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by Nadya Connolly Williams, December 12, 2012
Philanthropist is a Greek word that means ‘friend of the people.’ Local Englishman John Williams was certainly that to many. He died of a heart attack on Sunday, December 2nd in his home of 40 years on the Philo/Greenwood Road. John died peacefully, during a raging rain storm, in his sleep in his own bed in a house that he built on a hill, mid-way on the Greenwood Road. He created a bedroom for himself on top of a three-story story wooden tower attached to the main house. It was his treasure room, filled with the Asian and Indian art that he loved — like a temple really. That is where he died. He was 68.
John Anthony Williams was born in southern England on April 4th, 1944. He started life on 4/4/44, and cleverly arranged to end it on 12/2/2012. He liked to do Chinese Numerology readings at the annual “Great Day in Elk” as a fundraiser for the Greenwood Community Center – now we know why. His Memorial Celebration will be on Saturday, December 15th at the Center at 1 pm. All are invited to bring a dish to share and stories to tell.
John was British to the core, and a great story teller and jokester — a very generous person who helped a lot of individuals and families. He mentored many young people and employed many adults who needed work. A consummate gardener, he discovered the local alternative agricultural scene soon after he arrived on the Mendocino Coast in 1969 – and took to it like a duck to water. He was never greedy, and was always honest.
In the Chinese Astrological pantheon, he was a Monkey (those born in 1944). “The sparkling eyes of the Monkey reflect his humor, optimism and intelligence,” states one interpretation. “Enthusiastic about everything, he spends his time broadening his mind and is especially fascinated by art. The Monkey likes refinement and luxury. He shamelessly acknowledges his attraction to money and is good in business.” Some took advantage of this, but John liked to think he had a “wicked” side for protection. Years ago, I saw an Irish quote in an article in the AVA and sent it to him: “The Horn of a Bull, the Hoof of a Horse, the Smile of an Englishman.” He loved these words and quickly posted them on his front door where they remain today! He regaled in his self-appointed “Johnny Rotten” persona.
The oldest of three boys in an upper-middleclass English family, he was thrust early on into the role of both Ring Leader and Caregiver, when his father died when John was only 12. His lovely Mother, still alive at the age of 91, was a homemaker, and his father a partner in the Portsmouth factory of “Chillcock and Williams” that made underwear! We used to call the 10 acres we homesteaded inland from Elk, “Underwear Acres” and toyed with the idea of flying a pair of old-time Bloomers from a pole atop the tower — but this never materialized.
John was sent to a nearby boarding school at the age of 7, with each of his brothers following him. This was considered appropriate for their social and economic class at the time, but happily this custom is fading. He very much liked the British film “If” from the ‘70s, which gave an especially harsh picture of such schools. But, as with everything that came to him, John made the best of it — both the joys and horrors. Among the many horror stories of his boyhood that he regaled his family, friends and guests with were those of the sadistic “masters” – one of whom went after the “pretty” boys, and another who could draw blood on the second stoke during a “caning.” John was eternally grateful that he never qualified for the former category, and he only had to experience the latter once (whipping on tender bare bottoms with a flexible bamboo cane) to not step out of line – or at least to not get caught! Clearly, this luck followed him to his new-found livelihood on the shores of California.
John had as well many funny and entertaining stories of those boarding school days that his three children loved to hear – over and over again. Like his long-distance running days where he’d sprint ahead during practice, hide in the bushes, then hightail it back to the dormitory to enjoy a clean hot bath, knowing that the others would all be using the same water, which ended up cold and black by the end of the run. (It was only because he represented his school well at meets, that he was able to get away with this.) He also won prizes in boxing and gardening! Each boy who wanted to compete in flower growing got a ‘grave-size’ plot to demonstrate their skills. (With his master-gardener mother as his consultant, he always knew what to plant when for maximum effect.) In addition, John claimed he always had one of the best Tuck Boxes at school – a “care package” sent from home filled with tinned peaches, jars of jam, biscuits, sweets, etc. He’d already become a ringleader among the boys, but was also someone who always shared his good fortune – and his treats. As his former wife, and mother of our three adult children, I feel he continued all his life to share his Tuck Box in the unique culture that is Mendocino County.
John was always an anti-classist. Displaying an early talent in art (which he inherited from his mother), he was bound for art school at age 18, first in Portsmouth, then London. But beforehand, he took a summer job as a “dustman” (garbage collector) on a family dare — not a proper thing to do for a boy of his standing! He always cherished a photo of himself and “his Mates” from that job. After art school, where he apparently evolved into using a blow torch (instead of a brush) on everything flammable, including his mother’s left-over roofing tiles, he travelled to Greece for many idyllic and liberating months on the island of Poros. The kids tell me that some of those stories are not suitable for this article. It was there that he painted and met fellow British artist Tony Russell. They lost touch, but, by sheer cosmic happenstance a few years later, he was to find Tony and his new family already living in tiny Elk.
