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Seeing the people who make Claremont

by John Pixley

“You know the Byrds?”

“The what?”

“The Byrds. B-Y-R-D-S.”

“The Byrds?…The band?”

“Yes.”

Yes, my friend had heard of the Byrds. He is almost half my age and probably wasn’t even born when the band was playing, but I figured he had probably heard “Turn, Turn, Turn” or “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man” on the radio, maybe in a diner or a thrift store or an auto repair shop.

Not only that, my friend knew that the Byrds had been an important band, well-known for its jangly, folky, sunny guitar sound. He was in town for the weekend, and we had just seen that John York was playing in the area.

“He was in the Byrds,” I told my friend.

“That guy was in the Byrds?”

“And he lives in Claremont.”

“Really? Mmm!” my friend said, no doubt making a mental note to Google or YouTube John York later on his phone. Or maybe he was doing it right then.

Really? Who knew? I hate to say this, but I have to admit that this is what I thought when I read the obituary for Ray Collins in these pages a few weeks ago.

I had seen that there was an obituary for Ray Collins a few days earlier in the Los Angeles Times (although I didn’t read it). And I had seen the man around in the Village for years, but I hadn’t put the 2 together.

I didn’t know that the guy with the headlining obituary in the Los Angeles Times was the guy in the Village. I didn’t know that he had been in the Mothers of Invention, another influential 1960s rock band. I didn’t know there was this quiet treasure trove of rock history and colorful stories, complete with partnering with and then not speaking to and sometimes speaking ill of Frank Zappa, in our midst.

And now he is gone, no longer in our midst. Ray Collins is no longer here, where he chose to live out the end of his rich, creative life, making Claremont all the more rich and creative.

I wish I knew this before now. I wish I knew about Ray Collins like I know about John York. Like my friend now knows about John York.

And about how he, along with many others, is what makes Claremont such a rich, creative community.

I’m certainly glad—all the more now—that I knew Mary Ellen Kilsby, who died a few weeks ago. As I write this, I think about going to a memorial service for her on Sunday.

I also think about how last year, when I saw her for one of the last times at Pilgrim Place where she then lived, she hugged me so hard that it hurt. It occurs to me that she hugged Claremont in the same way.

For years, when I was growing up and before she and her husband Bud moved to Long Beach, Mary Ellen Kilsby embraced Claremont, giving this community much of her remarkable energy. Among other things, she served on the Claremont school board and was its president, all while I understood she was a pastor at the Claremont United Church of Christ, Congregational.

It was actually not until later in my life, when I became friends with her daughter, Kathy, and after she moved to Long Beach to serve as the head pastor of the big congregational church downtown, that I met Mary Ellen. But I had always heard and read about her and what she was doing in Claremont. While here in Claremont, she was always one of those people making this town a better, more caring community.

She still cared about Claremont after she left. I would occasionally see her, and be subject to her enthusiastic hugging and kissing, at events at Pomona College, where she was active—once again, active—in the alumni organization. One year, she gave the address at the Colleges’ baccalaureate service. And it felt right, like a circle closing, when a year or 2 ago—after her retirement and the death of her husband—I saw that she was living at Pilgrim Place.

The circle is always closing, just as the years keep going and coming. And people like Mary Ellen Kilsby and Ray Collins, with their wild stories and boundless enthusiasm, come and then go, enriching our lives and our community. Do we know them and the many others who make Claremont before they are no longer here, before the circle closes again?

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