In Memory

John Shelton

John Shelton



John Shelton 1941-2011 

John Shelton and Daisy - 2006

John Shelton, son of Leonard and Frances Shelton, brother of Tom, Robert, and Jane passed away January 2, 2011 at his sister’s home in Virginia after a sudden battle with cancer.

John was a close friend and classmate (Pomona College class of 1963). We grew up in Claremont and were friends since age 4. John’s sister, Jane, and my sister, Karin, were also classmates and good friends.

After college, John joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Peru. During most of his life from then on he traveled the world, taught English in Japan, crewed on ships, and eventually spent most of his later years living in Southeast Asia and Australia.

Among my friends and acquaintances, John was always one of the fittest, both physically and mentally. He loved to read and to analyze politics and world events and to have lively discussions and arguments over these subjects. Almost daily, he would be off on long runs, doing pushups and pull-ups, and staying in great shape.

For him to pass away at such a relatively young age is quite a surprise to those who knew him. What we learn from this is that your health is truly the wild card in your life. Sudden illnesses or accidents can never be predicted and can turn your life upside down or end it very quickly.

Although he was out of the country for most of his adult life, there were visits back to the States. He would stay in Claremont to spend time with his mother or would come out to Manhattan Beach to visit with David Ronfeldt. I would join them when I had the time and would stay up most of the night listening to John talk about his latest adventures.

I miss those times and I miss John. David and I are both very grateful to John’s sister, Jane, and to his brothers for all the care and attention they gave him during his last months. After a family gathering at Tom Shelton’s place in Idaho, John’s ashes will be scattered in the rugged mountains nearby.


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01/04/11 06:51 PM #1    

Kathy Campbell (Elinwood )

To have lead such a contributing life is a life well lived.  Congratulations, John. 

01/07/11 10:02 AM #2    

Richard Bond

Thank you for your message Geoff about John-

I last saw him in front of the Claremont Post Ofife when we both happened to be in Claremont visiting parents. Although I never knew him well, I always found him interesting. To my feeling he was rather the inveterate wanderer. I recall we were talking about long distance driving and found that we both really enjoyed driving in the black of night - rather secretively and anonymously I think!

All the best to your spirit and your memory John

Dick Bond

01/08/11 01:15 PM #3    

Robert Benson

Geoff, I appreciate the notification of John’s death, and the insights conveyed in the obituary.

I treasure the time that John and I spent in high school and at Pomona College.  John was a special person.  In particular, John, Don and I played football and ran track together both at CHS and at Pomona College.  The three of us played in both the offensive and defensive backfields in football and ran the sprints in track.  This provided us with common interests, activities, and shared successes and memories.   We shared and still share the successes (championships) and memories with all of our teammates, all of our classmates and the townspeople of Claremont.   

John had an engaging personality and many friends at Claremont HS and at Pomona College.  John was co-captain of the CHS track team.  During high school days, John’s room was across the carport from the main house, and many of us gathered in that room to chat.   The discussions ranged from sports to music to philosophy and local events, as well as other items best not mentioned.    John’s father, Agee (Leonard Shelton) would occasionally drop by and engage us in conversation.   His insights and knowledge were helpful.

After college and the Peace Corps, John became a world traveler and I did not see him very often.  But, John is in my memories.

--- Benny


01/12/11 10:19 AM #4    

Don Kieselhorst

January 12, 2011

As many of you know, John and I were the best of friends in our formative teenage years, and I was very saddened to hear of his recent passing from cancer.

I first heard of John’s condition from David Ronfeldt. He said that John had been travelling in Southeast Asia when he realized that he was seriously ill. I was relieved to hear that he was able to make it “home” to his sister Jane in Virginia where he received the love, comfort and very best medical and family attention he deserved. Knowing that John was in Jane’s care gave me great comfort.

It was through my friendship with John that I spent many happy early years around the Shelton/Dundas enclave on 11th Street where there was always something fun going on. John’s father would often visit with us when we were gathered in his room off the garage at the end of his father’s busy days, taking precious time to get to know John’s friends. He influenced all of us in various ways during those visits, and he helped guide us through the important decisions we were making that would shape our young lives in the future. The decision by a number of us to attend Pomona College was but one of those decisions.

Following, in no particular order, are fond memories of John and what we did together:

• Throwing the ball in his front yard for his dog Millie on hot days in a fruitless effort to tire her out.

• Getting looped for the first time, and very sick, on rum and tequila straight from the bottle along with Brian Wilcox and Tim Ford. I still can’t drink either one to this day.

• “Blowing up Kemp” from time to time over many years when David, Brian, Tim, Chris Taylor and I had nothing better to do. Kemp was a neighbor we could always count on to overreact to the firecrackers and small fires we set in his front yard.

