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Monday, April 22, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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John McDiarmid shared pleasures of knowledge

Seattle Times staff reporter

For John McDiarmid, life was simply a vehicle to learn. And he shared that passion with everyone he encountered.

He paid his children 10 cents for every line of poetry they memorized. And while walking through the Washington Park Arboretum, he taught them to discern how tall the trees were, using shadows and the Pythagorean Theorem.

As chairman of the Classics Department, he revamped the program at the University of Washington. And after he retired, he continued to research Greek thought and discoveries, writing about his findings in academic journals.

Mr. McDiarmid died last Monday (April 15) of a heart attack while asleep at his Seattle home. He was 88.

"He used to say, 'You have the pleasure of knowledge. It's with you for the rest of your life,' " recalled a daughter, Margaret Coppock of Seattle.

Born in Toronto, Mr. McDiarmid was the only child of Scottish immigrants. He graduated from high school with the highest grades in his class, earning scholarships to the University of Toronto. He then paid his way through school teaching immigrants working on the railroad how to speak and read English.

After graduating with degrees in Latin and Greek, he earned his doctorate in Greek from Johns Hopkins University. While in Baltimore, he and some friends went to a graduation dinner with several Goucher College students. Mr. McDiarmid's date, Mary Kahn, was the woman he would later marry.

"My mother said that when she went to the ladies room, she told all her friends to stay away from him," Coppock recalled. "She said, 'He's mine.' "

Mr. McDiarmid served in World War II, first with the Royal Canadian Navy and then as a submarine tracker with the British secret service. After teaching classics at Johns Hopkins for four years, he moved his growing family to Seattle, where he was appointed chairman of the Classics Department at the UW in 1949. He served in that position for 24 years, usually walking to work from his Capitol Hill home.

Mr. McDiarmid twice took sabbaticals to study at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., which was under the directorship of Albert Einstein the first time he attended and under atomic-bomb physicist Robert Oppenheimer the second time.

And when he wasn't deciphering the mysteries of ancient Greece, he still could be found pondering philosophy while fly-fishing near his cabin along the Stillaguamish River.

"He'd love to go up there and just stand in the river because he was thinking," recalled his other daughter, Kate Lloyd of Seattle.

Integrity and morality were intrinsic to Mr. McDiarmid's nature, his daughters said.

"Some of his pals called him, 'John the Good,' because he was a very honorable person and would stand up for what he thought was right," Coppock said. "He would always stand up for his principles."

But he would share his wealth of knowledge with everyone.

Traveling with him was like having a walking encyclopedia at hand, his daughters said.

"He just knew so much history. Anywhere there were ancient ruins, it was like having your own tour guide along because he knew so much," Lloyd said. "He was really fascinating."

Besides his daughters, Mr. McDiarmid is survived by a son, Ian, of Seattle, and two grandsons. His wife died in 1988.

A memorial service is at 2 p.m. tomorrow at University Presbyterian Church, 4540 15th Ave. N.E., Seattle.

Gina Kim can be reached at 206-464-2761 or gkim@seattletimes.com.

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