CLARION - February is Black History Month and it's not hard to find fitting historical black men and women to honor and study at the state, national and world levels.
Clarion County has its own historical black political and community leader deserving of remembrance this month.
John S. Shropshire first arrived in Clarion County in 1957 as a student at Clarion State College (now Clarion University). He continued his education at Shippensburg University, Yale University and Penn State University.
Shropshire was a teacher and head basketball coach at Central Dauphin East High School from 1961 to 1972. He taught world cultures, advanced European history, humanities, English and black history. He was the first black head coach in central Pennsylvania.
He returned to Clarion State College in 1972 as an assistant director of admissions and was named director of admissions in 1978, the first African-American to hold that position in the state system.
By the time he passed away at the age of 62 while playing golf June 5, 2001, Shropshire had been elected three times as a Paint Township supervisor the first African-American man to be elected as a township supervisor in Clarion County.
In the fall of 1999, Shropshire was elected as Clarion County's first African-American county commissioner.
"He was absolutely proud of that, but it was not an overwhelming issue," recalls Shropshire's wife, Jamie Nagle Shropshire. "He was the only black teacher at the high school he taught at in Harrisburg. I'm not sure how many black admission counselors there were in the state system in the early 70s.
"It was the same as to township supervisors so being the first' came with the territory in that time period."
Jamie Shropshire said her husband since 1978 was always aware of being a black man in an overwhelmingly white population, no matter what position he held in the community.
"He was dedicated to following his purpose and being true to his values," said Jamie. "If people didn't agree with him based on his color, that was their issue, not his."
It came natural
Jamie explained John came from "a large, tightknit, extended family." His grandfather, brother, and mother were pastors of Morningside Church of God in Christ in Pittsburgh.
"John's grandfather started the church in 1929 in Mollenaur and eventually moved to Pittsburgh to combine his congregation with the Morningside congregation where he became the pastor of that church," recalled Jamie. "John's brother and then his mother also became pastors of the church. Today, John's uncle pastors the church."
Jamie said her husband's ministry came in a different form.
"A life in the church was John's family's life -- following God's word to care for your fellow man was the family's guiding principle," said Jamie. "And that was John's guiding principle.Teaching and coaching kids, being a mentor for kids in need, taking care of the community where you live it was his way of following his family's philosophy."
A long-time supporter of minority education opportunities, Shropshire received the prestigious Mary Davis Baltimore Award in 1998, named in honor of one of the co-founders of the Pennsylvania Black Conference on Higher Education.
Shropshire was active in the Pennsylvania Black Conference on Higher Education and was past president from 1996-1998, and was chairman of the Education Policy Committee from 1996 until his death.
He was a member and past president of the Clarion Chapter of the International Rotary Club from 1978 until his death; a founder of the Clarion County Ethnic Tolerance Coalition and chairman from 1998 until his death; and was a member of the Jefferson-Clarion County Community Action from 1984 until his death.
A popular Democrat in GOP territory
Clarion County has for several decades now been Republican territory.
Shropshire was a staunch Democrat.
Despite his party registration, Shropshire was easily re-elected twice as a Paint Township supervisor. In 1999, he was presented the Outstanding Township Supervisor Award by the Clarion County Municipal Officers Association.
When he decided to seek a Democratic Party nomination for county commissioner in 1999, he finished second in a six-person race, finishing behind only the popular former county chief clerk Donna Hartle.
Clarion County Chief Assessor Robert E. Lieberum finished third.
Hartle finished with 2,745 votes. Shropshire finished second with 1,889 votes. Lieberum garnered 1,386 votes.
Finishing fourth with 713 votes was H. Clyde Bish. New Bethlehem Police Chief James Merwin finished fifth with 620 votes and incumbent commissioner Sally Minich finished last with 556 votes.
In the 1999 general election, Hartle and Shropshire squared off against Republicans David Cyphert and Glenn Watson; independent candidate Paul A. Weaver and Libertarian candidate Vernon Etzel.
The top three vote-getters would serve as county commissioners beginning in 2000.
With Republicans holding a near 2-1 voter registration advantage, Hartle finished first with 4,680 votes; Shropshire second with 3,427; Cyphert third with 3,040; Watson fourth with 2,984; Weaver fifth with 2,773; and Etzel sixth with 647.
Shropshire served as the board of commissioners' representative on the Clarion County fair board, Cooperative Extension board, communication/emergency management agency, Community Action, economic development council, human services board, Joint Partnership Training Act, Northwest Regional Planning and Development, the county planning commission, the county prison board and the county solid waste management committee.
A sudden end
The team of Shropshire, Hartle and Cyphert worked well together and enjoyed a successful first year and a half.
During the latter part of the afternoon on Tuesday, June 5, 2001, while golfing at Clarion Oaks golf course, Shropshire apparently suffered a heart attack. He was alone at the time.
By the time he was discovered and transported to nearby Clarion Hospital, Shropshire had passed away. He left behind his wife Jamie and their two children, Christopher and Alicia, and a son from a previous marriage, Philip.
Cyphert was one of the first county officials to confirm Shropshire's passing.
"We've lost a good man," Cyphert said.
Hartle, who would pass away from cancer a few years later, said, "John was such a caring individual who had Clarion County's best interests at heart. He was such a gentle man and we're all going to miss him terribly."
With less than half his first term as commissioner finished when Shropshire died, it's impossible to know what he might have accomplished as commissioner or beyond.
"There was once a brief, and I mean brief, conversation about running for (state) representative for the 63rd district," said Jamie.
As a politician, as an involved member of the community and as an educator, John Shropshire reached many "firsts."
During Black History Month, Clarion County can with pride recall Shropshire's dedication and accomplishments.
Shropshire also was a dedicated and loving family man.
"People knew him and knew he had the best interests of the county in mind when making decisions," concluded Jamie. "As for the kids and I, we miss him every day."