John Thomas Pesta



John Thomas Pesta, newspaper editor, English professor, literary-magazine founder and mystery-novel author who once wrestled a tiger at a county fair, died Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2023, at home in Starve Hollow, where he lived for a half-century.

John was 80 years old. He was also many other things: Opinionated. Creative. Intensely supportive of his family. A stickler for grammar.

As the owner and editor of “The Brownstown Banner” for nearly 20 years, he was a fierce champion of the community, where he settled in the 1970s and spent the rest of his life.

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1943, John was the only son of a Hungarian house-painter — a man of such modest means that he grew up in a house with a sod roof — and a firebrand seamstress whose rebellion against her own family’s deeply traditional Italian ways was to marry a tough Hungarian house-painter.

At Central Catholic High School in Allentown, John was a star student sometimes tasked with chauffeuring nuns in his VW Beetle. But at least once he had a serious clash with the school, foreshadowing his later interest in journalism. As a reporter for the school paper, he had interviewed Ammon Hennacy, the renowned Catholic pacifist and tax resister — but school officials refused to publish an article about a man who openly advocated against paying taxes. It was a tale that John enjoyed retelling for years, along with a story about the time he was driving two nuns somewhere late at night, but his car ran out of gas, prompting the nuns to start praying and saying their rosaries while he figured out what to do.

John graduated Central Catholic in 1961 as salutatorian.

As a teenager, John wrote short stories published in numerous hand-made science-fiction “zines” of the era, stapled-together publications with names like “The Maelstrom,” “Mirage” and “Insurrection.” Notably in one such zine, called “Yandro” and published August 1960, a short story by John (a creepy tale of a mysterious and dangerous pair of mirrors bought in an antique shop) appeared alongside a poem written by another young writer, Roger Ebert, presumably the future film critic.

This kind of fiction writing was the start of a lifelong interest for John. Over the decades, he wrote dozens of stories published in acclaimed literary magazines including “The Florida Review,” “Kansas Quarterly,” “The Bridge,” “Prairie Schooner,” “Sou’wester,” “Farmer’s Market,” “Flying Island,” “Green River Review” and others.

At the University of Notre Dame, John set his sights on a career as a professor of English. There he became a protege of the legendary English teacher Frank O’Malley, joining a group of favored students known as O’Malley’s Boys. He also worked as a short order cook, on an overnight shift, because it paid more than his other job, writing obituaries for the Allentown Morning Call.

At Notre Dame he met his future wife, Maureen, a student at Saint Mary’s College, at a banquet for the editors of the two schools’ literary magazines. He graduated with honors in 1965, and the two were wed that year.

Shortly thereafter, John made one of those life decisions that has been met with decades of eye-rolling in Pesta family lore. It was around this time that he was offered a spot in the English program at Harvard University with a one-year full scholarship — but he said no thanks. Instead he went to the University of Virginia, which had offered two years and for John, knowing he would be starting a family, the added financial cushion was the deciding factor.

He graduated with a Master’s in English from UVA in 1966, then studied for a year at the University of London on a Fulbright fellowship.

Their son, Jesse, was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1966. Three years later their daughter, Abigail, was born in London.

John’s academic work from this period of his life, in particular his writing on Harold Pinter, the British playwright and Nobel laureate, continues to be cited more than a half-century later.

After graduation John took a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and quickly decided an academic career wasn’t for him. That realization would redefine his life.

He moved to southern Indiana and became the editor of a tiny newspaper in Salem, where in one of the more ill-considered business promotional schemes, he agreed to publicly wrestle a tiger to promote the newspaper. The tiger’s trainers warned John that he’d be fine as long as he didn’t turn his back to the cat.

He forgot. The cat attacked.

Luckily, though, John remembered the trainer’s other instruction: Lie down flat and play dead.

In March 1972, John and Maureen purchased “The Brownstown Banner,” which they owned first in partnership with Harry Kindred, and later with Walt McCormick, before becoming the sole owners. As editor and publisher for nearly 20 years, John wrote and edited countless articles — editorials, stories about high-school sports teams and Superfund waste dumps, reports of giant pumpkins, dead rattlesnakes and once, a whippoorwill that built an exquisitely camouflaged nest, hidden in the middle of a gravel parking lot.

He expanded the business, first installing a large newspaper printing press in order to print other small-town papers in the region. He founded “The Austin-Crothersville News” with James “Grady” Gunter, and bought “The Sturgis News” in Sturgis, Kentucky. During this time, these newspapers also became surely some of the first in America to be fully typeset on a brand-new piece of technology, the Mac computers and laser printers that began appearing in the mid-1980s.

John also founded Banner Cablevision, bringing cable TV to the town for the first time and designing a special channel broadcasting local news. He liked to joke that he had built the tallest thing in Brownstown, the cable antenna that towered over downtown for decades, its red blinking light visible at night from as far away as Skyline Drive.

After selling the business in 1989 and going into semi-retirement, John wrote and edited textbooks at the Agency for Instructional Technology in Bloomington, and taught English at Ivy Tech as well as in the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis system. While there he founded a student literary magazine, “Literalines,” now known as “Talking Leaves,” and in 2021 he was given the school’s Champion of Liberal Arts award on the occasion of the magazine’s 25th anniversary.

But John’s first love was fiction writing. In addition to his decades of short-story writing, John is the author of two mystery novels, “Safely Buried” and “The More You Stir It.” Both follow the investigative adventures of a small-town newspaperman embroiled in dramas that expose the secrets of a community where people are willing to go to great lengths to keep the past hidden.

“Safely Buried” was named Best Book of Fiction in the 2012 Best Books of Indiana contest, a competition organized by the Indiana State Library. John’s mystery writing has received many other awards including at the London Book Festival and the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

His period novel, “Crates,” tells the story of a young woman searching for freedom and identity in tradition-bound 1950s America, and her young son coming of age in a broken family. In 2020, many of his short stories were published as a collection, “King of the Yellow Jackets.” The experiences of the characters he invented are equal parts funny, tragic and poignant, and reflect John’s lifetime of fascination with people from all walks of life.

John died six days shy of his 58th wedding anniversary. He is survived by his wife, the artist Maureen O’Hara Pesta of Vallonia; son Jesse Pesta, an editor at The New York Times in New York City; daughter Abigail Pesta, author and journalist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and son-in-law Joel Oestreich, professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

He was preceded in death by his parents, John Aloysius Pesta and Angeline (Palladino) Pesta.

John was a member of Our Lady of Providence Catholic Church in Brownstown until its closure, and more recently a member of Saint Ambrose Catholic Church in Seymour, Indiana.

In John’s final years, he received priceless help and attention from wonderful caregivers including Nikki Lu Hickman of North Vernon, who devoted herself to him for more than two years and became a dear friend.

A memorial picnic will be held Saturday, September 9, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Skyline Drive Shelter House, in the state forest area just outside Brownstown at the top of Skyline Drive.

A private burial ceremony will be held Friday, September 8, at Fairview Cemetery in Brownstown.

In John’s memory, friends are invited to make a gift to “Talking Leaves,” the student literary magazine he founded, which is administered at IUPUC in Columbus

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