Community leader, sage honored as parade grand marshal
Jim Shere is by nature quiet and unassuming, the type of man who prefers to stay in the background. So being nominated as this year’s Glen Ellen Village Fair grand marshal puts him in an unusual position, drawing him into the limelight, turning him into the observed, and less the observer. “I’m not used to that kind of attention,” said the 79-year-old psychologist, who from a young age was always preoccupied with watching, listening, and thinking. Nevertheless, he is completely honored. “I can’t imagine a more vibrant community and I’m so pleased to be a part of that.”
For the past decade, Shere has become Glen Ellen’s unofficial town historian and well-known community sage, sharing his fascination with the town’s history through many presentations as former executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society, as a regular contributor to this paper, sharing his thoughts on living a life of integrity through his column “Living Life Well,” and a founder of the Glen Ellen Forum, pushing for a unified community voice as Glen Ellen faces unprecedented changes in the wake of the October 2017 fires and the closing of one of the valley’s largest employers, the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC).
“A community is always struggling to understand itself,” said Shere, likening it to a couple trying to understand their marriage. “A community is inchoate, not fully formed… a larger group in which all the small groups are struggling not only to get along, but to do things creatively together.”
Shere’s passion for shaping the future might best be understood, as most of ours are, by looking through the lens of his past, which is full of poetic contradictions, crossroads and destinations.
Shere grew up in the 1940s in Berkeley, the son of a Dust Bowl Oakie fleeing west and a daughter of the Crane family (for which Crane Canyon is named). Both parents found jobs working for the war effort in the Richmond shipyards.
However, his parents, wary of a West Coast invasion from Japan, moved the family to his grandmother’s farm in rural Oklahoma for a year. Upon returning to California, his father, pining for his own piece of land, settled the family at the end of a dirt road (now called Shere Road) in a small community called Hessel near the present-day crossroads of Hessel Avenue and Hessel Road. The one-room schoolhouse where Shere and his two brothers attended elementary and middle school has just been turned into a bed and breakfast. The tall trees visitors can see from the front windows were planted by Shere and his class on April 28, 1950.
Life was rustic in Hessel, without electricity until Shere was eight, and with dinners prepared on a wood burning stove.
“It was harsh, but I didn’t think of it as harsh; that’s just the way it was,” he said. He has fond memories of growing up in the natural world of West County, playing in the woods, taking his small rowboat onto the bay in Jenner. It was also at this time that Shere came down with pulmonary tuberculosis and spent two years bedridden, missing second and third grade. But, instead, he gave himself his own type of education, reading classics by Shakespeare and Steinbeck from his parent’s bookshelves. His mother was an educated woman, having followed in her father’s footsteps by graduating from U.C. Berkley, but his father, a sheet metal worker, was a self-taught man who had only finished the sixth grade in Oklahoma before he had to drop out of school to help run the farm after his father abandoned the family.
Shere graduated from Analy Union High School and enrolled at the Junior College, participating in stage productions and writing for school newspapers all along the way. Then, as a 20-year-old “West County farm boy” coming out of the Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) with a few plays already produced, Shere found himself at an existential instead of a physical crossroads: Berkeley or Hollywood?
“Either way, I knew my future was in the city, not in the countryside of Sonoma,” wrote Shere in a Living Life Well column. “Acceptance at Berkeley was certain because Robert Sproul was president of the entire university system, and a family friend; but there was this job offer on the light crew of a movie Hitchcock was filming nearby, called The Birds.”
It was around this time, through falling in with an artistic, bohemian crowd at SRJC, that Shere met Allen Hoskins, a child actor who’d known early fame as Farra from the Our Gang silent comedies and one of the first African American movie stars. Hoskins had found his way north, having retired from Hollywood after serving in the war and being blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He had found a new career at the Sonoma State Hospital (now called Sonoma Developmental Center), and had settled his family near the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa.
“Hoskins had an ear for dialogue and an eye for staging,” wrote Shere, and he served as a sort of mentor. When Shere asked Hoskins for advice, he told him, “You’ve got to find out what’s important to you, what matters most, what you can’t betray, no matter what might happen. That’s what you must follow, wherever it takes you.”
