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John L. Shipley ’49

May 2, 2023, in Portland, Oregon.

John was a child of Berlin, Germany, and a proud citizen of Portland, Oregon. Born in 1927 to Julian and Erna Schybilski, John enjoyed a comfortable childhood, along with his older sister, Marianne Buchwalter ’45. John’s father ran a successful men’s clothing business, and the family enjoyed ski outings in the Alps and beach vacations along the North Sea. Tragically, their sense of security gave way to peril with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s. In 1938, after Kristallnacht, the family gave up hope of a secure life in Germany and left for the United States.

Following a stormy Atlantic crossing and a brief stay in New York City, they landed in Oregon. Their surname, Schybilski, was changed to Shipley, as Julian felt an Anglicized name would be easier on American tongues. For John, the name change signified gratitude and a commitment to a country that generously provided a new life in the face of the horrors unfolding in Europe.

The Shipleys bought a home in Northeast Portland, and John attended Beaumont Middle School and then Grant High School, where he was an Eagle Scout. Upon graduation, John enrolled at Reed College before being drafted into the army and heading to Fort Lewis. After finishing his service, and with the help of the GI Bill, he resumed his studies at the University of Southern California, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics.

John joined his father’s business, Dennis Uniform Manufacturing Company, which they built into the leading regional manufacturer of school apparel. The company expanded into a factory on the east side of Portland, just under the Hawthorne Bridge, where it remains today. At its height, the cavernous space was filled with unionized workers cutting plaids and sewing garments.

On a business trip to San Francisco, John met Joan Lesman, a Portland girl (and fellow Grant alum) who had graduated from UC Berkeley and started a career in advertising. After a whirlwind courtship, the two married in 1962 and returned to Portland. John said that marrying Joan was at the top of his list of best life decisions. The couple moved to a ranch house in Southwest Portland, in what was then farmland, and started a family. There they raised three children, along with a number of golden retrievers.

Over the years, John became the sole proprietor of Dennis and continued to widen the company’s reach, turning it into a national brand. At the same time, he and Joan were active members of the Portland community, playing vital roles at Reed—Joan as a member of the Reed College Women’s Committee and John as a member of Reed’s alumni board and a Friends of the Gallery volunteer—and other institutions, including the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Catlin Gabel, and Chamber Music Northwest. Their devotion to the arts and community engagement was honored when John and Joan received the Governor’s Arts Award in 2005. They were also active politically, starting with their opposition to the Vietnam War.

John and Joan were true partners in everything, including their love of family, art, Portland, community, country, and civic duty. Yet when Joan died in 2011, John carried on. He kept a hand in the business, which to this day remains in the family, and filled his days reading history, listening to chamber music, and watching the sun set over the Pacific. The bulk of his attention, however, went to his grandchildren: Rosa, Joe, Owen, Fiona, Alex, and Henry. Their lives and adventures gave him infinite joy. John is survived by them, along with his three children, David, Ann, and Thomas. Though in recent years his body began to fail, John’s spirit and sense of humor shined through until the very end, when he died peacefully and surrounded by family in the same house where he and Joan had raised their family.

Appeared in Reed magazine: Fall 2023

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