John K. Flynn, who served Oxnard, Port Hueneme, El Rio and beach communities for 32 years on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, died of natural causes on February 18 in Oxnard. He was 89.
He was an independent and scrappy advocate for his district, driven by a desire for social justice, an affinity for the underdog, and a belief that he had a moral imperative to provide immediate help to those in need. Humble origins, a stint in the Army and Catholic faith shaped his social activism and public service.
John Karen Flynn was born on January 23, 1933 in Ojai, the third of four children for William B. and Alice L. (Kratt) Flynn. He was raised in rural Santa Barbara County on the Gaviota coast, where his father was an oil field worker. The family had little income but John wanted to help the less fortunate, a trait that he carried throughout his life. His mother was occasionally surprised to come home to find that John had invited a homeless person for a meal.
He graduated from Vista Del Mar Elementary School and Santa Ynez High School. He was well-liked and quick to make friends, and he served as president of his high school senior class and captain of the varsity football team. As a member of Future Farmers of America, he raised an unpromising Hereford calf into the Grand Champion Steer at the Santa Barbara County Fair in 1950. The auction proceeds from the steer allowed him to begin agriculture studies at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
He interrupted his college enrollment in 1951 to enlist in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, attaining the rank of sergeant and serving nearly four years on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, monitoring Russian radio traffic and playing Army football. In 1955 John resumed his education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shifting his major from agriculture to the social sciences. As president of his fraternity, he made it a point to recruit non-Christian, non-Caucasian pledges, in violation of the fraternity’s national charter.
To finance his education, he worked at a Santa Barbara gas station, often visiting the next-door soda fountain to get coffee. He was served by Diane Wilson, a fellow UCSB student. After dating for two years, the couple was married on February 2, 1958 at the Old Mission, Santa Barbara.
They graduated from UCSB in 1959 and had the first of six children a few days later. John returned to UCSB for another semester to obtain his teaching credential. He supported his growing family on a small stipend from the Veteran’s Administration and by working nights and weekends at a gas station in Goleta. They bought a home in Oxnard in 1961 and John continued teaching at middle schools in Oxnard and Ventura, taking on summer jobs that included ditch digger, mail carrier and Helms Bakery driver.
John became politically active in 1964, when he and Diane helped organize an Oxnard campaign opposing Proposition 14, a ballot measure that sought to legitimize racist housing policies. The campaign was successful in defeating the measure among Oxnard voters, although it passed statewide (and was eventually struck down by the courts).
John and Diane continued their local leadership roles in support for civil rights, community empowerment and the end of the Vietnam War. He served on boards for the county chapter of the NAACP, as well as nonprofit organizations that provided services to farmworkers and Colonia residents.
In 1972 John filed to run for the Oxnard-Port Hueneme seat on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, challenging an incumbent who conducted county business inside his insurance office. John pledged to serve the public full-time without any conflicts of interest and established a $100 contribution limit. John’s warm personality, tireless door-to-door campaigning, and energetic corps of volunteers led to an upset victory and his first of eight terms on the board.
John distinguished himself as a consensus-builder who tackled difficult issues. He brought together farmers and environmentalists to protect local water supplies from saltwater contamination. He also worked with an Orange County supervisor to establish the Southern California Water Committee that resolved longstanding wars over water policy with Northern California. When the federal government slated the Point Mugu Naval Base for BRAC closure, John was instrumental in keeping the base open. Governor Jerry Brown recognized John’s talent for finding common ground and appointed him to the California Coastal Commission.
He rallied nurses and doctors to develop a plan to save the county medical center from closure, which grew into a system of local clinics that served as a model for other counties throughout California. He was a particular champion for persons who suffered from mental illness. He advocated for parents seeking help for their adult children, sought to destigmatize mental health conditions, and was instrumental in getting a mental health facility established at the county medical center.
He vacated a suite in the county government center in Ventura to be closer to his constituents at donated office space in South Oxnard. Flynn learned Spanish and employed Spanish-speaking staff. Needy persons visited the office frequently. Catherine Serros, his senior administrator, said, “He used to say that people just needed a job and he would give them work in our office, to answer the phone or open mail, which upset the county administrators. We had moms who hadn’t worked in years, ex-felons, persons who were mentally ill — he would not turn anyone away.”
The personal service provided by John and his staff was legendary. He drove people to the emergency room, assisted a patient in obtaining a kidney transplant, bought presents for families in need, obtained cancer drugs for a patient denied access, and helped homeless persons get a safe place to stay. When a parent would ask him to help with their troubled child, he would visit the home and talk to the youth. When a motel that provided subsidized housing flooded with sewage, he obtained alternative housing for the residents, despite it being located outside his district.
