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OBITUARIES | Joe Shell, 1918 - 2008

Ex-legislator challenged Nixon

April 11, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Joe Shell, a former assemblyman from Los Angeles who seriously challenged Richard Nixon for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1962 with a candidacy that highlighted the emerging strength of the GOP's right wing, has died. He was 89.

Shell, who was captain of the 1939 USC football team, died Monday at his home in Bakersfield, said his wife, Mary K. He had been in declining health since breaking some ribs in January.

Piloting his own Beechcraft Bonanza from one campaign stop to the next, Shell aimed his pitch squarely at fellow conservatives: "I've gotten sick and tired of calling people liberals when they're basically socialists," he said, according to a 1962 Time magazine article.

First elected to the Assembly in 1953, Shell was the minority leader when he decided to run for governor. One hallmark of his campaign: He repeatedly accused former Vice President Nixon of trying to use the California governorship as a steppingstone to the presidency.

Although Nixon won the primary handily, Shell captured 35% of the vote.

Nixon had been "substantially weakened" because the ultraconservative Shell's challenge caused a split in the party, former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said in his 2001 memoir, "In the Arena."

"He was a former football player at USC, which in Southern California was practically a passport to political advancement," Weinberger wrote. "Nixon won the primary but he did so without generating much GOP enthusiasm."

Democratic incumbent Pat Brown was reelected governor.

At USC, Shell played halfback for three seasons on the "Thundering Herd," as the football team was known under Coach Howard Jones. In addition to the 1939 national championship, the team won the Rose Bowl in 1939 and 1940.

The 1939 team waited 65 years for USC to publicly salute its championship. Players lobbied the school for years to recognize the team's No. 1 ranking -- courtesy of a noted but now defunct poll called the Dickinson System.

"We all felt badly about it because we knew we were darn good," Shell told The Times in 2004. "We always felt we should have been listed as champions."

Joseph Claude Shell was born Sept. 7, 1918, in La Conner, Wash. His father was a judge. When he was 2, his family moved to San Diego.

When a pilot who owed his father money offered to pay with flying lessons, Shell learned to fly at 14.

In 1940, Shell graduated from USC with a bachelor's degree in business administration and married Barbara Morton. They had five children and divorced after 28 years of marriage.

He became a civilian flight instructor with the Army Air Corps and during World War II served as a Navy pilot in the air transport service.

After the war, he was an independent oil producer, drilling in Kern County oil fields while living in Los Angeles.

Elected to five terms in the Assembly, Shell represented the Wilshire District.

After losing the primary race for governor, he sold his oil-production business to pay off campaign debts and became a Sacramento lobbyist for independent oil producers and refiners.

Gov. George Deukmejian appointed him to the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board in 1989 but Shell resigned after two years, saying he didn't have enough to do.

In 1970, he married Mary K. and moved to Bakersfield. She was Bakersfield's mayor in the early 1980s and spent more than a decade as a Kern County supervisor.

While campaigning for his wife, Shell had a sure-fire strategy to coax a child to bring his father to the door. "He'd say, 'Tell him I was captain of the USC football team,' " his wife said. "They'd come out, then he'd start talking about electing me mayor."

In addition to his wife, Shell is survived by four sons, two daughters, a stepson, nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. today at First Presbyterian Church, 1705 17th St., Bakersfield.

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Instead of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Bakersfield Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 3000 Gibson St., Bakersfield, CA 93308.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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