• Sharing the backfield, along with Bob Benson, on a great C.I.F Championship football team our senior year at Claremont. I particularly remember John’s successful efforts running the ball out of bounds on sweeps, thereby stopping the clock and saving precious time on our last minute drive to beat Mater Dei in the semifinal game we won in the last seconds of the game.

• Joining John and his father on a drive from Claremont to Plantation Camp near Mendocino one summer when John was 15 1/2 and was learning to drive under a “learner’s permit”. Sitting in the back seat during the treacherous drive along Highway 1 was a little scary with John behind the wheel of that big Buick.

• Staying at the trailer his family had on the sand at El Moro, near Laguna Beach.

• Waiting for John while he “painfully” pinched coins from that plastic coin purse he always carried in his front pocket when it was time to pay a bill. He was tight!

• Spending Easter Sunday, along with Bob Jacobs, locked in a cell in the Laguna Beach jail for possession of two cans of beer (we were 18 at the time). We had no idea there had been a riot the night before, and the police were on full alert for suspicious activities such as hiding beer in a beach towel. Our fathers drove together all the way from Claremont to spring us.

• Hanging out eating burgers or chili late at night at Stinky’s.

• Running track together both at Claremont High and during a cold, high altitude freshman year at Colorado College.

• Making numerous road trips with Bill Bentley to and from Colorado College, first to visit as high school seniors, and then the trips to and from Claremont on our various breaks freshman year. It seems we never travelled the same route twice.

• Joining the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity at Colorado College, again with Bill Bentley, enduring the ignominy of being a Pledge and going through Hell Week together.

• Making terrible tasting home brew when we were roommates in an off campus apartment sophomore year at Pomona.

And that was all in our school years. Later, I especially enjoyed when Brian and I met with John as he arrived from some exotic place (with a very pretty lady with whom he had been travelling) to attend the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. We all stayed with David, who was living there while working on his Stanford PhD dissertation. John’s father and mother were also there for the games and took us all out to dinner at one of the city’s finest restaurants.

Although I didn’t see much of John once he commenced his travels, I would catch up with him periodically when he was staying at David’s home in Manhattan Beach. I know David enjoyed John’s company both as a very good friend and from an intellectual perspective. He also appreciated John’s help doing some of the heavy maintenance work on his house to earn his keep.

I kept up with John’s last weeks through calls to Jane and through her communication with David, and I’m again comforted to hear John was happy about the life he lived, as he should be. In many respects, it took a great deal of courage to break from tradition to lead the life of a world traveler, but that was John. He never sold out.

Respectfully Yours,

Don Kieselhorst

01/14/11 05:42 PM #5    

David Ronfeldt (Webb)

Here's my contribution to the memorial write-ups that Armour, Kieselhorst, and I prepared for the sake of his siblings and a few friends.  I wrote it in coordination with Geoff and Don, since we're the old friends who were in closest contact with John and his family in his final weeks.  My addition is way too long for this site, but here it is anyway, in case a few off you want to take a look:

- - - - - - - - - -


I momentarily thought about telephoning John a few days ago to discuss the demise of KCET as a PBS station carrying all those high-octane programs he liked to watch:  Frontline, Nova, the Newshour, Tavis Smiley, Charlie Rose.  But I can’t call him.  He died, suddenly becoming the first of my best friends to pass on.

By now, Geoff Armour’s and Don Kieselhorst’s memorial write-ups provide excellent overviews about John, summarizing key aspects of his character and chronology, thereby highlighting how much he meant to us as a friend and what fun we all had together.  Their write-ups should be read first, for mine here is meant as a complement and supplement to theirs.

I have ended up with a more analytical, speculative set of closing thoughts.  They stem from the fact that many of us have often expressed wonderment if not puzzlement at John’s unusual lifestyle.  They also stem from the fact that I was around John more often than were other friends over the years, giving me grounds for a few extra observations.

My observations lead to a kind of partial cognitive portrait.  It’s tentative and selective, and I’m not sure it’s accurate or insightful.  But it’s what I have to offer for now, and I take some comfort in coming up with it.

* * *

John’s passing is a landmark loss — not simply because he was a friend for decades, but also because he was so unique.  Everybody is unique, in many ways; but he always seemed more unique, in more ways.  Strictly speaking, that’s illogical — matters are either unique or not; they can’t be relatively unique.  But I think it’s an indisputable point to make about John, entirely logical or not.

Now, John himself always insisted on being disciplined and logical in how he went about doing things.  He also thought in terms of probability (a kind of logic) more than anyone else I’ve known.  In fact, logic and probability were hallmarks of his mindset.  They suffused all his core values, principles, and concerns.

