John N. Durell

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John N. Durell John N. Durell, longtime Visalia resident and civic leader who advocated for a vibrant downtown Visalia against the strong forces of suburban sprawl, died Wednesday, May 28, in Anaheim, Calif. He was 92. A celebration of his life is planned for 11 a.m., Sunday, August 17th at Hall of Fame Club at Rawhide Stadium/Recreation Park, 300 N. Giddings St., Visalia. John had moved to Southern California in January 2011 to be closer to his daughter, Barbara Durell, after his wife, Dorothy "Dottie" Durell, passed away. He had suffered from Alzheimer's disease and dementia for several years. He and Dottie clothed generations of Visalia's children at their store on Main Street, the Merry-Go-Round, which they owned for 26 years, from 1966 to 1992. As a civic leader, John was instrumental in starting the Visalia transit bus system as a member of the citizens' transportation committee. The committee proposed and launched the system, originally known as Visalia City Coach, against significant opposition from local residents who considered Visalia too small for a bus system in the 1970s. He also served on a citizen's advisory committee to the planning commission. During his tenure, he and other members steadfastly refused to support commercial development south of Packwood Creek. John felt strongly that lifting that ban would lead to the sprawl that turned many Central Valley downtowns into virtual ghost towns in the 1970s and '80s. He was an inveterate volunteer, serving as a member of the Downtown Visalians and its president. He twice held the post of president of the Sequoia Lions Club, where he was a member for nearly 43 years. After selling the Merry-Go-Round in 1992, John joined the Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) for the Visalia Police Department, accumulating more than 10,000 hours of service. He was named VIPS Volunteer of the Year in 2003. John took pride in giving back to his community in this new way. In addition to the more mundane duties of having abandoned cars towed and inputting data at headquarters, he also regularly assisted at evening DUI checkpoints and helped out on drug raids. He enjoyed describing in detail his adventures with the police department, always careful to omit names of officers and suspects. He also was a volunteer member of Tulare County Sheriff's Department Aero Squadron for several years. In recognition of all his civic activities, John was named Grand Marshal of the 2003 Candy Cane Parade, sharing the antique car with his family - including his wife, daughter-in-law, son and grandsons. John continued to challenge himself throughout his life. He earned his private pilot's license after the age of 50 and flew regularly into his late 60s frequently taking his friends for rides around the Valley and often flying to Harris Ranch near Coalinga for lunch. He took pride in being able to pass the rigorous physical exams required for license renewal. He also earned his Associate of Arts degree from College of the Sequoias after the age of 70, having taken courses off and on for more than 20 years. John Nevin Durell was born in Belleplain, New Jersey, on November 19, 1921, to Thomas J. and Marian Durell. He grew up on a family cranberry farm, Durell & Co., which grew, packed and sold cranberries under the Durelia brand in the 1920s and '30s. As a youth growing up in the rural Pine Barrens region of southern New Jersey, John, known as Willie as a kid, was an avid fisherman and hunter. His early life - and that of his brother, Henry, and sisters Virginia and Ann - was chronicled in a mystery novel written by Ann, "Holly River Secret," published in 1956. Whenever John watched himself in family films, gliding on skates and shaving the ice in hockey stops on a makeshift backyard rink - a flooded cranberry bog -- he remarked with his typical understatement: "I guess I was a pretty good skater." Once, during a routine checkup, his doctor, after looking at an X-ray, asked him if had broken his leg when he was younger. John remembered his leg had hurt a lot after a skating session more than 50 years earlier but he hadn't told his parents for fear they would put a stop to his skating. Living on a farm, John learned to drive at the age of eight or nine and could handle a tractor before he was 10. When asked about the most remarkable technological advancements during his lifetime, he recalled his first encounter with an automatic shift car. An automobile salesman drove the car to the farm hoping to make a sale. John marveled at the car's floorboard, with only two pedals, and the absence of a lever to shift gears. He found it magical. In almost 80 years of driving, he never received a ticket. Once he was stopped for an illegal lane change on Noble Avenue, but he fought the ticket in court and was successful in having it dismissed. John attended Belleplain High School and graduated from Blair Academy in central New Jersey in 1939, where he had played varsity baseball. He was offered a tryout with the Philadelphia Athletics at age 16, but turned it down because his parents thought he was too young. He entered Princeton University in 1939 but left to enlist in the U.S. Army after Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941. He served with an Army Air Corps (which later became the Air Force) bomber squadron in Britain until the end of the war. His commanding officer in Britain was the actor Jimmy Stewart, who retired as an Air Force major general. John met his future wife, Dorothy Meyerson, while they both worked at Western Electric in New Jersey. They married in March 22, 1947, at the Marlboro Inn in Montclair, New Jersey. Shortly after their marriage, they settled in Pacific Grove, Calif., where John worked at the local Montgomery Ward store. Their first son, Thomas, was born in 1949, followed several years later by Robert and then Barbara. Montgomery Ward was John's employer for 17 years. He started as a clerk and worked his way up to various manager positions. He moved frequently for the company, working in numerous California cities - San Luis Obispo, National City, San Bernardino and Madera. He grew weary of transfers and decided when he moved to Visalia in 1964 that it was where he wanted to settle. In Visalia, he held several jobs - managing the Auto Center for JC Penney, selling cars and then life insurance for Westland Life - before buying the Merry-Go-Round. During his years of transfers with Montgomery Ward, John told his family that if he ever returned to the San Joaquin Valley, he would put in a swimming pool. Within a year of purchasing his first home in a then-new suburb of south Visalia in 1964, he signed a contract to do just that: build an in-ground pool, complete with diving board and slide. The backyard pool, the first in his cul-de-sac near Whitendale Avenue and Mooney Boulevard, became the center of his leisure hours. Almost every weekend from late April to mid-September he could be found barbecuing for family, friends and neighbors. The pool also was the place where many neighborhood children and, later, his grandsons learned to swim. John was a lifelong baseball fan. He followed the then-California Angels almost from their inception in the early 1960s. His second-favorite team was whichever one was playing against the New York Yankees. John and Dottie were the longest season-ticket holders (they first bought season tickets in 1964) to games at Recreation Park in Visalia, through its many name and Major League-affiliation changes. With seats right behind home plate, the park became a center of their social life for many years and they delighted in seeing young ball players go on to excel in the Majors

Published in Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Adv-Register on June 21, 2014
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