John de Grazia

John de Grazia, long-time Princeton resident, died at home of natural causes on Sept. 30, 2020.

John was born in 1951 in Providence, RI, the fifth of seven children born to Alfred de Grazia, a professor who was teaching at Brown University at the time, and his wife Jill Oppenheim de Grazia.  When John was two, the family moved to California, where his father would teach at Stanford. When he was five, the family settled in Princeton in the “Captain’s House” at 306 Nassau Street after his father began teaching at New York University. John went to Nassau Street School, Witherspoon School, then Princeton High School, where he was a member of the class of ’69, and briefly attended Rutgers. By then, the family had moved to 16 Linden Lane, where John was to live until the house was sold in the late 1980s. For a while after that, he had a nomadic existence, sometimes riding his bicycle to Florida in the winter, where he lived at times on a Seminole reservation. In 2018, he moved into Elm Court, where he lived until his death.

John was blessed from birth with beauty and brains, which if nurtured might have carried him far in a conventional sense. Historical and familial circumstances, especially those of the 1960s and early 70s, mitigated against this. After 1964, his family scattered, then his parents divorced. The seven siblings reunited only once more, in 1996 at their mother’s funeral.

Like many young people of the 1960s and early 70s, John struggled to find his way.  He was always passionate about nature, both plants and animals, and for a time worked to convert that into a profession as a tree surgeon. His deep feeling for the natural world comes out in the many photographs and videos he posted on his Facebook page, including those of ”Helen the Heron”, whom he befriended along the Delaware-Raritan canal by scattering breadcrumbs that attracted her favorite food – fish.  His images of flowering bushes and trees of Princeton were posted by the hundreds, and he treasured the many ‘likes’ they elicited. He particularly enjoyed the springtime glory of the Callery pear trees on Witherspoon Street, for which he claimed some  credit, and from this spring, he captured a truly spectacular hydrangea on Chestnut Street. John was also keenly aware of environmental issues affecting his hometown and among other causes vigorously supported the efforts to preserve the old Hamilton Street quarry - now a park - from development.

Early in life, John had channeled his creative energies into construction, focusing mainly on his Linden Lane house, and later he worked through a series of inventive ideas. He was drawn to the university, and for many years had a one-man cottage industry that manufactured Tiger Tale pennants out of plush. These he peddled off his bicycle especially during the football season, at least one of his beloved shaggy dogs trailing close behind. John’s creativity also extended to the kitchen, where he was an enthusiastic cook, unafraid of experimentation.

When the Princeton Public Library began to expand its computer facilities for library patrons, John became a regular, putting in a full day’s work on various research projects, with breaks to meet up with friends and acquaintances in Hind’s Plaza or at Panera’s.  John was absorbed by his family’s background. On his father’s side, he delved into Sicilian and Italian history, while on his mother’s, he explored stories of European Jewish communities. For his nephews, he wrote about the Seminole tribe in Florida he had come to know in his winter excursions south.

As the pandemic took hold, John turned to studying the grim news of illness and death. In early spring he wrote: “Just a few months ago, I was saying, ‘Another day in paradise.’ Now, I'm saying, ‘Where did the world go?’” He noted with sadness the toll it had taken on his town, including his favorite, Panera’s, which closed for good in May.


Where ordinary ties of family had been sundered in John’s life, the Princeton community filled in, people of kindness, wisdom, generosity, and patience, whether at the library, social services, Elm Court, the Princeton police, or friends and acquaintances in person and online. John posted regularly and energetically on Facebook and was an enthusiastic contributor to “I Grew Up in Princeton”.  The affection and interest shown by his friends helped to sustain him. They gave him a sense of place and purpose in life, that he was appreciated, easing his struggles, smoothing his journey. 

John was pre-deceased by his parents and all of his brothers: Paul (d. 2015), Chris (d. 2019), and Carl (d. 2000). He is survived by his stepmother Ami de Grazia; sisters Cathy, Vicky, and Jessie; sisters-in-law Shivano and Karen; six nieces and nephews, and seven grandnieces and nephews.

Donations in John’s memory may be made to Elm Court (Princeton Community Housing) or to the Princeton Public Library.