John came to the States with a friend during the late ‘60s, landing on the East Coast and taking a job in a mattress factory, and later a meat packing plant. You could just visualize it when he told of how the hamburger bin was next to the worker’s apron rack, with many an occasional miss of the rack. Since youth from all over the world wanted to come to the Haight Ashbury for ‘The Summer of Love,’ he got a car to deliver to San Francisco, and set off on a magical road trip. Magical until long-haired John and his English buddy were run out of Oklahoma – “we don’t want your kind here!”
John was always an anti-racist. He got a sales job in a Haight Ashbury clothing shop, but clashed with the owner who liked to sic his dog on Black customers. John quit the job. Conversely, he liked to tell the story of being accosted at night on the streets of The City by two knife-wielding Black youth who quickly stripped him of his watch, rings and meager wallet. But when he told them that the rings had sentimental value – and the watch was a gift from his mother – they ended up giving him all his possessions back! When I last saw him during Thanksgiving, he told me (again) of one of the most enjoyable parts of his last trip back home to England in the summer of 2011. Though a consummate Englishman who never relinquished his British citizenship, John thoroughly delighted in “acting like an American,” as he put it, and chatting up strangers on the street, in the shops and on the busses and Tube – especially African and Indian Brits, whom he always found to be more open and friendly.
He and I met in September of 1969 in little Elk. How John got up there from San Francisco, I cannot remember – friend of a friend, I think – but when I went to the house where he was staying to borrow a phonograph, I found him wearing a butler’s coat-tail jacket. In his usual comic and self-deprecating way he told me this was his “job.” I had come to the coast that Spring and by the end of the summer had the good luck to rent a house one mile south of Elk on the cliff — for $50 a month. When I threw an open-house party to meet the other new comers, John stayed behind “to give Nadya a Tarot Card reading.” He never left. We were both 25.
May 22, 1971 was the day of our Hippy Wedding on the lawn behind the house overlooking the ocean. Howling winds the day before, and dense fog the day after – truly an auspicious event, remembered to this day by Old Timers (those brave enough to come) and by a Navarro Ridge commune (all strangers to us) who came, played music, danced, drank and ate every drop and morsel. It was wonderful! (We did a legal marriage the next month for John’s Green Card.) By then we’d bought land with another couple ($1,000 an acre in those days) and moved into a cabin with our 3-month-old first daughter. Then came a second girl, the house, and a son, in that order. Surely no happier days can compare when one is a young parent with healthy, adorably rowdy off spring.
I never understood the meaning of the word husbandry until I saw John in the garden with his flowers, fruit trees and plants. He fervently loved homesteading, as befitted the several well-to-do English gentlemen-farmers in his family, and his two brothers: one a gamekeeper and the other a landscape gardener. As one of my cousins wrote after hearing of John’s death, “He led the life he chose in a beautiful natural setting.”
This is not the place to talk about the drifting apart, the conflicts of life directions or the divorce. Suffice to say that despite navigating many rocky shoals, we always found respite and shelter in the snug harbor of our three children – excellent human beings all. We went our separate ways, but always held together for the family, that would later grow to three grandchildren.
As the Chinese astrology says, “Highly sociable, the Monkey is talkative, and, as a fascinating conversationalist, he attracts a wide circle of friends.” This attribute, coupled with a lively business, left John rarely alone, and he chose several good women with which to share his life over the years. “The monkey’s love life may tend to be complicated, but he will assume family responsibilities with equanimity and good humor.” He was ever a devoted father; I even called him ‘Dad,’ and sometimes felt like his fourth child. “However, at his worst, he annoys others with his chatter and intrigues,” the astrology continues. And indeed, many, many dramas ensued – part and parcel of the occupation. Merely resulting in yet more stories to tell.
I will personally be forever glad that I “made” John come to India for three weeks in late 2007 with our second daughter. I was living there for three months, and knew in my bones that John would fall in love with the people and the country. Besides “the colonial connection,” he did indeed fall in love with India: meeting the people (my friends, as well as strangers), admiring the art work, connecting with the spirituality, and delighting in playing impromptu cricket with the local lads in several places along our travels. Readers might like to rent an English film, new this year, called “The Best, Exotic Marigold Hotel.” It’s directed by John’s step brother (who also directed “Shakespeare in Love”), and follows seven English seniors who come to India to retire. The film contains a story which is really almost prescient of our Johnny’s death. A main character, played by Tom Wilkinson, comes to India, finds a lost love, resolves a matter of the heart in his life, plays cricket in the street with the local boys, then is found dead of a heart attack in his hotel garden chair. I had seen the film already in San Francisco where I live as soon as it was released in theaters, but saw it again with our oldest daughter just seven days before her father’s death.
Messages via cards, phone calls, emails and visits have been pouring in since December 2nd from the U.S., England, France, Sweden, India, and beyond. The words “kind” and “gentle” are the most frequent. Also “generous” “fun” and “devoted to his children.” He was a true ‘friend of the people’ – a Greenwood Road Philanthropist – always willing to share his Tuck Box. Farewell John. Every day since your leaving gets a little better, but we always feel something is missing.