In 1968, John C. Bissell was a decorated combat veteran, new husband, and beloved older brother to three siblings still in their teens. He was also, quite suddenly, an orphan. His father had died several years earlier, but now his mother was gone too. John, then serving in the United States Marine Corps, had recently made captain. He had dreams of continuing his military career and traveling the world. He could have allowed his brothers and sister to be shuffled along to other relatives, who were more than willing to take the children in. But he didn’t allow that. Families, he decided, should stay together.
John thus left the Marine Corps, returned to his birthplace of Escanaba, Michigan, and, with his first wife, Muff (Alexandria Thomas), cared for his brothers and sister as best he could. By making the choice he did, John sacrificed a life he had long imagined for himself, all so other people could have a little more stability, a little more hope. “It was the right thing to do,” he said, much later in his life. This had the virtue of being true, but it was also an act so selflessly illustrative of this man’s long—but still far too short—life.
John C. Bissell was born in Escanaba, Michigan, in 1942, to John and Alicia Bissell. He died at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay, Wisconsin, on March 3, 2021. Between these plain, sad coordinates were the events of an altogether remarkable life.
John was the subject of a critically acclaimed book. He once starred as himself in a documentary film. He graduated third in his class from Holy Name High School in 1959 and from Georgetown University, in Washington, DC, in 1963. Soon after, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, fully aware he’d likely wind up fighting in Southeast Asia. According to a story John often told, when the Marines discovered he could “spell the word ‘college,’” they dispatched him to Officer’s Candidate School.
In 1965, John was the youngest American company commander in Vietnam (a country he loved and to which he twice returned to as a non-combatant). John’s combat service ended in 1966, when he was grievously wounded by a roadside bomb, the explosion of which left him with 200 separate wounds. (“They counted ’em, too,” he once said.)
John worked for many years at the First National Bank (later MFC-First National Bank) in Escanaba, managing its Trust Department. While working, John continued his education, earning his master’s degree in business administration from Lake Superior State University in 1991. In 2000, John resigned his position when MFC became a subsidiary of Wells Fargo.
John then moved his talents to First Bank, where he ended his career in 2015. He later described his trust customers’ instant willingness to follow him to a new, unfamiliar bank as one of the proudest moments of his life. Then again, why wouldn’t his customers have followed him? They knew John C. Bissell was, if nothing else, a scrupulously honest human being. He was also an inspiring, stubborn, kind, hilarious, maddening, intelligent, and occasionally infuriating human being.
With his second wife, Carolyn—the love of his life, to whom he was married for 34 years—John was famous for entertaining. He loved hearing other people’s stories and telling his own. And he had plenty of stories to tell, being an avid reader, outdoorsman, bird hunter, and traveler. The typical John C. Bissell story worked like this: Something unjust or stupid or unwise is happening, at which point John C. Bissell himself stumbles into the situation and points out how some small, decisive, common-sensical action could improve things. Sometimes, in John C. Bissell’s stories, his advice was correct. Sometimes it wasn’t. John was never the unabashed hero of the stories he loved to tell. He was just one person, after all, trying to make the world a little better, a little more fair and just.
He was actively involved in many local organizations, including St. Joseph’s Parish, the Delta County Chamber of Commerce, the Delta County Ambassadors, the Elks Club, the Escanaba Country Club, the Marine Corps League, and Kiwanis. For many years, with his best friend, Chip Cipolla, he helped organize Blue Angel and Thunderbird flyovers during multiple local air shows and other community events.
Although John had what is euphemistically known as a “big personality,” he wasn’t a loud, commandeering person by nature. He was, at his best, actually pretty modest. He didn’t believe in grand gestures and knew the world wasn’t likely to get better through big-plan magical thinking. He was too much of a small-town banker, and a Marine, to buy into that. The world gets better when we as human beings get better, and the only place that can happen is inside us, in our mysterious, individual hearts.
When John died, and the calls started coming in, the people closest to him remarked, first of all, at how much unreasonable laughter there was when recalling and remembering the man. Laughter, and joy. It would be hard to think of another person who made as many people mad as John had over the years while remaining so purely and beautifully loved by those same people. Some of us are grudge holders. John C. Bissell was a grudge melter, a grudge annihilator.
John is survived by his wife Carolyn; his sons, John (Laura) and Tom (Trisha Miller); his granddaughters, Amy and Natalie and Mina; his brother, Paul (Ann); his sister, Alicia; and numerous cousins, nephews, and nieces. He is also survived by all who loved him, which is to say almost everyone he ever met.
John Bissell made the world just a little bit better, which, as he knew, and taught us, is both a lot and exactly enough. Our beloved husband, father, brother, and grandpa: your long tour of duty is finally over.
A celebration of John’s life is being planned for the summer of 2021. In lieu of flowers, the Bissell family requests a donation in John's name to Bay College.
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