This mindset meant, for example, that as a keen sports fan he became one of the very few people sitting on the far side of the stadium in Mexico City at the 1968 Summer Olympics who truly saw Bob Beamon’s record-shattering long jump, from start to finish.  But his mindset also meant that he changed the TV channel in 2004 during a long time-out when the Lakers trailed the Spurs by one point with only 0.4 seconds left on the game clock — thereby missing Derek Fisher’s extremely improbable game-winning shot.

I could offer other examples of the joys and woes his mindset yielded, but a better point to make is that John’s penchant for logic could make him quite argumentative, as many of us know.  Yet, he never thought he was arguing, just discussing.  And he loved to discuss.  Perhaps he might have made a fearsome lawyer, but, as far as I know, he never thought about pursuing his father’s career, much as he admired it and his father.

* * *

Actually, John had problems thinking about pursuing any ordinary career.  He was well molded in his early years:  by family, Claremont High School (‘59), and Pomona College (‘63).  At the same time, he didn’t fit any mold.  He didn’t want to — and ultimately he couldn’t.

After college, as best I can recall and reconstruct, John joined the Peace Corps for two years, and was sent to Peru.  That deepened his self-reliance and his interest in exotic places; but he doubted his efforts did much good.  Next, he tried the M.A. program in anthropology at UCLA for a while, but it didn’t hold his interest.  Then, after a pause to do some initial travelling, he tried being a company employee, selling concrete pipe in a job similar to that of two friends.  But such regular work did not suit his temperament; so, though up for promotion, he resigned after one year, to the day.

From then on, he just started global travelling, eventually calling that his career.  And he drew a sharp distinction between being a traveller and being a tourist.  He was the former, not the latter.  Indeed, he shunned standard tourist spots, preferring to stay in out-of-the-way guest houses, eat in open markets and street cafes, and roam around casually on his own — always as frugally and lightly as possible.  Between rounds of travelling, he’d return to Claremont and stay at his parent’s home for a while, or later to work on a family ranch in Colorado — always with an eye on resuming his expatriate life abroad before long.

There was maybe a month in 1969, late in one round of travelling, when he thought he might need to reconsider — settle down finally, go the normal marriage–family–job route in America, with a girlfriend from Mexico.  But it didn’t prove necessary.  And without turning back, he soon recommitted to his unconventional, highly personalized, itinerant lifestyle.

* * *

In the late 60s and later, efforts to adopt such lifestyles were increasingly in vogue, especially among hippies.  But John was no hippie.  Indeed, he quite disliked them, for they were wantonly cluttering up and otherwise ruining conditions for intrepid, purist travellers like himself.  If anything, John was more a kind of hipster.

I hesitate to categorize him, but I’ll try to make it a point worth considering.  For in fact, John marveled at the classic 40s-50s hipsters:  like Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, Redd Foxx, and Mort Sahl — aficionados of be-bop and cool jazz who combined a laid-back attitude with a biting sense of humor; who rejected mainstream comforts in favor of odd jobs and meager belongings; who were often on the road; and who loved to talk.  John also admired that such hipsters were mostly highly civilized, well-read, thoughtful, articulate iconoclasts who had a critical sensibility about American popular culture and politics — rather like John himself.

John showed early signs of a proto-hipster inclination in high school when he discovered and became a rare devotee of “Sleepy Stein” — the DJ who aired radio’s first all-jazz hour on an odd AM station, KFOX, and then created the first all-jazz FM station, KNOB, during the mid-to-late 50s.  Most classmates listened to popular rock-and-roll DJs.  Not John.  His radio, always on, seemed glued to that jazz station throughout high school and college — and all his friends knew better than to try to change it.  Modern jazz became the leitmotif of John’s life.

But of course, John wasn’t truly a hipster.  He didn’t identify with any trendy subculture or model his life after anyone.  He wasn’t any kind of poseur; he didn’t flaunt alienation.  Indeed, he usually kept to himself and avoided large gatherings, especially if he couldn’t wear Levis and flip-flops.  And he was far too earnest about being healthy and athletic — about running and other physical exercise — to be a real hipster.  In those respects, he was more an anti-hipster: just a regular guy, a jock who’d been a high-school football and track star and dated homecoming/prom queens.

Come to think of it, at times he seemed something of an anti-traveller as well.  He’d be living abroad, say in Japan, Korea, or Mexico.  But instead of being on the road, out and about, exploring, he’d hole up in a solitary, even reclusive manner.  He seemed to disengage from the local scene, even as he remained connected to international events through ample reading material.

* * *

And that raises another significant point about John:  He had high-octane intellectual tastes.  And he was more constant about them than anyone else I know.

