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Style · June 26, 2018

Love of writing, learning drive 81-year-old author

Photo/Don Del Rosso
“I never expected to be a writer,” John Greenya, 81, says. “But, it’s turned out to be a wonderful thing for me.”
Among the journalists that I’ve known, I’ve never met one that is more versatile than John and as good as he is in so many fields.
— Nick Kotz, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter
John Greenya
• Age: 81

• Home: Near Warrenton

• Work: Freelance writer, 1968-present; author or co-author of two dozen nonfiction books, 4 young adult novels; produced at least 200 book reviews and 100 newspaper and magazine stories.

• Family: 1 son; 3 grandchildren.

• Education: Master’s degree, English, Catholic University, 1966; bachelor’s degree, history and English, Marquette (Wisc.) University, 1960; Marquette University High School, 1955.

• Hobbies: Reading, listening to classical and jazz music.
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
With two dozen nonfiction books under his belt, the 81-year-old author has no plans to quit the craft.

“Why should I stop?” John Greenya, who lives near Warrenton, says with a raspy laugh. “It’s not like work.”

Besides, Mr. Greenya takes pleasure in shaping sentences, learns a lot from the process, and it helps pay the bills.

Earlier this year, Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc., published Mr. Greenya’s newest book, “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks for Himself.” The unauthorized biography of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch runs 257 pages.

> Video at bottom of story

And recently, he and trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey completed an untitled, 300-page manuscript that makes a case for O.J. Simpson’s innocence in the 1994 brutal double-murder of the former NFL star’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.

Mr. Bailey served on Mr. Simpson’s legal defense team. After an 11-month trial, a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury found Mr. Simpson not guilty of two murder charges.

Still, many believe he committed the crimes.

The untitled book aims to convince a “younger generation” of Mr. Simpson’s innocence, according to Mr. Bailey.

The famous lawyer and Mr. Greenya have co-written two books — one about some of the trial lawyer’s more high-profile cases (“For the Defense), the other about air travel safety (“Cleared for the Approach: F. Lee Bailey in Defense of Flying”).

Apart from a shelfful of books, Mr. Greenya estimates he has produced at least 200 book reviews and 100 newspaper and magazine articles during the last 50 years.

“The thing is I never expected to be a writer,” the Wisconsin native says. “But, it’s turned out to be a wonderful thing for me.”

A young man on the move, Mr. Greenya left his home state for Washington 58 years ago to get a law degree at Georgetown University.

To cover his second-year law school tuition and related expenses, he took a job with the United States Capitol Police in 1961.

But things didn’t unfold as Mr. Greenya had hoped. He left Georgetown after two years because of poor grades.

“I didn’t pass enough courses, frankly,” Mr. Greenya recalls. “The problem was I was working full-time for the United States Capitol Police and stayed in the day school, which was unwise. I should’ve switched to the night school.

“But I knew at that point it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t any fun, to be honest. I loved the law; I just didn’t like law school.”

Truth be told, Mr. Geenya viewed his four-year stint in uniform as little more than a paycheck.

“We were sort of a glorified guard force,” he says. “We took care of the buildings and grounds. Nobody came to us to solve crimes.”

But he earned enough to make ends meet and later turned the experience into a Sunday magazine story for the old Washington Star newspaper.

“I had failed the pistol test, so they took my bullets away for about six weeks,” he says. “So I wrote in that piece about what would I say to somebody who committed a crime in my presence, ‘Stop or I’ll click.’ That was the headline on the front of the magazine.”

After he left the Capitol police force, Mr. Greenya in 1964 landed a full-time job teaching composition and American literature at George Washington University.

Two years later, he received a master’s degree in English at Catholic University. Through Catholic’s English department, he learned about an instructor’s position at George Washington University.

“So I called to make an appointment and I got hired,” Mr. Greenya says. “To me, it was sort of amazing, but it was wonderful.”