His senior administrator, Elizabeth Montijo, said that John set an expectation that any person seeking help from his office should get a solution that day. “He made it clear to his office staff that we were there to get things done.” Added senior deputy Jim Estomo, “If he felt that the county imposed unnecessary costs or delays on businesses, he would call in a department director and let them know that the problem needed to be solved that day, and it was.”
John also was quick to criticize officials who abused their power. He led an investigation of the county agricultural commissioner for using a helicopter in 1973 to harass striking strawberry workers, which prompted labor leader César Chavez to call John to thank him.
Having grown up during the Depression and worked odd jobs to support his young family, John was a taxpayer watchdog. “He had me book him into the cheapest hotels when he was on county business,” said aide Elizabeth Montijo, laughing. “He did not want to spend county funds.” He drew campaign opposition by voting against excessive pension increases, asserting that the county could not afford them. He voted against his own salary increases and declined to accept some compensation to which he was entitled.
John gave particular attention to underserved and underrepresented communities and fought for them to get a fair share of county resources. He led efforts to fund sewer services, a gym, community center and health clinic in El Rio; a gym and swimming pool in Colonia; and a community center in Nyeland Acres. He promoted diversity in his hiring, appointments, endorsements and policy actions. He met with the sheriff to begin diversifying an agency that was overwhelmingly Caucasian.
He established close ties to Mexico, helping persuade the Mexican government to establish a consulate in Oxnard, delivering $50,000 in local donations after the Mexico City Earthquake in 1985 and serving as an independent observer of Mexico’s presidential election in 2000. He traveled to the country numerous times to attend language school at his own expense.
In 1994, John was the first elected official in Ventura County to oppose Proposition 187, which sought to exclude immigrants and children from schools and other basic services. He helped organize a rally against the measure that attracted more than 500 people to the county government center. That same year he spoke personally to President Bill Clinton and Senator Dianne Feinstein to get Metrolink rail service extended to Oxnard after the Northridge Earthquake.
As a proud veteran, John led the construction of a veterans’ memorial at the county government center using donated services from a contractor and union laborers along with contributed construction materials and funds. He also helped smooth the way for the establishment of the county’s veterans’ home.
He supported the establishment of Oxnard College to provide more economic opportunity for city residents. During a hiatus in his board service, he was appointed as the college’s first division director of Business and Public Services where he developed programs for hotel and restaurant management, public services, and dental hygiene and assisting and also established the first campus dining facility.
He enjoyed walking door-to-door, even when not in a campaign, so that he would stay in touch with the voters. He liked people and was quick with a friendly word and a laugh. In his campaigns he imposed strict contribution limits and relied on small donors.
Despite his busy schedule, John was a dedicated family man who provided Diane and their six children with plenty of loving companionship. He would prepare breakfast and school lunches for the family and regularly brought one of the children or grandchildren to accompany him at a meeting, providing the kid with a seat at the conference table. The family enjoyed summer camping trips to state and national parks. He was an active Catholic as a member of the Knights of Columbus, a fund raiser for Santa Clara High School and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, and an usher and Eucharistic minister at Santa Clara Church. He loved grilled steak with sliced tomatoes, as well as hamburgers and malts.
He is survived by Diane, his wife of 64 years and his closest advisor and campaign officer; his children Timothy (Julie Coffman, deceased) of Oxnard; Dina (Flynn) Lambert (R. Ken) of Midpines; Dan (Jon Daniel) Flynn (Karen Sly) of Sacramento; Mara Flynn-Rothman of Walnut Creek; Sara Flynn of Santa Barbara and Jeremy Flynn (Lizza Andres) of Temecula; his sister Patricia West (Gene) of Oxnard, his grandchildren Megan Bradford-Flynn (Brooke Bradford) of Costa Mesa; Maeve, Mairead and Caillin (deceased) Flynn of Oxnard, Nicholas Lambert (Trisha Wooles) of Mariposa County; John and Jimmy Flynn of Los Angeles; Dylan Rothman of Vallejo and Jackson Rothman of Lake Elsinore; Sydney Flynn of Dallas, Texas; and Owen and Fiona Flynn of Temecula; and great-grandchild Briella Lambert of Mariposa County; as well as numerous nieces and nephews and grandnieces and grandnephews.
The family thank the staff of Grace Living of Oxnard for their exceptional care during John’s final year and Livingston Memorial for the comfort care they provided in his final days. A memorial service will be held at a later date. Memorial contributions may be made to the John K. Flynn Scholarship, c/o Oxnard College Foundation, 4000 South Rose Avenue, Oxnard, CA 93033.