Consider his magazine preferences:  as a teenager, the Saturday Review of Literature, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and Time; later, Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs, and his all-time favorite, the New Yorker.  He read only serious books, mostly histories.  He liked not just jazz but also classical music.  He listened constantly to PBS and NPR programs; his one concession to commercial programming was CBS’s 60 Minutes.  And after going through a daily newspaper in detail, he liked doing a crossword puzzle, which he said served as a meditative device.

Those are remarkably literate, high-culture tastes, and he rarely wavered from them.  When he did, it might be in favor of low-brow cartoons he liked.  Meanwhile, he wanted nothing to do with middling, commercialized, popular culture.  Indeed, he prided himself on never ever going to Disneyland (an adamancy that may have cost him an old girlfried visiting from Germany in the 80s).

So a case could be made that John was a kind of intellectual.  And I believe that he was, quietly so.  He sure liked to analyze domestic and international doings and discuss philosophical matters with whomever was around.  Yet couldn’t he also seem anti-intellectual at times?!  He often lived more as a casual handyman than an intellectual, both in America and abroad.

* * *

Thus, the more I wonder about John’s life, the more I find it to have had many aspects that were both too ordinary and too extraordinary for easy categorization.  For each theme that may make sense — here I’ve focused on traveller, hipster, and intellectual — it’s anti- (or maybe I should say non- or un-) turns out to make some sense as well.

What a combination of contradictions.  But it’s an interesting combination, for what may appear to be contradictions never pulled life apart for John.  He integrated them, making them into compatible contradictions.

That’s really quite an accomplishment.  How did he do it?  Several factors may help explain:  First of all, John had a strong set of core values, a keen sense of right and wrong.  He was an ethical, principled person.  Though not religious, he was spiritually strong — a stoic throughout.  Second, he was extraordinarily frugal.  He led a spartan, unpretentious, low-maintenance, do-it-yourself life, exacting the last bit of utility out of whatever he had.  Third, he normally abided by a very patterned set of daily routines, and he organized much of his life around them.  Fourth, he was — and I gather, really wanted to be — accountable only to himself and not to anyone else’s expectations or standards.

Maybe those factors lay behind John’s ability to integrate the many diverse and contradictory aspects of his life.  But whether or not those are the best factors to mention, we’re still back to my opening point:  John was uniquely unique.

* * *

I’ll end with two brief vignettes:

John was probably most himself when he was travelling as a loner, far away from us all.  Yet, I’d say he often seemed most composed and content when, on break from travelling, he was simply sitting around relaxing with a few friends, reminiscing about past Claremont times, recounting an adventure he’d had on a jaunt abroad, mulling over recent twists in American culture and politics, or discussing trends in faraway places — meanwhile with a good cheap coffee, beer, or wine in hand, and a family dog within arm’s reach.

It’s often said that John led his own life — more than anyone we know.  But lest this be interpeted as egocentric on his part, it should also be pointed out that John also graciously helped others to lead their own lives at times.  In particular I remember one stretch in the mid 2000s when he seemed rather worn out from being supportive of so many other people at once: his aging mother, a beleaguered girlfriend, and anxious me, who often had a list of to-dos needing attention around the house.  Indeed, John seemed so stressed that he just wanted to start travelling anew.  But he endured and didn’t take off for his final round of travels until later.



08/05/12 07:39 PM #6    

Frank Comstock

(Copied from an email)

I'm John's sister, Jane. 

I've just reread the comments by Geoff Armour, Don Kieselhorst and Dave Ronfeldt about John's life and character.  John died only 18 months ago, in the house where I am now sitting at my computer, looking at the silhouette of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

I think about him every day, and the mystery deepens.  I think the essential thing about him was, as Ronfeldt understood, his stoicism.  And I am fascinated by Dave's associating this stoicism with a fundamentally spiritual quality.  Although I believe John was atheist or agnostic, certainly, seeing him daily in his last two months of life, there was never a more spiritually attuned nature.  His acceptance (while rebelling, in a way), and his calm (which I sense was hard-won at times) were absolutely unshakable.  Both of our brothers, Tom and Robert, and our sister/cousin, Sue, were here for part of his last weeks.  John took comfort in all of them, and thanks to their generous and positive presence, the whole ordeal was made tolerable.  In fact it was a time never to be forgotten.

John, the traveler, found his home wherever he was.  The ancient, rural Piedmont of Virginia where I live was certainly not his element--but it was as good as anyplace, save perhaps for the mountains or beaches of the Southern California of an earlier time, or a backwater Colonial city in Malaysia or Vietnam. 

I will miss this unique and wise and inscrutable man as long as I live, but I realize now how close he was to a few stalwart friends, and how well he chose his friends.  Those friendships are a great tribute to him and comfort to me.

Jane Livingston

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