GREENFIELD — There is one moment Florence and Tony May will always recall when describing their longtime friend Shelton Oakes.
It was nearly three years ago when the couple was hosting a party to celebrate the arrival of the foreign exchange student who’d come to stay in their McCordsville home for the school year. Oakes attended the gathering to meet the young girl from Vietnam in hopes of making her feel at home in a strange land far away from her family and friends.
Oakes handed the girl a card, the Mays said. Inside he had scribbled a cheerful message in the girl’s native Vietnamese, welcoming her in written phrases she’d most recognize — proof of the lengths Oakes took to make sure people felt comfortable and cared for, his friends said.
Oakes, a longtime school board member and outspoken community leader, lost his battle with lung cancer Tuesday at the age of 65. He leaves behind his wife, Dianna, two children and six grandchildren.
An advocate for fiscal responsibility and transparency, Oakes served on the Mt. Vernon School Board for eight years and worked closely with a group of residents who opposed a controversial annexation in Fortville. He worked for nearly 20 years as an inventory control manager at MacAllister Machinery in Indianapolis.
Oakes’ willingness to fight for the causes he believed were important while fighting cancer was an inspiration to his friends and colleagues, they said. Oakes never let the disease slow him down and continued giving back to the community until his final days, they said.
Oakes was elected to the Mt. Vernon School Board in 2006 after leading an opposition effort the year prior against a building expansion plan carrying a $136 million price tag. He ran his campaign on promises to implement a building plan that better reflected the needs of the school system, and he ultimately helped the board weather a financial crisis before stepping down for health reasons in 2014.
Though his actions were sometimes critical of the district’s leadership, Oakes always had the students’ best interest at heart and wanted to know what impact the board’s actions would have in the classroom before he ever made a decision, said Tony May, who served alongside Oakes during his final term.
Oakes’ critical thinking made him one of the best school board members to fill a seat on the board in recent memory, said Bob Hiday, a former board member. Because Oakes didn’t always agree with his peers, he stimulated lengthy discussion and advocated for common sense decision making.
“He was not afraid of controversy,” Hiday said. “He stood on his own two feet and voted the way he felt.”
In 2013, Oakes helped the Fight Against Forced Annexation (FAFA) organization that fought against the Fortville Town Council’s attempt to expand the town’s western boundary, leader Florence May said. He attended the group’s first meetings to help mentor its leaders on state law and strategic planning. The years-long battle ultimately ended in the group’s favor, and Florence May said she credits that success to Oakes’ leadership in the early days of the fight.
Away from public life, Oakes was a great friend and kind neighbor, Hiday said. Even after they had both left the school board, Oakes would call Hiday to chit-chat and check in, Hiday said.
“He could talk about anything, whether it was ‘60s rock music to latest political topic, he knew a little bit about everything” Hiday said. “He was one-of-a-kind.”