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Prof’s Disappearance Unsettles a Community

Times Staff Writer

The last time friends saw retired UC Davis sociology professor John Finley Scott was nearly four months ago when the 72-year-old bicycle pioneer and resident contrarian tooled away from a local bistro on his beloved two-wheeler.

Scott fired off a few e-mails over the next few days but then went silent. After friends reported him missing, Yolo County sheriff’s deputies went to his rural ranch home, where they found blood in the bedroom and foyer but no sign of a body.

Initial investigation has focused on a handyman with a criminal record whom Scott hired to trim trees on his property.

The handyman, Charles Kevin Cunningham, 47, is in state prison for violating parole over earlier narcotics, weapon and stolen-property convictions, Yolo County Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Monroe said Friday. According to state testimony, Cunningham went to a bank in Woodland, just north of Davis, the first week of June and cashed a check that Scott had earlier reported stolen. In the absence of a body or weapon, however, the case has not been classified as a homicide.

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Scott’s disappearance in early June has unsettled this insouciant university town, which he helped make into one of America’s bicycle bastions -- the first in the country to have designated bike lanes on city streets. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Scott battled highway lobbyists in Sacramento to maintain bicyclists’ rights on state roads. Last year Davis, which has 52 miles of bicycle greenbelts, played host to the International Cycle History Conference. Scott was one of the organizers.

“John Finley Scott going missing has shocked the whole bicycle community here,” said city transportation official Timothy Bustos. “For many years he was one of the most vocal bicycle advocates in the country.”

An outspoken political conservative in a famously liberal college town, Scott has also been a well-known local character -- who could casually quote German philosophers to his colleagues but preferred to hang out with daredevil mountain bikers in the wilderness.

Northern California mountain bikers revere him as their leading intellectual and one of their founding fathers.

“He is our eminence grise,” said Jacquie Phelan, founder of the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society, a Marin County mountain biking club also known as the WOMBATS. “He is a loquacious, learned gentleman who was one of the forefathers of the fat tire revolution.”

In 1953, Scott built what is now believed to be one of the first prototypes of the modern mountain bike. He later helped fund the early career of legendary bike racer and designer Gary Fisher.

“He was a guy who believed in us,” Fisher said.

Both Fisher and Scott are featured in “Klunkerz,” a new documentary by first-time director Billy Savage that traces the origins of mountain biking to a small group of off-road enthusiasts from Marin County.

Savage, who interviewed Scott last year, said he hopes his movie, scheduled to premiere Oct. 8 at the Mill Valley Film Festival, will do for mountain biking what “Riding Giants” and “Dogtown and Z-Boys” did for surfing and skateboarding, respectively.

“He was hugely influential in this sport. He was 20 years ahead of everyone else,” said Savage, of Los Angeles. “I spent a year in the editing room looking at him and marveling over what he said. When I found out he was missing, it was like a kick in the gut.”

For many years Scott drove around the state in a double-decker London bus that he customized into a mobile mountain-bike touring vehicle. He had it fitted with the personalized license plate “HOMERIC.”

In the politically correct world of Davis, the “nuclear-free” Sacramento suburb that rivals Berkeley in left-leaning orthodoxy, Scott delighted in playing devil’s advocate.

Friend Ben Timmons, a UC Davis computer specialist, recalls that Scott’s last soapbox conversation before pedaling off into the night June 1 was a strident defense of conservative columnist Ann Coulter at a gathering of fellow academics at Davis’ Bistro 33 restaurant.

“Not that he really cared about Coulter,” said Timmons, “but he loved what happened when you threw a rock in that liberal bush.”

Born in Berkeley and raised in Stockton, the 5-foot-8, blue-eyed academic received his undergraduate degree in 1957 from Reed College in Portland and later studied at Stanford University and UC Berkeley, where he received his doctorate in 1965. His marriage the same year to a Berkeley business school student ended in divorce in 1986. The couple had no children.

Academically, Scott was known for his work on the role of college sororities in maintaining class and marriage patterns. In 1967, he wrote the textbook “Internalization of Norms: A Sociological Theory of Moral Commitment,” published by Prentice-Hall. The book cemented his position at UC Davis, where he later served as chairman of the sociology department.

Despite his success, he was a controversial figure on campus because of his combative style.

