NO. 17803 • 1929 – 21 November 2007
Died in Riverside, CA
Cremated. Interred in Riverside National Cemetery, Riverside, CA
At a dinner with friends and his wife Nancy, John could be counted on for a humorous story followed by his own hearty chuckles. His sharp wit was just one aspect of a warm, generous, cheerful personality. His outlook on life, talents and achievements are all the more remarkable after a difficult childhood.
John Walton Best, Jr. was born in Detroit, MI, the son of John Walton and Marjorie Elaine Best. When John was born, his father was at the peak of his career as a swimming teacher to the wealthy and privileged members of the Country Club of Detroit. Two years later, the Great Depression made swimming lessons an extravagance. In 1931, his father moved the family to Hollywood, where he found prominent clients in the entertainment industry. They traveled from California to Florida in search of favorable weather for teaching swimming in outdoor pools. John was used as a swimming demonstrator. It was a gypsy life, with his attending 13 different schools.
In 1936 the family acquired a 16-foot travel trailer. It was home for John, his brother, sister and parents, moving from Beverly Hills in the summer to Palm Springs in the winter. In 1942, his parents bought a lot in Riverside for the trailer, and John built an attached sleeping room for his sister and another for his brother and himself. It was a dysfunctional household with a domineering father, marginal income and incessant bickering making life uncomfortable and insecure. On occasion John was sent to fish off the Santa Monica pier to bring home dinner. At 14 he spent the summer caring for 12 horses at a riding stable. He slept outside the barn, with kittens in his sleeping bag for warmth. His pay was a dozen pancakes for breakfast and other meals. Moving on to high school he commanded the ROTC unit, was on the rifle team, lettered three years in swimming and captained the swim team his senior year.
Although John had scholarship offers from local colleges, he saw West Point as an opportunity for a new life, an excellent education and financial independence. He entered West Point only a few months after his 17th birthday, making him one of the youngest in the class. At West Point he excelled in swimming, earning a letter for three years and setting a Plebe record for the 200- yard relay. Paul Ache, a Co I-2 classmate, recalls, “sitting at a brace in Washington Hall” when the record breaking was announced, “by a team including John Best. Boy, was I impressed.” Ever the dutiful son, a trying family life notwithstanding, John sent home $20 a month from his cadet salary. In later years, he helped his brother financially.
After graduation, John selected the Air Force. He became a pilot for multi-engine aircraft accumulating 900 hours of flying time. He flew five different aircraft, with most of his flying time in B29s and B36s. During the Korean War he flew 32 combat missions.
Of minor consequence was his plane crash during flight training. The instructor, apparently not pleased with John, idled one of the engines at a time when the plane was just accelerating after a touch and go. The plane landed in a cotton field just beyond the runway. No one was injured. John walked back to the airfield. At the gate he asked an MP where he should go to report a plane crash. Not even a plane crash could dampen his sense of humor. The fate of the instructor was an immediate transfer to Iceland.
After resigning from the Air Force in 1955, John moved back to Riverside. He was employed as an engineer for several companies before striking out on his own in 1972. He served a variety of clients, including General Electric, with engineering services in civil and mechanical design. Ninety percent of his work was in structural analysis and design for buildings. His success as a one-man firm is a tribute to his engineering acumen and perseverance.
In 1956, John entered into a marriage that lasted for 25 years before ending in divorce. His life changed after he met Nancy Parsons and married her in 1983. She proved to be the perfect partner in what was a happy and fulfilling marriage. He had no biological children from either marriage. He was a stepfather to Victor and Chris, and a de facto father to Lisa, who became a family member.
John was a West Pointer through and through. He was active in the West Point Society in Riverside and generous with his time in support of West Point. For many years he was the Academy’s admissions representative for the Riverside, San Bernardino and beyond areas. Over the years he had been responsible for encouraging and shepherding some 200 high school graduates to West Point. Being invited to the Bicentennial Dinner marking the 200th anniversary of West Point was recognition for his service.
Topping off the abilities of this talented man was his acting in amateur theater. His most memorable role was the male lead in the play, “First Monday in October.” His performance was magnificent. His wit and stage presence were perfect for the role of a Supreme Court Judge. Actually, he was asked to replace a person in the lead role late in the rehearsals. Not a problem for John, he had the ability to memorize not only his own part but also all the parts of the other actors. What a memory! After 60 years he could recite the definition of leather.
John had the resoluteness and subtle drive to achieve which served him throughout his life. Those qualities were intrinsic to his being. Beyond that he was just a good person to be around. He was affable and humorous, and yet he was a sensitive person. He was a devoted husband. He lovingly supported his family and cared deeply for others. For all who knew him, he left a mark on their hearts.
—Bill Waddell ’50, assisted by Nancy Best