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John Stansfield

By Linda Rosenand Berkeley Historical Society Volunteers
Tuesday September 04, 2007

Volunteer extraordinaire John Stansfield passed away on Aug. 18 at the age of 79 from complications of pneumonia. He was the man to whom visitors and reporters alike would turn for answers at the Berkeley History Center. His enthusiasm about Berkeley’s history was absolutely contagious.  

He had a sharp sense of humor and he enjoyed being around all kinds of people. He was one of the kindest men we ever met. We will miss his twinkling eyes, his helpfulness, and all the knowledge he shared at the History Center.  

When I was the Berkeley Historical Society president, he told me that he would volunteer only on the condition that he be allowed to work three days a week. Since we were open just three days a week, I told him that could be arranged! He was a tireless docent, who participated at the center every week for years. He much preferred to work with the public than to stay at home. Even when his lung disease forced him to stay home, he continued to work on special projects. 

Sue Austin wrote an article about John Stansfield called “Man With a Mission” in the Spring 2005 BHS newsletter:  

John began his volunteer work by taking two courses on Bay Area history from local historian Charles Wollenberg. In addition, he had the benefit of having taken a college course on California history years ago. And, of course, his post-graduate work in modern European history at Cal is what grounded him in history. John had a life-long love of history, largely due to the influence of a Garfield Junior High School teacher.  

“She started it,” he recalled. “But also, as a young boy my parents took me to the missions as well as other significant historical locations throughout California. Even though I knew a lot about history, running a museum was out of my realm. But, if Carl Wilson, with his background in forestry could do it, so could I.” John has another unique advantage that adds to his value as a BHS volunteer. He was born and raised in Berkeley. 

“I remember things,” he said. “I remember growing up in this city and roaming around. I used to walk from one end of Codornices Creek to Live Oak Park through backyards and through long tunnels under the streets. These tunnels went through major intersections and along the creek. I would go through yards, even though I was told not to. Luckily I never got caught. However, my wet shoes and socks and the mud and dirt on my pants usually tipped off my mother. But, as a result of my wanderings and my growing up here, I can look at the old photos and make pretty good guesstimates on location.  

John likes to attribute the staying power of his BHS involvement to the people with whom he has worked. … “I like teaching, and I like hearing visitors share their fabulous stories.”  

John appreciated a well-written book on California or contemporary American history and books on politics. He was a dedicated collector of stamps, particularly from Hungary, having won several awards for his displays.  

He was also an avid postcard collector. I remember calling him with only moments to spare on an E-Bay postcard bid. He was able to identify what we had and didn’t have in our collection based on a verbal description of the camera angle and objects in the scene. He told me to go for the Key System Terminal card, which I did. He loved to collect and trade old books to build the History Center collection. He knew all the films and videotapes and maps at the center. He was also skilled at reading and explaining the intricacies of the Sanborn maps and the old block books. The question, “"How do I find where my grandfather lived?” was a fun challenge for him. Former volunteer Tanya March says, “We were like two kids given the keys to the candy store with the maps, books, postcards.” 

Millie Stansfield adds, “John retired from the California School for the Deaf after 25 years of work with children as a dorm counselor. He was especially great with the young kids and often took them to Codornices Creek. He spent another ten years at the Hearing Impaired Program of Catholic Charities. Then he came to the Berkeley Historical Society, which, I believe, was his true love.”  

He leaves his devoted friend, Millie Stansfield, his son, John, and two grandchildren, Arianna, 7, and Jeanine, 6, as well as friends and community, who benefited greatly from his life of service.