Former City Councilmember, attorney, neighborhood preservationist and humanitarian John Denton died peacefully in his sleep Sunday night at the age of 93.
“If anyone could be called the conscience of this community, it was John Denton,” Denton’s friend Art Goldberg said in an e-mail to the Planet. “He valued our neighborhoods, our diversity and was committed to honesty and integrity in government, which often put him at odds with those in power.”
Denton will be remembered on the council as “never being PC enough for BCA [Berkeley Citizens Action],” but at the same time, “To the moderates, he was BCA,” said Clifford Fred, a friend and an aide to Denton for 18 months during his eight years on the council.
“He did not merely move to the beat of a different drummer; John Denton is the different drummer,” wrote David Mundstock in the online history, Berkeley in the ’70s. Mundstock served as staff for Denton for “a couple of months.”
Denton’s early life may have set him on his unique path. Born in a charity ward to an Irish mother who left him in a hospital in the Bronx, he was raised in an orphanage until he was 10 or 11, according to Josh Denton, one of John Denton’s three sons.
He was then adopted by a wealthy childless couple. His adopted mother “really looked after him,” Josh Denton said. Both adoptive parents died when Denton was in his 20s.
Denton started his career as a lawyer in real estate, but during the Spanish Civil War he took the side of the Republicans and met the woman who would become his wife—Ruth Denton—at an event in support of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
“They decided to get out of the rat race and moved to a farm in New Jersey,” Josh Denton said. When they heard that an Indian tribe in Santa Fe needed help, they moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Some time later, they moved to Tucson, where John Denton worked at the University of Arizona. When he wasn’t at the university, he was defending people put in jail as vagrants. “He had a secret friend who was a jailer who would call dad and tell him about people put unjustly in jail.” Denton would defend them.
Another accomplishment was helping to get a bill through Congress that would prevent prospectors from setting up camp on Indian grounds.
In 1961, John Denton brought his family to Berkeley, where he was to teach at the university. His mother knew it was the right place to be when she heard baroque music played on KPFA, Josh Denton said. “That sold her on Berkeley.”
After about five or six years at the university, Denton left and became an expert on the evaluation of real property. One of his passions was city planning and he helped to organize the Council of Neighborhood Associations.
“John Denton was a great friend of neighborhood groups and sadly we have no one like him today,” said Martha Nicoloff, who was another CNA founder.
Denton was elected to the Berkeley City Council in 1975 and served until 1986. He served with then city councilmember—now state assemblymember—Loni Hancock, who told the Daily Planet one of the most notable things Denton did on the council was working to change the redevelopment plan in West Berkeley to include affordable housing and retail.
Hancock adjourned the Assembly on Monday in Denton’s memory.
“John Denton brought 35 years of experience to the Berkeley City Council as an attorney, author, professor, appraiser, economist and all-around land use and housing expert,” Mundstock wrote. “He had represented Indian tribes in Arizona [to protect their mineral rights], fought to preserve Bay Area neighborhoods from freeways, and [was] executive director of Governor Pat Brown’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Fair Housing,” Mundstock wrote.
John Denton’s wife, Ruth Denton, passed away in 2003. His son Josh came to live with him in Berkeley after that time. Denton also leaves behind sons David and Robert.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be sent to Project VIDA, 1000 Camelia, Berkeley 94710.