Mary Katherine Jaynes Shell, previously Mary Hosking, usually known as Mary K. Shell (born February 9, 1927), is the first woman to have served as mayor of Bakersfield, California (1981–1985) and only the second woman to have served on the Kern County Board of Supervisors (1985-1997). At the time of her retirement from public office, Shell was termed by the Bakersfield Californian as "the most popular politician in Kern County history." She is the widow of Joseph C. Shell, Sr. (1918-2008), a former Republican minority leader of the California State Assembly from Los Angeles, Richard M. Nixon's intraparty opponent for governor in 1962, and a lawmaker who fought to bring water to southern California in the 1960s.
Shell was the younger of two daughters born in Bakersfield to Walter Jaynes (1897–1972) and the former Mary Ellen Young (1897–1990). Shell's paternal grandfather, Harris E. Jaynes, arrived in Bakersfield about 1900 to work as a welder for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He opened a welding shop which evolved into H. E. Jaynes and Son, an automobile repair business on Chester Street. Mary K., also called "Miki" by her family and friends, worked in the shop, doing chores traditionally associated with males. She recalls servicing a Buick when news of the D-Day landings in Normandy of June 6, 1944 were announced by radio. She demonstrated a youthful interest in current events, journalism, and politics. She was the editor of the student newspapers at Washington Junior High School and East Bakersfield High School. She was also a song leader and secretary to the student council. Shell said that so many extracurricular activities kept her from being an "A" student. Shell attended Bakersfield College, a public community college, but dropped out a semester shy of receiving her associate's degree. She is a donor to the college and a member of its foundation board. Instead she worked part-tme at the Bakersfield Californian newspaper, where at the age of seventeen she had been the "cub" reporter on the farm beat. She soon learned that city officials were making most decisions over lunch at the Hotel El Tejon (now the site of the Bank of America building in Bakersfield) and then routinely approving what had been decided at council meetings. This was long before the era of "open meetings" laws, known in California as the Ralph M. Brown Act. Shell had taken flying lessons while she worked as a flight dispatcher at La Cresta Airfield near the Panorama Bluffs of Bakersfield.
In 1945, at the age of eighteen, she married Don Sticker, but the couple divorced in 1948. She then married Richard "Dick" Hosking, by whom she had three children: Geoffrey Richard Hosking (born 1951), Timothy William Hosking (1952–1979), and Meredith Katherine Hosking (1959–1981). The couple lived briefly in the San Jose area, where Hosking attended law school, and she worked at the San Jose Airport. They soon returned to Bakersfield, and she became a secretary to a cotton cooperative. Dick served on the Bakersfield City Council from 1965-1969. Mary and Dick separated in 1967 and divorced two years later. The next year, she wed Joe Shell, a distinguished flight instructor during World War II who, like her, held a pilot's license. In 1960, Mary K. first met Joe Shell, who was then married to the former Barbara Morton. He came to Bakersfield where he had interests in his oil business, to review her activities as an unusually successful Republican activist in Bakersfield. Mary was later a reporter-photographer and then, the editor, of the News Bulletin, a semi-weekly newspaper serving metropolitan Bakersfield
From 1970 to 1980, Mary K. Shell was a correspondent based in the state capital of Sacramento for The Californian and the syndicated Capitol News Service. She covered the legislature and other state agencies: "That was before we even had fax machines," she recalls. She wrote her weekly column on a typewriter and shipped it to Bakersfield on a Greyhound bus. Shell's old job was discontinued by the newspaper in 2007 because of financial reasons. Shell won honors: the 1972 Excellencein Reporting Award from the California Trial Lawyers Association and the 1975 California Taxpayers Reporting Award for her revelations about excessive early retirement benefits for legislators, a phenomenon unknown to many California voters. Joe was a lobbyist for oil companies while the couple lived in Sacramento. During that period, they generally made two trips monthly to Bakersfield, where they would move permanently in 1980.