While he had hoped to make a career at George Washington, the university’s “unwritten rule” that all instructors pursue doctorates in their fields forced him to leave the institution.

“At that time, I’d started writing on the side and editing, and I thought I’d try to turn that around.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Nick Kotz, who lives near Broad Run in Northern Fauquier, marvels at the scope of subjects Mr. Greenya has covered in books, journalism and book reviews.

“Among the journalists that I’ve known, I’ve never met one that is more versatile than John and as good as he is in so many fields,” says Mr. Kotz, 85. “And, I would start with the book reviews.

“They are extraordinary — high-brow, middle-brow fiction, pulp fiction, serious examinations of government issues. I read the New York Times, the Washington Post book reviews and The New Yorker. He’s as good as the best people reviewing books.”

Mr. Greenya’s books demonstrate the same range of interests as the reviews, he adds.

His book topics include the law, politics, government, crime and aviation safety. He also has written four young adult novels.

George Washington University President Emeritus Stephen Joel Trachtenberg has known Mr. Greenya for 30 years.

“As a teacher, he was very committed, really cared about the students,” says Mr. Trachtenberg, 80. “I think he made a difference in their lives.

“He was, on the one hand, inspirational. And, on the other hand, didactic, which is to say he made sure their spelling and grammar actually had some resemblance to what is conventionally known as English.”

Mr. Bailey called Mr. Greenya his “only choice” to co-author the Simpson book.

“I’ve known John since 1975, when we wrote our first book together,” he says. “John is a good writer; he’s intelligent and easy to work with.”

The writer also brings a sense of humor to the book writing enterprise, “which is always refreshing,” Mr. Bailey says. “Writing can be deadly business. Some days you sit down and the words don’t come out.”

Like many, Mr. Greenya concluded that Mr. Simpson had murdered his former wife and her friend.

But Mr. Bailey changed the author’s mind.

“He’s the smartest guy I’ve ever met,” Mr. Greenya says. “And if a guy like that thinks something is ‘x’ and can explain it, I’ll listen to him.”

The Simpson book also will be reinforced through a website, which will include the trial transcript “so that wise guys who ask stupid questions can be directed to the court record,” Mr. Bailey says. “I’m not going to talk to them until they become informed, because most of the people who are critical of the O.J. verdict couldn’t find their a____ with both hands.”

The co-authors continue to search for a publisher.

Mr. Greenya struggles to name a favorite book collaborator or subject.

“Bailey’s pretty close,” he admits. “Pierre Salinger (press secretary for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson) is pretty close. I really enjoyed William French Smith (President Ronald W. Reagan’s attorney general). I’m a liberal Democrat, and he was a conservative Republican. But, Smith was a very kind, decent man.”

Other book subjects, however, left a sour taste in his mouth.

“Gorsuch sort of led me down the primrose path, because he led me to believe he would talk and then at the end he said he wouldn’t,” says Mr. Greenya, who moved to Fauquier about 2-1/2 years ago.

About a year after his wife’s death in 2015, Mr. Greenya decided to leave Washington for more affordable quarters. Over lunch at Claire’s at the Depot in Old Town Warrenton, long-time friends from Front Royal persuaded him to move to Fauquier, where he found a mountaintop cottage to rent a few miles outside of Warrenton.
He has at least two new book projects in mind — one about the power wielded by federal district court judges, the other about the deaths of his second wife and two of three sons from his first marriage.

His second wife, Denise Del Priore Greenya, died at the age 58 from lung cancer.

His oldest son, Jim, died at the age of 32 in 1999 of a heart attack. His youngest son Mike died at the age of 26 as a result of a 2009 hit-and-run accident.

“I had a lot of deaths in a 15-year period,” Mr. Greenya says. “It would be a love letter to those three people.”

Tentatively called “Three Lost Loves,” the book would bring some resolution to a difficult stretch in his life, he says.

“I’m not staying up nights crying about what happened. But, it will help get the whole thing pushed down the road. It was a hell of a time.”

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