Rath Shelton’s Boys

A look at the legacy of the Shelton family at Westmont College.

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Provided by Ruby Jeanne Shelton

The Shelton family circa 1960.

Jerry Gill and Ruby Jeanne Shelton

When I was a student at Westmont back in the early 1950s the Shelton family was just getting started at the college. Rathburn served as the “jack of all trades.” He was Alumni Director, Public Relations Officer, and the baseball coach, and continued in these positions for many years. His wife Peggy also worked in various offices throughout the college for many years. Since I had come from a fatherless family, Rath became something of a father-figure for me. I spent a good deal of time in their home in my college years and off and on throughout the years after.

Rath and Peggy had four sons, all of whom I got to know even better over the ensuing years. Ron was about seven when I was a student. He was an avid sports fan even at the young age of seven, and attended all of Westmont’s basketball and baseball games. He was never to be found without his baseball cap and mitt. When he attended Westmont College, graduating in 1967, he was an outstanding player on the basketball team all four years, but it was at baseball that he excelled.

I actually got to play basketball against Ron when I was visiting the campus and played on the Alumni team against the Westmont Varsity. Naturally, the Varsity won and Ron was the standout player. His Mother Peggy admitted that whenever Ron drove to the basket she had to look away because he went with such abandon that she was sure he would get hurt. Fortunately, Ron almost never got hurt playing sports. He was always a robust and ready-to-go young man.

After graduation Ron was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles and sent to play with the Bluefield farm team in West Virginia. Over the next few years he made his way up through various minor league teams, but never quite made it to the Major Leagues. One year when he was participating in Spring Training in Florida Ron stopped by to visit with me at the college where I was teaching at the time. I even got to see him play a game. Eventually Ron returned to school at The University of Arizona, earning an MFA degree in sculpture. He taught art briefly in Tucson but moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the visual arts.

A love of movies had begun when his Westmont English Professor Leonard Oakland exposed him to classic films including, at the time, everything from Ingmar Bergman to the French New Wave.   This affection for movies continued throughout his life in the minor leagues when he filled the long days on the road inside movie theaters.  Once in L.A. he began writing scripts which led to his first produced screenplay, The Best of Times starring Robin Williams and Kurt Russell. Then another script with Nick Nolte and Gene Hackman titled Under Fire. His big break came when he wrote the script for Bull Durham and got his chance as its Director. Bull Durham, a baseball film starring Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon, was an immense success, both at the box office and among the film critics.

From there Ron went on to write and direct a number of successful films, including White Men Can’t Jump, Blaze, and Tin Cup. At 74 he is still working in the film industry and has one or two new creations coming out shortly.  Ron is married to Lolita Davidovich, a successful actress in her own right. They met when she starred in Blaze, a film about Earl Long, the infamous Governor of Louisiana.

The Shelton’s second son, David, attended Westmont in the 1960s, graduating in 1970. He ran track and cross-country, but his major interest lay in working with his hands. I remember one time when I was visiting he took a part out of one of his many used cars and put it into another in order to drive to town and buy a different part for the first car. When I visited Westmont at a later time David gave me the ride of my life on the “fire roads” up on the hills up behind the college. Whenever I visited the Sheltons over the years I would find David hard at work in his shop.

After earning an MFA in sculpture, David also completed an MA in Historic Preservation.  Eventually David was restoring various buildings around Santa Barbara, and thus became a premier expert in the field, with many homes, stores, and buildings throughout the city to his credit. As a gifted steel designer he has made his artistic mark on Santa Barbara with his metal work. At a kick-off party for one of Ron’s films I discovered that David was also a gifted and creative “juker” on the dance floor.

Next came Steve. Throughout his boyhood he preferred art and songs to baskets and baseballs. Steve majored in English, graduated Westmont in 1976  and began teaching high school and college, and eventually junior high. Now, at 66, he is in his 39th year as a teacher mentoring younger teachers among other things. All along the way Steve has continued to write and produce his own high quality music, a blend of folk, jazz, and blues. He is also a visual artist and published poet. My wife and I still play his albums whenever we go on a trip of any magnitude, our favorite is “A Fool’s Hearty Wisdom.” Steve has been married to his splendiferous wife Ruby Jeanne, who has been a mainstay in various administrative offices at Westmont over the years, now Secretary for the Social Science department at the college. They too have four sons, following in the Shelton tradition.

Fourthly, there is Jeff, who followed in Ron’s footsteps as a first-rate basketball player. He attended Westmont for one year.  I got to play some pick-up ball with him and his friends on one of my visits and he had not lost any of his touch even at that later stage. Jeff, like Ron, also went to the University of Arizona, but his field was architecture. Back in Santa Barbara Jeff began to ply his trade and before long he became one of the most sought after architects in the city. His “name” is on many of the special buildings throughout Santa Barbara, such as Casa Blanca, El Andaluz, and Cota Street Studios.

It should not go unmentioned that Jeff’s wife Karin served as Ron’s special assistant, handling all the details and a myriad of other related tasks. Moreover, in her own time Karin developed into a first-rate visual artist, specializing in all sizes of paintings. She played host to my wife and I whenever we visited Ron’s filming sets and we have two of her works adorning our guest room wall. All of this and a mother of two daughters too!

Right from the beginning the Sheltons lived in houses on what used to be the “Reynolds property.” Their little home had only two bedrooms, so the boys always had to double up. When Ron entered college they acquired a small trailer-home and placed it in the backyard for him to live in. They named it “Frobisher Hall” after a famous Navy admiral. As the years went by each of the boys, one after the other, “inherited” the trailer for his own. These days everyone except Ron and Lolita still lives on this property, while Ron and Lolita have a home in nearby Ojai.

Several decades ago the family acquired some of the Reynolds property and took over a successful summer day-camp, complete with two swimming pools, for Santa Barbara kids. It was called “Camp Lorr” and was a first-rate success for a number of years. Eventually, Steve became the Program Director. When I first introduced my wife to the Shelton bunch she was a bit puzzled by the laid-back, informal atmosphere of both the place and the family. She soon realized and relished in the richness of the genuine and unique personable quality of both.

From time to time we manage to visit the Shelton tribe and we are always made to feel so welcome and special. I must say that it is far-and-away the most creative and genuine group of folks we know. Years ago, after Peggy died, we spent some time with Rath, sharing in his participation in the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table and attending a progressive jazz concert together. He would turn and beam at us saying “How lucky can a guy get?”

Whenever I visited with Rath during his final and failing years he always addressed me, along with every other old timer, as “Big Guy.” And he always beamed brightly whenever the topic turned to his sons. As I think back to my Westmont days, I tend to see myself as one of the Shelton family, as “one of the boys,” as a kind of older brother to Rath’s boys. Indeed, “How Lucky Can I Guy Get?”