Cover photo for John Lachs's Obituary
1934 John Lachs 2023

John Lachs

July 17, 1934 — November 14, 2023



Dr. John Lachs died peacefully at his home in Nashville on November 14, 2023, surrounded by family, friends, caregivers, and his beloved cats. His death was followed by a most spectacular sunset, which was seen from his house across the city to the Vanderbilt University campus. He frequently enjoyed the sunset from his home, and encouraged others to join him in doing so, and those present thought of it as his gift as he departed from a wonderful life.

Over a distinguished career in academia spanning more than 50 years, John was known as a brilliant mind and a generous friend to thousands of students and colleagues. As Centennial Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt, he was frequently recognized for his unique ability to engage with his students on challenging topics about human nature, receiving the Madison Sarratt Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the Vanderbilt Alumni Education Award twice, in addition to other honors.

John was a dynamic presence within the Vanderbilt community. His Introduction to Ethics class was the subject of campus legend as one of the most sought-after courses among students of all backgrounds and majors. Over the years, he enthusiastically imparted his inimitable mix of wisdom, critical thinking, and humor to more than 10,000 students – leading him to remark that he taught many of his former students’ grandchildren. He directed more than 70 dissertations over the course of his tenure and helped guide his graduate students toward their careers. He greatly appreciated in his students their questioning nature and always sought to support and encourage their individual pathways.

John was a prolific thinker and writer. His work in philosophy carried on the insights of the American pragmatist tradition, the serious vigor of the philosophy of George Santayana, and the ancient Stoic school’s precepts of dignity and acceptance. His nine books and more than 150 professional articles were devoted to making the case for protecting liberty, valuing individuality, and making room to appreciate the fact that life is finite. In Love With Life, the title of one of his books, is an apt description of his philosophical and personal dispositions.  

John Lachs was born in Budapest, Hungary on July 17, 1934. He lived through World War II as a child and emigrated with his parents to Montreal, Canada in 1951. He attended McGill University and graduated with his bachelors degree in 1956 and his masters degree in 1957. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale in 1961. He began his teaching career in the Philosophy Department at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1959, and subsequently joined the faculty at Vanderbilt in 1967, where he continued his work until his retirement in 2021.

John’s devotion to his work was only surpassed by his deep love and affection for his family. He married the love of his life, Shirley Mellow, in 1967 and they spent the next 49 years together until her death in 2016. They raised two children, Sheila Marie and James Richard. John and Shirley loved to write, spend time at their beach home in Florida, and travel together, especially to New York City. They enjoyed every meal in each other’s company. They elicited the best in one other and brought a special joy to their friends. The loss of his wife and best friend was extremely difficult for John, and his family is grateful that they are now reunited.

John had an enduring love of life and enthusiasm for living. He enjoyed many things: listening to classical music, observing nature, watching the sunset, eating sweet desserts, feeding anyone and everyone (including the buzzards visiting his yard), and being helpful to others. He loved spending time with and watching the interactions of his cats, Lucy and Socrates. He was generous to all in need.

The family would like to thank Alive Hospice as well as the caregivers who made his life comfortable during his last few months: Dominique Hanserd, Kaland Jones, Malenche Marable, Everette Martin, Martha Morrow, Krystal Nabors, Kate Pearse, Aamore Pryor-Pruitt, and Lena Roach. Special thanks go out to his colleagues, former students, and friends, too many to name, for beautiful visits and times of connection, always and especially during the last three months.

A memorial service will be held on December 16 at 2pm at Benton Chapel at Vanderbilt University, with a reception afterwards. All are welcome. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the animal rescue organization of your choice or to Vanderbilt University to the John Lachs Ethics Research and Engagement Fund.




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Harpeth Hills Memory Garden, Funeral Home, & Cremation Center

9090 TN-100, Nashville, TN 37221

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Memorial Service

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Starts at 2:00 pm (Central time)

Vanderbilt University Divinity School

411 21st Ave S, Nashville, TN 37240

In the Benton Chapel of Vanderbilt University

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