“Scott was as happy as he could be in the middle of a confrontational argument,” recalled Carl Jorgensen, an associate professor of sociology who worked with him for two decades. “He got into a lot of conflict with other faculty, attacking feminists and describing vegetarians as ‘white-meat virgins.’ ”

On several occasions, Jorgensen said, the faculty met with the intent of confronting Scott about his behavior. But each time, he said, the confrontation was avoided because students who studied under the challenging professor spoke so glowingly of him.

“He made antagonizing comments about feminists and liberals,” said Jorgensen, a specialist in race relations. “But on the other hand he had these students -- including black students and female students -- whom he was really helping.”

Scott’s love of the outdoors and of California’s mountains began at an early age. He was devoted to the work of photographer Ansel Adams and loved to hike.

In 1957, when he was a 23-year-old graduate student at Stanford, Scott wound up on the front page of the Los Angeles Times after he had a near-fatal accident while hiking to North Palisade above Kings Canyon National Park.

Scott was attempting to climb the 14,242-foot peak when he fell off a 40-foot drop, breaking both legs and his right wrist and suffering multiple head and internal injuries.

A daring rescue by volunteer helicopter pilots from Edwards Air Force Base saved his life. “He could never live through a pack trip out of here,” said physician Henry Jakes, who examined him at the scene.

By then, Scott had started experimenting with off-road bicycles.

“I built my first off-road bicycle in 1953, using balloon tires, an American single-top-tube frame, a single chain wheel on a one-piece crank,” he wrote in a 1984 letter to California Bicyclist magazine.

Because his injuries limited his ability to hike long distances, he turned more and more to the nascent world of off-road bicycling.

“It certainly moved him further along in that direction,” recalled longtime friend Vance Sprock.

Scott began buying imported frames and parts from Cupertino Bike Shop in the Silicon Valley and in 1960 developed his “Woodsie,” a lighter-weight off-road bike that was the immediate precursor to the modern mountain bike.

In 1980, Scott bought the Cupertino shop, which he used to finance and sell mountain bikes created by Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly, Tom Ritchie and other top designers. In 1989, he sold the shop to Sprock.

According to his niece, Cathy Clark, 42, of Oahu, Hawaii, Scott spent time in recent years pursuing his photography.

“He was in good health, particularly after a knee replacement a couple of years ago,” she said. “When I last heard from him in late May, he had just returned from Yosemite, car camping in his SUV.”

The last person known to have communicated with Scott was longtime friend Wendy Palmer, 53, a special education teacher and veteran of many of Scott’s double-decker bus biking jaunts.

“He e-mailed me on the morning of June 3,” Palmer said. “We had been discussing taking a trip to Yosemite, but it kind of got left hanging. It was very, very unlike him not to stay in touch.”

After several trips to the house, Palmer called police June 11 and reported Scott missing.

Two days later, Scott’s 1996 Casita travel trailer disappeared.

Investigators got a break when a Wells Fargo branch in Woodland reported that Cunningham had cashed a $300 check. Bank officials said Scott had reported the check stolen June 1.

Confronted by investigators, Cunningham led them to the missing Casita trailer, which he had stored on a rural property outside town. A convicted felon, he was charged with unlawful use of a vehicle and receiving stolen property.

At a preliminary hearing June 30, a Sheriff’s Department deputy said Cunningham at first denied taking the trailer but later admitted the theft, saying he needed a place to stay. Yolo County sheriff’s investigator Lance Faillet testified that Cunningham told him, “I was stupid and drunk that night.”

Cunningham was returned to prison on parole violations. The trailer-related charges were dismissed without prejudice Aug. 28 on a motion from the Yolo County district attorney.

County officials refused to confirm publicly that Cunningham remains a suspect, although they said that they are making headway in the case and that the banking transactions are considered key evidence.

“At any rate, he’s not going anywhere,” Monroe said. “He’s in custody for at least another year.”

Meanwhile, Scott’s family and friends are adjusting to the idea that the pedaling professor is probably dead.

“I really hate that he is going to be remembered for a grisly, rude end,” said Phelan, his friend and fellow cyclist. “Such a contrast from the affability, gentility and professionalism of his entirely civilized, if occasionally on-the-fringe, life.”

rone.tempest@latimes.com


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