Obituary: John Washington

Minister, civil rights activist, retired Air Force lieutenant


A memorial service for Pilgrim Place resident John Robert Washington will be held Saturday, July 29 at 3:30 p.m. at Decker Hall in Pilgrim Place, 625 Mayflower Rd., Claremont. Mr. Washington died June 18, 2017. He was 88.

John Robert Washington was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 19, 1928. His father, John, was a Baptist minister and served in several Pittsburgh suburbs. His mother Cora was a church organist. As a boy, John spent many happy hours on the organ bench while his mother practiced.

Music was a central component of John’s life. He sang frequent solos in the school auditorium and enjoyed area gatherings of school choirs. John also played clarinet in the school concert band and marching band.

After high school graduation, Mr. Washington enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh. With interest in conducting medical research, he majored in chemistry. His mother died of cancer soon after his college graduation. As a fifth-year student, Mr. Washington enrolled in the Air Force and was stationed in Texas and Alabama before becoming a First Lieutenant in charge of hospital laboratories.

Mr. Washington was called to the ministry in his third year in the Air Force, and left Alabama to enter Andover Newton Theological School near Boston. It was in 1953 at Andover Newton that he met his wife, Shirley Eggert, who was also a freshman studying ministry. The couple married a year later.

Mr. Washington’s first parish was in Providence, Rhode Island. His parishioners were descendants from the Cape Verde Islands, who were slaves of the Portuguese. His parishioners were unlearned, serving mostly as stevedores or maids, but they made great strides in churchmanship under Mr. Washington’s guidance.

After five years in Providence, Mr. Washington was called to a church in San Francisco. Many of these parishioners had been run out of the downtown by urban renewal, with most families paying double mortgages and living on the edge of poverty. Social causes as well as church items largely drove Mr. Washington’s work in San Francisco. It was a tight-knit community, his wife recalls.

During his California ministry, Mr. Washington became a Freedom Rider in Jackson, Mississippi. He served three nights in jail, after which he was bailed out by the Congress of Racial Equality.

The national offices of the Congregational Church asked Mr. Washington to join the Council for Christian Social Action and for a year he traveled all over the country devoting himself to improving race relations.

His next calling was by the Council of Churches, which took the couple to Cincinnati, where his very productive ministry was interrupted by a cross-burning in the family’s backyard.

But his work continued and Mr. Washington became a member of the Michigan United Church of Christ staff. He served in a number of capacities but the final, and most fulfilling role, was becoming chaplain at the Jackson State Prison.

Mr. Washington retired in 1987. He and his wife moved to Pilgrim Place in 1995, where he maintained a very active schedule as a member of the Pilgrim Place board of directors and on the Admissions Committee, as well as being president of the Scrooby Club and a member of the chorale. He also performed in a play at the Claremont Colleges and participated in the annual Pilgrim Place Festival Show.

Even in retirement, Mr. Washington was called to ministry. This time he joined Claremont United Church of Christ where he was in charge of new members.

Mr. Washington is survived by his wife Shirley, with whom he would have celebrated 63 years of marriage this September. He is also survived by three sons—Stuart, a psychiatrist working with the homeless in San Francisco; Gary and his wife Sylvia of Chicago, where Gary is a banker; and Jim and his wife Jane of Washington DC, where Jim serves as a consultant for the Federal Aviation Administration. Mr. Washington is also survived by his brother James Washington of Orefield, Pennsylvania.

In lieu of flowers, gifts may be made to the Endowment Fund of Pilgrim Place by check to Pilgrim Place, 660 Avery Rd., Claremont CA 91711 or an online donation by visiting and clicking the “Giving” tab.


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