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Obituary: John Lewis Haley Bobo

Influential educator, former principal of Sycamore Elementary School

John Lewis Bobo, former principal of Sycamore Elementary School, died peacefully in his home in Claremont on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. He was 85 years old.

Mr. Bobo was born on January 24, 1935 in Hamilton, Alabama to Haley Lewis Bobo and Rudie Gann Bobo. Rudie taught in a one-room, 12-grade schoolhouse until she married. Later Haley opened a grocery store in Florence, Alabama, where young John worked making deliveries on his bicycle. From his earliest years, John made friends everywhere he went.

In high school he ran track and field, played basketball and football, and acted in the drama club. A natural athlete, he also excelled at golf, racquetball and tennis. As a high school senior, he was one of the two young men chosen to represent Alabama at the annual American Legion Boys Nation, a weeklong government training program in Washington D.C.

He was then recruited to play football for the University of Tennessee. However, after playing one season, a knee injury brought him back home to Florence State Teacher’s College (now the University of North Alabama), where he met fellow student Ruth Ann Moultrie. After marrying on July 8, 1956, the young couple moved to Birmingham, Alabama and completed their B.A. degrees at Howard College (now Samford University).

They relocated to New Orleans, Louisiana, where Mr. Bobo attended the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary while Mrs. Bobo earned an M.A. in English from Tulane University. By the time they moved to Mobile, Alabama so that Mr. Bobo could take a position as youth pastor, he had cultivated a love for Dixieland jazz, as well as an inclination to get up and dance whenever the rhythm hit him.

In the 1960s, the young couple moved to California, where they had two children, Elizabeth Noelle Bobo and Brian Lewis Bobo. After earning an M.Ed. from California State University, Los Angeles, Mr. Bobo taught in Azusa and served as vice principal in the Charter Oak Unified School District before being named principal of Sycamore Elementary School in Claremont.

During Principal Bobo’s tenure at Sycamore School, he enthusiastically encouraged a cohort of diverse teachers as they implemented innovative pedagogies, including multicultural education, mixed grade classrooms, and the empowerment of those with varied abilities.

As former Sycamore teacher Terry Kneisler remembers, “Principal Bobo was a maverick administrator. He shaped a culture of cooperation and development of the whole child, and he never wavered on the possibility of each child’s innate greatness.”

At this time, Mr. Bobo and his family took a summer trip to England, where he visited classrooms and consulted with teachers and headmasters who practiced the progressive educational theories of the Summerhill School in Suffolk. He was inspired by these new ideas and worked closely with Sycamore teachers to create nurturing and non-restrictive educational experiences in and out of the classroom.

Mr. Bobo’s belief in Sycamore and his love of the community inspired many to choose Claremont as a place to settle down and raise their children. For example, his in-laws, the Moultrie family—Dan, Carly, Melissa and Emily—moved to Claremont because of his conviction that Sycamore was unique. Carly Moultrie remembers how much her daughters benefited from the broad-minded vision Mr. Bobo nurtured at Sycamore. He wanted students to improve what is unique about themselves, their community, and the world in which they live.

He encouraged students to develop local and global citizenship. He was responsible for facilitating traditions such as International Day, during which students were exposed to cultures, art and music from around the world. He also created connections between the school and the community. He invited professors from the Claremont Colleges to speak, organized trips to Padua Hills Theater, and brought students to school board meetings in order to foster public engagement. “He made sure that teachers were able to bring their students to much loved field trips to the Folk Music Center, and oftentimes musicians would follow up with classroom visits,” said Ellen Harper. He was committed to much more than the basics of education.

Mr. Bobo’s energy and leadership were central not only to the educational methods still used at Sycamore but also to its very existence today. In 1976, after the school board voted to close Sycamore, Mr. Bobo rallied the successful recall of board members, and the school remained open. Former Sycamore student and current school board member, Bob Fass, remembers, “Mr. Bobo was a formative part of my Claremont education as a student and a valued member of our district’s administration. I fondly recall the way he greeted each and every Sycamore student by name and created a warm sense of belonging.” Mr. Bobo’s cooperation with students, parents, and teachers was crucial to preserving Sycamore Elementary and its legacy for the past 45 years.

Church, family and friends were also central to Mr. Bobo’s life. The inclusive and ecumenical nature of Claremont Presbyterian Church appealed to Mr. Bobo’s character. As a deacon of CPC, he contributed to the administrative and social life of the congregation, including calling on parishioners, welcoming newcomers, attending family camp, and churning homemade ice cream for church socials.

A devoted father, he provided fun, enriching experiences for his children and unconditional support as they grew and achieved their goals. He went to Boy Scout trips with Brian and rode camels with Liza in Egypt. He took his family on annual trips to Mammoth Mountain and the Colorado River, where he taught his children how to snow and water ski. His constant involvement with friends and family and the inclusiveness of the Bobo home, which was frequently a gathering place for people of all ages and walks of life, provided friends, resources, and the emotional support for his children to thrive.

Each year, the Bobos took a car trip to Florence, Alabama, where his parents and other relatives still resided. Those summer vacations, which included attending to the farm and garden and swimming in the Tennessee River, were idyllic times for the whole family. Although Mr. Bobo had left his native Alabama, throughout his life he retained his Southern charm. He always showed hospitality by welcoming friends and strangers. People who knew him remembered his extraordinary degree of interest in and engagement with everyone he met.

Mr. Bobo’s love of helping people led him to a third career. In the 1980s he trained to become a deep tissue body therapist and launched a successful new practice. During this time, he met the adventure-loving Adele Gadge Johnson, and the two married on his birthday in 1988. The couple participated in wholistic health workshops throughout the country and in China. Working with Brian, they started the first local internet service provider in Claremont, Cyberg8t. Their love of holidays and parties resulted in countless memories for their merged family. As they moved into retirement, they attended reunions to reconnect with friends and extended family. Married for over 30 years, Mr. and Mrs. Bobo both will be remembered for the generosity they extended to their loved ones. They helped many pursue their dreams.

Mr. Bobo was diagnosed with dementia in 2014, at which time his son Brian returned to California to care for him and Mrs. Bobo. In keeping with the true John Bobo spirit, Brian took the aging couple on trips to Chicago, Louisiana and Hawaii. They spent six weeks with Mr. Bobo’s cousin in Namibia. During his later years, as throughout his life, Mr. Bobo maintained an energetic delight for being with people and having new experiences. His family, friends, colleagues, students, clients, and especially his children continue to benefit from the joyous spirit he brought into their lives.

Mr. Bobo was predeceased by his parents; sister Joan Hall; and his former wife, Ruth Moultrie Bobo of Claremont. His wife, Adele Gadge Bobo, died August 28, 2020.

Mr. Bobo is survived by his sister and brother-in-law, Jane Bobo McCloskey and David McCloskey; daughter, son-in-law and grandson, Elizabeth Bobo, Michael Petersen, and Henry Lewis Petersen; son Brian Lewis Bobo and partner Deborah Taylor; stepson Sander Johnson and stepdaughter Julie Storozynsky; step-grandchildren Kjel Johnson, Azura Storozynsky, Tara Storozynsky, Eula Johnson and Jia Johnson; sister-in-law Carly Moultrie; as well as his many beloved nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held at Claremont Presbyterian Church, 1111 N. Mountain Ave., at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, August 15. All are welcome.

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