by Hilda Zacarias
Robert F. Kennedy once said, “Each time a man stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” When I read these inspiring words, I am reminded that I have known but a few individuals who have dedicated their lives so completely to creating these “ripples of hope.” My dearest friend John Paine was one of those individuals. John died suddenly on July 12 in Santa Barbara. The Paine family resided in the Santa Barbara and Carpinteria communities for more than 30 years.
Those of us who knew him well would rarely describe his actions as “ripples.” Most of us would use words such as “forceful,” “determined,” “powerful,” “opinionated,” and “unfailing in his advocacy for others.” Whether he was rebuilding La Casa de la Raza or providing health services to indigenous communities in Brazil and Mexico, he amazed everyone around him with his ability to secure just about any tool, medication, piece of machinery, or supply needed for any project. The only thing that was more amazing was his ability to get others to act. His energy was simultaneously exasperating and inspiring.
John was born in East Los Angeles. One hundred years earlier, his grandfather, an Irishman, led a wagon train from Iowa to San Bernardino, where he married Feliciana Avila, who was born in the now-famous Avila Adobe in L.A. John’s father — also named John — married Concepción Gonzalez of Sonora, Mexico, a widow with three children who had fled the Mexican Revolution. Young John was a total troublemaker. He was kicked out of every school he attended — more than 20! But just as he would later encourage generations of young Latinos to get an education, he was encouraged by a high school counselor to stay in school. After graduation, he enlisted in the United States Air Force where he served as an air traffic controller for four years.
A psychologist once told John that he’d make either a good bank robber or a good social worker. John liked to say that “social work chose me.” After a career working with Santa Barbara County Mental Health, the Rehabilitation Institute, and the Visiting Nurse Service, he officially retired, although he continued his social work with other organizations, including Hospice of Santa Barbara. John never ended his career as a social worker — the morning of the day he died he was taking care of others. Just like so many other days, he was spending his afternoon playing handball with his buddies. It was there on the court that his larger-than-life heart failed him, so quickly that there was no long goodbye.
John Paine was adviser, counselor, friend, critic, cheerleader, and mentor to me and to hundreds of others. His unending pursuit of justice was an extension of his early work with civil rights and the Watts riots in L.A., the Farmworker Movement with César Chávez, and the Quaker Peace program. He never stopped working for justice; he just moved it from the streets to the boardrooms of nonprofits and community organizations. As a Rotarian, he was honored three times as a Paul Harris Fellow for his volunteer work around the world. He served as chairperson of Community Action Commission, where he volunteered for 20 years. He also offered his services to Family Service Agency, PUEBLO, the Carpinteria Community Services Board, the Anti-Defamation League, La Casa de la Raza, Human Services Association, Latinos for a Better Government, Planned Parenthood, and the list goes on and on.
This was the public John. The private John was the beloved husband of Penny Paine and father of Danny, Johnny, Diane, Oliver, and Miles; in an almost miraculous turn of events, his English stepson, Philip, had also recently come into his life. He was grandfather to Karly, Tony, Carson, Clay, and little baby Rosemary, born just one week before his untimely death. John’s eyes would sparkle when he shared a story about his kids, or the newest grandchild, or his beautiful Penny and her many incredible accomplishments. He was a great friend to many. And his laugh! We will miss that laugh, dear John — so hearty and full.
I had just returned from a year in Boston when I called John and Penny in early July to begin to plot our next adventures. We met July 7 at Red Robin (John’s favorite Santa Barbara restaurant — really!) and discussed politics, our children, and his work in New Orleans. I had spent part of last year in Boston, analyzing the government response to Katrina, while John spent most of his last year being a part of the solution — using his amazing skills to find resources for displaced families.
John Paine lived a full life in seven decades. He had many friends, former clients, and colleagues. Yet, no one will ever know just how many hundreds of people he helped. Nor will we know how many he inspired. But of one thing I am sure: He created a million ripples of energy and daring, and helped to sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. And for that, John, we are forever grateful.
John’s family and friends set up a hotmail account for people to express their condolences and share memories of John. The address is RememberingJohnPaine@hotmail.com.