In 1978, the Shells opened an oil business together and drilled four heavy-oil wells in at the Deer Creek field in Tulare County located adjacent to Kern County. Because the name "Shell" could not be used, they called the endeavor Concho Petroleum. They maintained the low-output wells until 1993.
Tragedy struck in 1979, when her younger son Tim, at twenty-six, who had fallen into a life of alcohol and despair, died of a drug overdose.
Thereafter, Shell decided to run for mayor after three-term incumbent Donald M. Hart announced that he would not seek reelection. The odds were so against Shell that it was said only Joe Shell actually believed that his wife could prevail against four male candidates. She went on to win the nonpartisan runoff election against Sheriff Charles Dodge, who had led in the first round of balloting by only twenty-five votes. Although many campaigns stop their intense efforts on election eve, Shell persisted through election day; her grass roots volunteers walked door to door until the polls closed on election night.
Early in the term, a second tragedy occurred when daughter Meredith died at the age of twenty-two of cardiac arrest caused by medications. And Dick Hosking died thereafter.
As mayor, Shell promoted civic self-esteem. She reached out to the minority community. She chided NBC Tonight Show host Johnny Carson for his reference to "beautiful downtown Bakersfield" (Carson also referred to Burbank, though his remarks were not considered malicious). “I tried to get Johnny Carson to come here and see for himself [the improvements in Bakersfield]. He never made it," Shell remembers.
A partial list of her accomplishments included:
(2) Establishing a committee of veteran’s organizations to build a memorial to Medal of Honor recipient Larry Pierce of Bakersfield and to all from Kern County who served in the Vietnam War. The memorial is located at the county courts building.
(3) Creating the Bakersfield Historical Preservation Commission
(4) Establishing the annual Bakersfield Prayer Breakfast
(5) Serving on the California Local Government Task Force under appointment from Republican Governor George Deukmejian
In 1985, Shell vacated the office of mayor, having been elected to the first of three four-year terms on the also nonpartisan Kern County Board of Supervisors. As a supervisor, she also served two years as chairman of the agriculture committee of the California State Association of Counties and as a subcommittee chairman of the National Association of Counties Agriculture Committee. She represented Kern County on the San Joaquin Valley air pollution control district. After her tenure as a county supervisor, Shell did consulting work for individuals having difficulty with government bureaucracy and regulations.
In her first election as supervisor from a predominantly minority district in southeastern Bakersfield, Shell defeated Richard Ybarra, a son-in-law of Hispanic labor organizer Cesar Chavez, 52.4-47.5 percent. She was unopposed in 1988. In 1992, after redistricting, her district became even more prominently Hispanic and Democratic in orientation with the inclusion of the Arvin and Lamont neighborhoods. Shell still polled 61.2 percent of the vote against Ray Gonzales and another candidate. She did not seek a fourth term in 1996, and the position went to Peter "Pete" Parra.
Shell is known for her trademark straw hat, boots and overalls. While in office, she personally hosted many social gatherings and joined constituents in cleaning up litter-strewn lots. Out of office, she did consulting work for individuals and companies having problems with the bureaucracy of government.
When asked her most memorable accomplishment in office, Shell replied that it was the diversion of grant funds to establish a lighted soccer field in an underserved area of the city and the coordination undertaken for an American Youth Soccer Organization program. Shell recalls having stopped at McDonald’s restaurant one day. A young woman followed her out to say, "Thank you so much – my brother was headed for trouble. Having the soccer field in our neighborhood made a difference. He joined AYSO and changed his life."
In their later years, Joe and Mary K. Shell became a political "power couple" in Bakersfield and were often sought out for advice and friendship by aspiring Republican candidates for office. At the funeral of Joe Shell on April 11, 2008, former Kern County Sheriff Carl Sparks recalled that "when I ran for sheriff people told me, ‘The first thing you gotta do is go see Mary and Joe.' That he was willing to see you at all and talk to you as a person was a privilege.
Shell is honored through the naming of the Mary K. Shell Journalism Scholarship and the Mary K. Shell Mental Health Facility in Bakersfield. As was her husband, she is a member of the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Bakersfield.
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