Magazine Article

John Travis, 1944-2013
CFA leader helped make the union a strong advocate for public higher education through tough economic times

John Travis often found himself surrounded by the news media as CFA fought for good contracts for the faculty and the CSU

By Alice Sunshine

At 5’11” tall, John Travis used to say he was not so large as people seemed to think. But those who met the former college football player and California labor leader knew he was a big man—in intellect, in abilities and at the union bargaining table.

The Humboldt State University political science professor and president of the California Faculty Association during some of the most contentious years in the California State University system, John Turner Travis, died February 6 after a battle with cancer. He was 68.

“With his calm demeanor and big heart, he somehow managed to keep us focused and united,” recalls Susan Meisenhelder, a CSU San Bernardino English professor who preceded him as CFA president. “When he
started a meeting—as he invariably did— with that booming call to his ‘colleagues,’ we all knew it was time to get to work.” Travis led CFA through years of deep funding cuts.

Those cuts led to loss of jobs and pay for the faculty while students were turned away or slammed with soaring tuition. Throughout Travis argued and organized to save the public university system and to defend the
people who worked and learned in it. Travis helped the faculty navigate the way to contract settlements over more than a decade, first as bargaining chair and then as president. In the 2006/2007 academic year, the union came within a few days of its first system-wide strike.

Along with a strong team of faculty leaders that included current CFA president Lillian Taiz, Travis led the organizing for university-wide protests that called for tuition rollbacks for students, fair pay for the faculty and other employees, and an end to rapidly rising university executive perks and pay.

“John was all about justice,” says Taiz. “He was incensed when people working with the former chancellor tried to take advantage of us by not bargaining fairly on our contract. And, he strongly believed it was not enough to be angry; we had to do something about it.”

Travis remained active in CFA as its political action committee chair until his illness intervened. “Just in the last few months, he was encouraged that he lived to see the beginnings of a positive change,” adds Taiz, referring to leadership and policy changes now underway in the CSU.

Travis was born June 2, 1944 and raised in Independence, Oregon, a small farm town that even today has only one stop light.

As a child he was an altar boy at the local Episcopal Church. His sister Jan Stapleton recalls that even in high school, “John was always a great one to have discussions, to challenge your mind all the time. He was adventurous. We were always into something and it was usually his idea.”

His father Guy, who died when John was 11, was a baker in the military during World War II and later became a local postman. His mother Marie worked for the telephone company.

“Education was John’s ticket in his life,” says his wife Beth Amen. “He never forgot that.”

Travis was a star offensive lineman on his high school football team that took the Oregon state championship in the 1960/61 school year. He won a football scholarship to Willamette University in Salem, Oregon
where he studied political science.

“He took it all the way to Ph.D,” says Amen. “He always wanted to go to college. It was clear he would be an academic.”

Travis was a dedicated advocate for students. He wrote recommendations for dozens of students to get internships at the California state Capitol. When walking with him in the building, it was commonplace to hear aides greet him with “Hi Professor Travis.”

And he knew students had their own causes. During the 1990s one of his students became an old-growth redwood “tree-sitter” to protest logging of ancient trees.

“There was a big advocacy to stop clear cut by Maxxam Corp, the old Pacific Lumber,” recalls Chris Haynes, a friend and colleague at Humboldt State. “John hoisted a student’s exam up the tree because if the student had come down, he would have lost the tree. John took a lot of flack from the lumber company about why is a professor giving a test in a tree.”

Travis’ dedication to public service went beyond higher education. For many years he served on the Area One Board on Developmental Disabilities for northern California.

He and Beth participated in dog rescue and adopted a number of dogs, especially boxers.

“We were lousy foster parents for the dogs because we ended up keeping them,” says Amen.

Travis loved catch-and-release fly fishing and he brought to the sport that same talent and focus as in his other endeavors. His favorite spots were Hat Creek in California, Henry’s Fork of the Snake River and Silver Creek in Idaho.

“He tied the flies, studied the area’s insects, and he caught some pretty big fish,” remembers Haynes. “The sport is catching the trout and like a lot of fishermen he also advocated for preservation of trout habitat.”

Amen, who went on many of the monthlong fishing expeditions, recalls, “Fly fishing appealed to his intellect. He learned to make his own flies. When he cast it was beautiful, so graceful, it could bring tears to your eyes.”

On February 28, Assemblymember Wes Chesbro, a longtime friend of Travis, took to the floor of the California Assembly, spoke movingly about Travis’ life and career and adjourned the legislative day in his memory.

His CFA colleagues at Humboldt State University hosted a memorial in Arcata on the same day. CFA will host a statewide memorial for him at its Delegate’s Assembly in April.

In addition to Beth Amen, John Travis is survived by his stepson Mark, sisters Jan Stapleton of Salem, Oregon; Judy Schroeder of Independence, Oregon; his brother Jim Travis of Boise, Idaho; and thousands of colleagues, students and friends who have benefitted from his endeavors.