John Del Degan provided a running commentary as he drove past cliffs or rocky hillsides.
“He would look at geological features and say, ‘That’s an escarpment and that’s a moraine,’” said his wife, Pam Del Degan.
Limestone layers, some millions of years old, held a geological record of Earth’s past, now unveiled as exposed formations.
John died on July 25, 2020, of cancer at age 64. His family, who lives in Dubuque, delayed holding a celebration of life ceremony for nearly a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
John giggled at his own jokes, which he said were corny because Iowa is filled with so much corn.
He used expressions like “holy crow” and betrayed his Canadian upbringing when pronouncing English words like “aboot” and “mum.” He gave the best hugs.
John was born on June 24, 1956, in Toronto to Enrico and Wanda Del Degan, Italian immigrants. Enrico ran a bakery and Wanda was an administrative assistant to the president of a drug company.
John was the middle child between his older brother, Dan, and younger sister, Maureen.
He grew up hoping to become an engineer and studied geology at the University of Waterloo. After college, John worked for a mining operation, prospecting for amethyst.
He later was employed for a company that contracted with auto manufacturers, overseeing the distribution of notifications to vehicle owners, reminding them their cars were due for maintenance.
The company relocated twice during his tenure, eventually settling in San Diego.
John met Pamela Saylor through a mutual friend during a camping trip in 2000. A few months later, they attended a second campout in the San Jacinto Mountains.
“He was just so nice,” she said. “I just could get along with him so easily and just talk and be myself. By the time we came down the mountain, it was all written. We just fell in love.”
John, then 44, did not believe Pam was old enough to date him. He assumed she was 30, but Pam was a decade older. She showed him her driver’s license to prove it.
“Then, he would call me his young chicky,” Pam said. “I called him my mule.”
They married in 2002 and moved to Dubuque the following year. Pam grew up in North Buena Vista, Iowa, and she had family in the area. The topography reminded John of Canada.
John taught himself to use computers from an early age and spent much of his career working in information technology. When it came to fixing things, his abilities were seemingly limitless, as was his enthusiasm to try his hand.
“I always told people the only thing I’ve seen that he can’t do is have a baby,” Pam said.
It came as a shock when she discovered she was pregnant. In 2004, Pam gave birth to Rika, their only daughter.
“We had a new marriage, a new house and a new baby, all in a year,” Pam said.
John helped Rika with math homework and gave science talks at her school. After she began horse riding, he attended her competitions and helped clean the horse barn.
During the winter holiday, John loved watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and cooked turkey. Rika always placed the angel on the tree.
John was known all year round for his al dente spaghetti and fluffy pancakes that he covered with real Canadian maple syrup.
In 2019, John was diagnosed with nonalcoholic cirrhosis, a scarring of the liver. The fluid that accumulated in his body had to be drained every three weeks.
John hoped to receive a transplant but discovered a few months later that he had inoperable cancer. It had spread from John’s liver into his portal vein inside his heart.
John’s health declined rapidly, but he admitted he was not a very good patient.
He tried to care for himself even as he lost strength. Pam feared John would fall and require hospitalization. There, she could not visit him during COVID-19 lockdowns.
A few weeks before John died, Pam asked him what he had been contemplating.
“I just kind of think about being and not being,” he told Pam, as she recalled it through tears.
One day, John hugged her.
“I don’t want to go because I’m going to miss you,” he said.
“Well honey, I’m going to miss you too,” Pam said. “But from what I understand of it, it’s just going to be a blink of an eye for you and I’ll be there. Time here passes differently.”
John wanted to be cremated and have his ashes incorporated into a piece of art. His niece, Dawn Eikamp, discovered a company that uses cremains to form ceramic stones.
“John being turned into rocks made perfect sense,” she said.
Dawn’s husband, Adam, crafted a wooden shadowbox. John’s stones were placed inside along with other gems from his collection.
Adam shaped it like a three-petaled trillium wildflower, which grows across Canada and is the emblem of the province of Ontario.
On John’s flower, one petal was for Pam, another for Rika. And the third was his.