During her three years as a Marine back in World War II, Nina Shelley learned never to accept losing, even when the odds are heavily stacked against her.
The feisty, 71-year-old Ojai city councilwoman has been forced to wage many battles with county and state officials over controversial projects on behalf of her city.
And whether it was mobilizing opposition against the proposed Weldon Canyon landfill or rallying support for low-income housing among her City Council colleagues, Shelley has been known to take on every issue with an unmatched fervor.
"I don't even contemplate losing," said the steel-gray-haired Shelley, who had her boot camp training in the Bronx in New York. "You never back off and you never give up. That's what I learned from the Marines."
Although described by allies and foes alike as a meticulous thinker with a candid, get-tough attitude, Shelley sees herself as a kind, gentle person who stands by her strong convictions.
The former retail fabrics business owner was elected to the City Council in November, 1982, and during that time served two one-year terms as mayor. Though Shelley turns 72 later this year, she is already contemplating running for a fourth term to the council in 1994.
"Nelson Mandela is 75 years old and the whole world knows what he's doing, so why should I worry about my age?" Shelley asked. "My purpose is to give Ojai a voice in this county."
Long before being elected to the City Council, Shelley owned a business that made and distributed stickers with her late husband, Henry. Before that, she raised two children while she taught art part-time at Cal State Long Beach.
Shelley has been known to dedicate long hours preparing for and attending various public meetings and functions in Ojai and throughout the county, often working nearly seven days a week.
In addition to her City Council duties, Shelley is Ojai's representative on the Ventura County Waste Commission, Ventura Regional Sanitary District and South Coast Area Transit. She also served six years on the Ojai Valley Sanitary District before stepping down in 1989.
"Nina's a very caring, sensitive person, but at the same time she can be tough and tenacious," Ojai City Manager Andrew Belknap said. "At an age when most people are retired, Nina is going to morning meetings and others late into the night. She's an extremely hard-working person."
Since her election to the City Council, Shelley has become what some have called a powerhouse in county politics, butting heads with several county officials in an effort to stand up for Ojai interests.
Shelley was a key driving force in the derailment of the Weldon Canyon landfill proposed in the Ojai Valley. She opposed the landfill from the proposal's infancy, while enlisting a large corps of residents to rally against it.
She often recalls the time when the California Waste Management board scoffed at her after she traveled to Sacramento in 1985 to voice her opposition to the Weldon Canyon landfill. Her main reason for opposing the landfill was air pollution in the Ojai Valley.
"They didn't take me very seriously," said Shelley of the nine-member board. "They said that my only problem with this site is that it's in my back yard. I said to myself, 'They don't know what I'm capable of doing.' "
After years of countless meetings and concerted protest, Waste Management of North America finally withdrew its application July 9 to operate the landfill, giving Shelley a victory she savors. But her victory did not come without making some enemies along the way.
Shull Bonsall, owner of the land designated for the landfill, called Shelley a "narrow-minded gal" because she opposes "everything in her back yard."
"Now they're talking about shipping the waste to China or Salt Lake City," Bonsall said. "They haven't got another place to go."
Shelley has also gone head-to-head with county Supervisor John K. Flynn, who originally supported the Weldon Canyon landfill, but changed his stance once it became apparent the project would to fail. They differed on that issue, but Flynn said he has the utmost respect for Shelley.
"Nina Shelley is a consistent and persistent force on issues in Ventura County, especially when they relate to Ojai and the valley," Flynn said. "Just because we differed on the Weldon issue doesn't mean I don't respect her. She's a strong fighter, and that's what I like about her."
Shelley also took the controversial stance of supporting the issue of low-income housing in Ojai when many city officials and residents vehemently opposed it.
But she eventually was able to win enough support on the City Council to secure approval of the recently-opened Montgomery Oaks low-income housing project, earning her the nickname "the gentle persuader" among some Ojai residents and city officials.
Shelley has not been afraid to speak out on other county issues, either. She recently voted against a large increase in severance pay for the general manager of the Ventura Regional Sanitation District because of county and state budget cutbacks--an issue she lost.
She was also one of the first Ojai council members to criticize escalating cable television rates, rallying to the defense of the elderly who are homebound and depend on television for information.
"Nina has been a fighter ever since she has been on the council, I'll say that," said Stan Greene, president of Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, who worked with Shelley in opposing the Weldon Canyon landfill. "She's not taken easily by political statements."
Born on a farm in rural Nebraska in 1921, Shelley is the descendant of Swedish and English immigrants who moved to the Great Plains state in the 1860s. At 16, she moved to Washington state to live with her father on an Indian reservation.
After graduating from high school, Shelley went on to attend the University of Washington at Seattle for two years, paying for her own education. She said she reluctantly accepted a job as a draftsman at Boeing Aircraft to help bring in more income.
In 1943, Shelley decided to quit Boeing and enlist in the Marines, becoming part of the first group of women allowed in the military branch.
Upon completion of boot camp at Hunter College in the Bronx, Shelley was sent to Washington, D.C., to serve as a cartographer, gathering intelligence material on the South Pacific and putting it together with maps.
After the war, Shelley moved to Los Angeles, working in various jobs while attending night art classes at Cal State University, Los Angeles. She married in 1952, and nine years later earned her bachelor's degree.
Before she completed a master's degree in Fine Arts in 1966, Shelley gave birth to her son, David, in 1964 and adopted her daughter, Lesley, in 1967. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband started their own business in Santa Monica, nationally distributing self-stick decals.
Shelley and her husband moved north to Ojai in 1971. In 1975 she bought a fabric business that eventually grew into a larger one. Her husband continued to commute to Santa Monica to run their first business. He died of a stroke in 1979.
Shelley became involved in Ojai politics after she took an interest in the city's downtown redevelopment project. She was appointed to the Redevelopment Commission in 1980 and joined the Planning Commission in early 1982. At the urging of several city officials and residents, Shelley ran for council in November that year.
Upon election, she began tackling such issues as low-income housing and a drive to help create an Arts Advisory Council.
"I think she thrives in this role (as a city councilwoman)," Belknap said. "She's been very deliberate in coming to decisions. She likes to hear public testimony and rarely decides things quickly."
"I was elected by the people of this community to watch out for their welfare," Shelley said. "I feel the same about it as when I was raising my children."
Nina Shelley Age: 71 Education: Enrolled University of Washington at Seattle, 1940 to 1941. Cal State Los Angeles, Bachelor of Arts, 1961; UCLA, Master of Arts, 1966. Political Career: Ojai redevelopment commissioner, 1980 to 1981; Ojai planning commissioner, 1982; Ojai City Council member, November, 1982; mayor, Ojai City Council member, November, 1985, to 1986; reelected to second term, Ojai City Council, April, 1986; reelected to third term, Ojai City Council, April 1990; appointed mayor again, Ojai City Council, April, 1990 to 1991. Personal: A native of Lincoln, Neb., Shelley has a son, David, and a daughter, Lesley. She also has two grandchildren.