By Jonah Grinkewitz

John Fahey, who taught Russian at Old Dominion University for more than 20 years and helped establish the language as a major at the University, died Jan. 28, just two months shy of his 101st birthday.

Fahey often drew on his experiences as a Naval officer and Russian linguist to inspire his students to realize the power of language.

Before coming to ODU in 1966, Fahey had an exciting career in the U.S. Navy. He served as a combat airship commander during World War II, helping to escort merchant vessels through shipping lanes, land airships on aircraft carriers and retrieve downed airmen from the sea. In the 1950s, he served as the operations officer on the USS Muliphen, an attack cargo ship, and in 2009, was named to the Muliphen’s Wall of Honor. 

Photo of a man and a woman.

Fahey and his wife, Barbara, were married in 1945 and enjoyed 75 years together before she died in 2021. Photo courtesy of the Fahey family.

After the war, Fahey served as director of the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) where he helped prepare Naval attachés for embassy posts around the world.

Due to his mastery of the Russian language, he was assigned to a secret mission in Germany from 1960-62 where he gathered intelligence on Soviet forces as a military liaison. Fahey wrote about the experience, which included high-speed car chases and detentions by Soviet troops, in “Licensed to Spy: With the Top Secret Military Liaison Mission in East Germany,” one of six books he wrote.

Fahey retired from the Navy as a commander in 1963 and began his long teaching career, first at Cox High School and then Norfolk Academy before coming to ODU.

Marla Stahl remembers being hooked by his spy stories when she took Fahey’s class as an ODU student in 1974. “And I knew I would not be brave enough to do any of those things, but at least I could get a job with the government,” she said. Inspired by his class, Stahl majored in Russian and pursued a career with the U.S. Department of Defense. 

Lorna Bornemeier ‘73 remembers Fahey being very “pro-student,” always touting the accomplishments of his past pupils and doing what he could to help them in their careers post-college.

“I don’t know if you could ever put into words the dedication he had for his students,” she said.

While at ODU, Fahey served as chair of the foreign languages and literature department from 1976-79 and received several awards, including the Robert L. Stern Award for Outstanding Teacher in the College of Arts and Letters and the Alan Rufus Tonelson Distinguished Faculty Award.

After retiring from the University in 1988, he stayed committed to education, serving as a Virginia Beach School Board member for nine years. He wrote a book with his son, John Fahey Jr., about his experience working to improve the school system titled “Maverick on the School Board.”

Fahey also served as president of the Virginia Beach Rotary Club and as a Rotary International District Governor, providing counsel to nearly 60 clubs in the region.

In addition to writing and teaching, he had a passion for photography that started during his time in the Navy when he won first place in the 1962 All-Navy Photography Contest.

A man and woman pose for a photo in a restaurant.

Marla Stahl (left) stayed connected with John Fahey, her former professor, and visited him a few years before his 100th birthday. Photo courtesy of the Fahey family.

“John Fahey was like the ‘Energizer Bunny’ in and out of the classroom,” said Carol Norton, another one of his former ODU students.

Adding to his remarkable life, Fahey met three future presidents: Gerald Ford was his football coach at the Navy Pre-Flight School; he took students from the MISLS to meet John F. Kennedy when Kennedy was a U.S. Senator in 1959; and spent an afternoon chatting with Jimmy Carter when Carter made a campaign stop in Virginia in 1975.

After moving to the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville, Maryland, in 2010, he continued writing, taking photos and teaching. He hosted more than 250 one-hour programs on the community’s in-house TV station, and taught classes at the Elderhostel’s Lifelong Learning Institute where he offered monthly programs to residents until October 2023.

“He was so well-loved and sought out at Charlestown because he was so informative and so engaging,” Stahl said. “But he always remained humble. Whenever he would talk about the things he did, it wasn’t ‘Oh, aren’t I great?’ it was ‘Here’s what I did with my language.’”

When he was recently asked how he would like to be remembered, Fahey told one of his daughters: “as a teacher.”

A funeral mass will be held at 10 a.m. June 10 at Our Lady of Angels Chapel in the Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville, Maryland. A 9:30 a.m. visitation precedes the mass. A military burial with honors will be held at Arlington National Cemetery at 3 p.m., arrival by 2:45 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations in his memory be made to the Charlestown Benevolent Care Fund or to a charity of your choice.

Read his online obituary.