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Spring 2001
The Last Man of Letters
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John, 5, with sisterBut this is not where the story begins. It begins in Shanghai, China, where John was born to missionary parents. A sickly child, at age 3 he overheard the doctor telling his parents, "You'd best prepare for not seeing John anymore." He grew up in the native quarter of the ultimate international city, learning more, it seems, from his Chinese amah and cook than from his Presbyterian mother and father.

His earliest lessons were in the value of being a chameleon. He could trade insults in the Wu dialect with local Chinese urchins as easily as he could perform the role of proper Presbyterian son. At 19, he found himself in the San Gabriel Valley, attending Occidental College during the week and Pasadena's exclusive country clubs on weekends.

John Espey did go on to represent California in the Rhodes Scholar class of 1935. He left his undergraduate work at the school he affectionately called "Oxy" to become a fellow of Oxford's Merton College - a Merton Man - another of the roles he would fill gracefully, and with self-deprecating humor, throughout his life.

It was at Oxford that John became the man he was to be - Cecil Rhodes' ideal of the scholar who loved to learn, the man who could be unselfish, courageous and kind, the one who would, always, take an interest in his fellows. He also did his share of refined partying, drinking copious amounts of sherry and playing intricate pranks on his English classmates. He added his own twist to Rhodes' ideal, a dry sense of humor that would infect his scholarship, his writing, and his friendships.

John returned to California with a B.Litt. from Oxford, a degree that would provide him with his share of explaining to do (since Oxford did not confer doctorates on those who studied English language and literature, but rather its own quirky degree, one that didn't translate into the academic world of the United States).

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