One of the final acts of John Borek, one of many acts of his life, was to send 5-foot-tall cardboard cutouts of chocolate rabbits to friends in celebration of Easter, one of his favorite holidays.
Borek, a man of many hats known for his zany theatrics and serious commitment to the Rochester arts and cultural scene, died Saturday. He was 71 and had been ill with leukemia.
He was many things to many people in the city.
There were his 15 years as a legislative aide to former City Councilman Adam McFadden. In February, City Council proclaimed Feb. 16 as “John W. Borek Day,” celebrating “a life story greater than the sum of all its chapters.”
He was the former president of the 19th Ward Community Association, and worked with community advisory programs at the University of Rochester. Many Rochester residents recall him behind the counter at The Village Green bookstore on Monroe Avenue, which he owned and operated for years.
But he may be best remembered for his contributions to the arts community and the name he made for himself as an artist later in life.
At 58, Borek took a sudden interest in the arts. Perhaps those who knew him best, who knew of his quirkiness, saw it coming.
He began recording rap albums, including a song about Michael Jackson’s monkey. He wrote deliberately odd plays, and even performed in them, as artistic director at Multi-use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) on Atlantic Avenue. His resurrection of one of the worst plays to have ever, inexplicably, made its way to Broadway, “Moose Murders,” was reported on the front of The New York Times arts section.
Don Bartalo, founder of the hummingbird theatre company, which like so many other small theater companies found a home at MuCCC, called Borek “the spirit” of MuCCC for his insistence that a wide range of voices, races, and beliefs be represented on its stage.
“John was extremely creative, he was loved by all the actors and directors and playwrights,” Bartalo says. “We would meet with him once a month. We had a lot of fun. We also learned a lot.”
Borek was both a serious and whimsical man, known for sporting loud, colorful shirts and a penchant for screwball films of the 1940s and ’50s.
He had planned on performing a show called “The Book of Leuk” at last year’s KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival, about his observations on his battle with leukemia. But a resurgence of the disease prevented that from happening.
Last year, Borek published “The Club Van Cortlandt,” a small but marvelous book about his freshman year at Columbia University, a critical year in his life. In recent months, Borek had been posting on Facebook narratives about other chapters of his life, essays that read like what might have become another book, had he had the time to complete it.
News of Borek’s death prompted an outpouring of tributes on social media, where friends recalled his many acts of generosity.
Richard Grey Collins, a former felon, wrote of how Borek had stopped him on the street one day, admiring the shirt he wore and that he had made. Borek asked if Collins could make him a shirt like it. Collins did, and Borek paid him well. That chance relationship continued. Even when Collins broke parole and returned to jail, “John did the year violation with me, sent enough money for me to buy stuff every three months,” Collins wrote. “When I came home he said, ‘I won’t do jail again so don’t go back.’ ”
Borek wrote “The Club Van Cortlandt” on his phone, often while sitting in the waiting room where his wife of 44 years, Jackie Levine, was undergoing treatment for a rare neurological disease.
They didn’t have children of their own, but over the years, and through Levine’s work directing the University of Rochester’s study abroad program, they took a large number of students under their wing. Borek and Levine called them their “not children.”
Levine died 10 months ago.
Friends at Borek’s hospice bed said the last word he uttered that could be understood was “Jackie.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.