The legacy of John O. (Johnny) Varble, who died on Oct. 19 at 83 on the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University, will live on forever. Johnny was a dedicated and beloved member of the Brandeis-Bardin community for more than 40 years, leading the ranch staff, and welcoming and supporting all who visited the campus. Johnny also was an award-winning horse trainer and breeder. I had the privilege of working with him for three years and of being his friend for many more. Johnny lived by a set of values that permeated all he did in life, and his devotion to Brandeis-Bardin was unparalleled. For thousands of people, he represented the heart and soul of Brandeis, and for several individuals, he was a mentor who greatly impacted their lives.
Johnny loved the land; he loved Bardin’s vision, and he loved how the place touched so many people — men and women, boys and girls of all ages. He was shaped by a work ethic that reflected a responsibility to the 3,000-acre campus; he knew every inch of it — where every pipe was and every building. Johnny knew how to fix anything, how to put out fires, repair buildings and the million other things that kept Brandeis functioning. He did not do this because it was a job — he did this because he took great pride in Brandeis and the values that had shaped the place.
He taught not through words, but by actions. Watching him was a great lesson in how to live a meaningful life. He loved his wife, Wendy, who was the center of his life, and he enjoyed all that they shared together. The only thing that could make him get him off a horse or stop working or walking the land was returning to the beautiful home that he and Wendy built. He enjoyed the sunrises and the sunsets. He worked hard, yet always had time to help someone else. He was a great listener.
Johnny’s public persona was that of the quintessential cowboy — self-sufficient, independent, kind and a man of few words. Yet as soon as you entered into conversation with him, you saw the inner character that shaped his identity. He was a highly intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive human being. He treated people with respect and with honesty. He was not particularly tolerant of laziness, or of people who lacked a deep commitment to the place he loved; he knew that the magic of the place came from just taking time to be there — away from televisions and computers and just walking the land, where he had spent his childhood playing.
Johnny shared a deep bond with the men and women who worked side by side with him, all of them immigrants from the village of El Palmar in Mexico, who have lived and worked at Brandeis for decades. He knew they also loved the place. For them, he was a father, a mentor, a friend.
Like so many others, my wife, Judy, learned a lot about horses, and about life, from Johnny, her teacher and friend. Long before he would allow her to ride a horse on a trail, he showed her how you treat a horse, the nature of the relationship, the discipline required. He understood horses, and they understood him. Like human beings, animals know authenticity — and that’s what was at the core of Johnny Varble. So many people learned great lessons about life from their time with him on the trails, in the corral and on the roundups.
I will never forget the many conversations I had with Johnny about life, about perspective, about what really matters. This man, who was not Jewish, truly understood the core of Jewish values — and the impact the Brandeis-Bardin Institute experience had on so many people. I always left him having gained a new insight, admiring this man who, like all of us, was made of flesh and blood, yet was able to see the larger picture and live his life in a way that was good to life.
Einstein once said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Johnny chose the latter. He saw the miracle of nature, of daily life, of human beings, of horses and in the work that provides an inner satisfaction. For those who had the privilege of knowing Johnny Varble, his life and his values, he will always be with us. We are grateful for the miracles that Johnny Varble created each and every day. Our lives will always be enriched because of our friendship with him.
Johnny is survived by his wife of 25 years, Wendy; three sons — Chico, John Jr. and Rich; and five grandchildren.
Rabbi Lee Bycel is president of CedarStreet Leadership and served as president of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute from 2000 to 2003.