and with the issues important to them.” For Meehan, “philosophy was continuous with life, with a well-lived life” he said. 

Fennell called Meehan a role model for women in philosophy, a field largely dominated by men. 

“She always recognized and was a supporter of the marginalized in all of their different identities on campus,” Fennell said. And for queer students, “she was always a safe haven and provided a safe space.” 

Kenn Anderson `24 took Political Theory II with Meehan last spring, and described Meehan as a “brilliant and relatable” professor who was witty and charismatic. 

I felt welcome and warm around office hours. She was someone who wanted to hear what I had to say, gave me open and honest feedback and believed in me when I barely believed in myself.

— Kenn Anderson `24

“I felt welcome and warm around office hours,” Anderson said. “She was someone who wanted to hear what I had to say, gave me open and honest feedback and believed in me when I barely believed in myself.” 

Anderson mentioned that their relationship with Meehan developed through post-class discussions, and it continued via email after the semester concluded. Anderson recalled receiving a pair of earrings from Meehan as a gift around their birthday in February.

“She cared about the relationships she had with us [students],” Anderson said. “She left an impact, you didn’t forget her.” 

Savarese noted that Meehan’s impact goes as far as being “instrumental” in telling Kumail Nanjiani `01, Grinnell alumni and famous actor and comedian, that “he should pursue his dream in Hollywood and in comedy.”

“The kind of person she is is something that cannot be replaced,” Cummins said. “You can hire someone to teach courses like hers, but the effect of her character, her friendship, on everybody else is not going to be replaced.”

Fennell, originally from Australia, said Meehan was a major supporter of his application. Remembering his long journey to Des Moines with a delayed flight that had him arrive in Grinnell at 2:30 a.m., he said that when he got into Grinnell House, he realized Meehan had made sure there were flowers and fruit in his room. “Talk about above and beyond,” Fennell said. 

Meehan was described as “one of the best friends you could ever have” by Joe Neisser, professor of philosophy. (Contributed by Ralph Savarese)

Later in life, Meehan experienced many health problems, resulting in multiple surgeries and lasting pain. Despite her hardship, Savarese said Meehan would focus on the pain of others.

“She’s a deeply empathetic person,” he said.  

Anne Harris, president of Grinnell College, sent a statement of tribute on Monday, Jan. 22 within an email titled, “Inspiration and Gratitude.” Close friends, family and faculty also wrote a tribute that was published on Friday, Jan. 26. 

“She leaves a huge institutional footprint, and one of our challenges is going to be to try and do justice to her legacy in some small way sometime later this semester,” Fennell said. “She’s more than deserving of it. Her contributions to the ethos of this place are really profound and far reaching.” 

The philosophy department is planning a memorial service for Meehan later in the semester with a tentative date in April.

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About the Contributor
Claire Giannosa, Staff Writer

Claire Giannosa is a second-year from New York City studying English and Anthropology at Grinnell. In her free time, she loves reading and writing fantasy books and going on sunset walks with friends. Besides studying, leading Creative Writing Club, and S&B work she can usually be found on Mac Field playing ultimate frisbee.

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