Jan. 22, 2013
Amber Lennon, OVN correspondent
The citizens of Ojai revere this valley for its pristine nature, its thriving art scene and an overall sense that the fundamental needs of the community are heard and met. What many take for granted are the pioneers of city politics that devoted themselves whole-heartedly to preserve the spirit of Ojai, such as former mayor and city councilwoman, Nina Shelley, who passed away last November at the age of 91.
She was affectionately nicknamed the “Grandmother of Ojai” for her unwavering dedication to the community, and all who currently dwell in the city of Ojai still enjoy the fruits of her labor. She spent 20 years as a City Councilwoman and served three terms as mayor.
Rae Hanstad, who was elected to the Ojai City Council in 2000 with Shelley as her campaign manager, said, “Being both progressive and ethical were two of her very wonderful qualities, which can be difficult in a town like Ojai with a very engaged and educated citizenry, but she did that very studiously and energetically. She was tough and sensitive, an interesting combination.”
Shelley’s upbringing on a Nebraska farm during the Depression Era stirred within her a deep passion for two issues that would later shape her political legacy. Those were support for low-income families and the environment. In the 1990s Shelley helped lead the effort to prevent a national waste management firm from creating a landfill in Weldon Canyon at the mouth of the Ojai Valley. The landfill would have likely destroyed air quality, wildlife and property values in the surrounding region, an issue the citizens of Ojai responded to with characteristic fervor.
Former Ojai mayor and educator Steve Olsen says Shelley was “instrumental” in stopping the Weldon project. He recalls a city meeting at Nordhoff High School attended by more than 1,000 Ojai citizens ready to speak out against the landfill. “The gym was packed … (Shelley) gave this speech, and it was a complete standing ovation when she finished. That turned the tide for the supervisors to turn down Weldon Canyon,” he said. “She was fearless and determined.”
That determination and devotion were qualities that were perhaps cultivated during her service in the U.S. Marines, Women’s Army Corps (W.A.C.). As one of the first women to serve in the military, Shelley went through boot camp in the Bronx in 1943 and went on to hold a position as a Marine cartographer. Gen. Douglas MacArthur said of the newly-formed W.A.C. that they were his “best soldiers” and that they worked harder, complained less and were better disciplined.
Aside from politics, Hanstad said Shelley “really considered herself an artist, first and foremost.” She obtained an arts degree at California State University at Los Angeles and a master’s degree from UCLA. She taught art at California State University at Long Beach, and created her own works out of precious metals, some of which were purchased by museums. Shelley recognized the value of Ojai’s prodigious art community and co-created the Ojai Arts Commission, which allocates city funds to encourage artistic endeavors. Public art displays, such as Mark Benkert’s statue, “Elliot,” a tribute to the 2009 black bear incident, are one of the ways the city continues to benefit from Shelley’s work.
She helped create housing for low-income families, generated funds for the library as a necessary resource, and served on just about every committee and board of directors in the Ojai Valley. She and her late husband, Henry, also had a fabrics and laminate sticker business on Matilija Street before Shelley entered politics. During those years, she would frequent Plaza Pantry to discuss changes in the valley with owner and friend, Beryl Tognazzini. “She was a great person, very reliable. If she said something, she meant it,” said Tognazzini, “and she loved this city.”
Editor’s note: This story was revised Jan. 24, 2013 at 3:09 p.m.