“I’ve been at many crossroads since knowing Al, and where I’ve done best is when I’ve remembered him,” wrote Shere. “That spring, as I was bringing my poetry to meet Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, my bus paused at a bus stop near City Hall. Students from Berkeley were circling the building, picketing the hearings being held there as the HUAC continued their search for communists. I left my poems on the bus and joined in, and decided to go to Berkeley – not Hollywood.”
Shere did indeed end up submitting poetry to Ferlinghetti and spent the next 20 years in Berkeley, living as a beat poet, becoming a professional astrologer, writing for the stage, and becoming politically and socially enmeshed in the Bay Area movements that promoted free speech, racial equality, and ending the Vietnam War. He rubbed elbows with notable counterculture figures, rooming in a commune called The Buster Brown Shoe above a storefront at Shattuck and Berkeley Way with Augustus Owsley Stanley, III, soundman for the Grateful Dead and clandestine chemist, and hanging out with Richard Aoki, an early member of the Black Panther Party and probable FBI-informant.
“My mom felt I should have the freedom to do what I wanted to do; as long as I was happy, she was supportive,” said Shere, “but she never understood the deeper psychological components of what I was doing.” His older brother, Charles, was also involved in movements of the time as a journalist, and as a pastry chef he was part of the “gourmet ghetto” and the group of friends who, along with food activist Alice Waters, formulated plans to open up a radically new type of restaurant called Chez Panisse. “However, he never understood the political underground world in which I lived,” said Shere.
And so, when Shere found himself drawn out of political activism and into the world of academia, it caused a schism in his social circle and forced him to make another hard choice.
“I was living with Owsley, but was angered by some of his moral decisions,” said Shere. “The physical and spirit worlds were very conflicted and problematic.” Shere said he was very discouraged that people were missing the things they really needed to understand and that they were causing more trouble than they were resolving.
Drawn to psychology through poetry – “I was translating people as if they were poems” – Shere completed a graduate degree in Clinical Psychology at University of San Francisco in 1976, and a few years later met his future wife Maria when she showed up to attend a meeting at the house where he was living. “I opened the door and thought, ‘Well, there she is.’” Within three days, the couple had decided to get married. They moved back to Sonoma County’s West County to start and raise their family, moving around as their three children grew, but eventually buying their first house on Madrone Road.
In 2003, when the building in Sonoma where he had his practice was sold, Shere faced another crossroads – to move his practice, but where? Then, one afternoon, out on a walk with Maria, the couple spotted a unique wooden cabin on the backside of Jack London Village. It had originally been a bin for holding pomace, the leftovers that accumulated during grape crush, when the village was the Glen Ellen Winery & Distillery in the late 1850s. Shere inquired and found the cabin was to become vacant shortly, so serendipitously he moved his practice to Glen Ellen, to the crooked, stained-glass-windowed cabin where he remains to this day.
Shere was already intrigued by the history of the area, but in 2010 it became official when he assumed the role of executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society, which had been formed years before to keep the historic cannon near the Jack London Lodge from being sold to an East Coast weapons collector.
In the ensuing years, Shere and others have amassed a robust collection of historical pieces that just grew bigger in September when the historical society acquired 3,000 square feet of artifacts from the now-shuttered SDC, plus 7,000 volumes from the SDC library – for a bargain price of $101. Shere’s ultimate dream is to establish a permanent library and community center to house the entire historical collection on the SDC campus when it is redeveloped over the next few years.
Shere sees his involvement with the Glen Ellen Historical Society and the Glen Ellen Forum as complimentary – one looking at Glen Ellen’s past, and one looking at its future.
“We don’t know what will happen with the future of Glen Ellen, but I always tell people you have a choice of being resistant or being willing,” he said. Resistance creates resistance, willingness creates willingness.
A client once told Shere that she thought she had made so many mistakes in life, but she recently realized they weren’t mistakes at all, but discoveries. “I embrace that ideal,” said Shere. “It’s exciting to make discoveries.”
When Pat Carlin, who sits on the Glen Ellen Fair Board, nominated Shere as grand marshal this year, he said the vote was unanimous. “Jim is the Glen Ellen Town Historian. The village wise elder. An enthusiastic community leader, warm and nonjudgmental, all well loved in town, generous with his wisdom and leadership.”
So, on Oct. 13, come out to the crossroads of Arnold Drive and Carquinez Avenue, absorb a little community spirit, and give Shere a wave as he leads out the community’s famously short parade high aboard Neil Shepard’s Clydesdale-drawn wagon.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.