John Underhill Oakes was born in Pittsburgh, Penn. on Jan. 10, 1930. He first plunged into the ocean and took off swimming when he was eight years old. His younger brother Bob tried to follow him and almost drowned. Thus started his relationship with the sea. He spent most of his youth growing up in Colorado, where he graduated from Mancos High School after living a portion of his senior year with the Navajo —- a life-changing event.
John became a diver in training with the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. He saw duty as a highly specialized Navy frogman, member of an underwater demolitions team. He also served some time on an aircraft carrier and was just starting flight training when the war ended.
After John returned from Korea, he finished his BA degree in humanities at Colorado State University, where he was also a competitive swimmer. He became a high school teacher, and then pursued a master’s degree in English Language Education at Utah State University. John ran tourists down the Grand Canyon in wooden boats every summer for 20 years. He and a close friend were the only two people to ever swim the Colorado River through the Glen Canyon before the dam covered it forever, creating Lake Powell. John taught in Utah for two years, but then realized after scuba diving in a muddy cow tank that he had to get closer to the water. So in 1962, he moved with his family to the Pacific Northwest to live and teach high school in Hood River, Ore.
John owned one of the first five aqua lungs in the country. In 1967 he became a certified NAUI scuba diving instructor. His number is 982 in an organization of over 30,000 divers today. He personally taught over 500 people to dive. John moved to Micronesia in 1972 to spend two years as the diving officer and marine resources coordinator for the United Nations Trust Territory. While there, John discovered over 40 World War II wrecks, and he salvaged depth charges off of one wreck and the remains of Japanese submariners for the Japanese government off another. During that time, John was free to take pictures. He got started taking photos and kept on going. The sea provided beautiful subject matter for his passion, underwater photography.
Upon returning from Micronesia, John met his wife Lori. He was her scuba diving instructor. They shared a love of the sea and literally fell in love while underwater. They married and moved to Anacortes in 1978 to live even closer to the ocean. While there, John pursued another master’s degree at WWU, this time in cross-cultural education. He designed his own program, combining his love for anthropology and education. In 1983 the couple moved to Alaska to teach school in Hydaburg, a remote Indian village on Prince of Wales Island.
In 1990 the Oakes moved to Orcas Island. The onset of Parkinson’s disease dictated that John retire from his diving activities as well as his teaching career. However, this did not dampen his love of learning. He continued to be an avid reader, a collector of books, and a collector of shells. He also enjoyed displaying his underwater photography at various establishments on Orcas.
Above all, John loved his family. He especially will be missed by his loving wife Lori, son Blair, daughter Buggsie, brother Bob and his brother-in-law Scott. He was preceded in death by his daughter Rebecca. Papa Jack will also be missed by his eight granddaughters: Miriah, Morgan, Kara, Katie, Caitlan, B.J., Victoria, and JoAnn, and two great granddaughters, Alena and Lilia. Rumor has it there is finally a grandson on the way. His constant companions (four chocolate labs) Sugar Bear, Bubba, Bertie, and Maverick are also missing him.
John U. Oakes lived his life with dignity and courage. He always attempted to get the most out of the immediate situation, living life on the razor’s edge. As he said, “Some get cut by it, and some keep coming back for more.” He kept coming back for more. It fed his existence. John passed away at “The Anchorage,” his Orcas Island home on Buck Mountain, on Aug. 28, 2005 at the age of 75.
A celebration of John’s life was held at Emmanuel Episcopal Parish on Sept. 1. The family requests memorial donations be made to Lahari Hospice services on Orcas Island, PO Box 50, Deer Harbor, WA 98243.