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September-October 2015

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In Memoriam: John Shannon (1931–2015)

John Meeks Shannon, museum director, historian, and longtime fixture in the Denver and Tucson mineral shows, passed away in Lakewood, Colorado, on 4 March 2015. He was born in Pampa, Texas, to Cleo Almyra Olive and John Edwin Shannon on 12 October 1931.

Although most in the mineral community knew John for his tenure as a museum director and pursuits in mining history and scientific instruments, he was also an accomplished musician. He clearly fit the definition of a “Renaissance man,” with expertise in musical endeavors, earth sciences, and mining history; in short, he excelled in everything he tackled. John obtained a bachelor's degree in music education in 1955, and following military service from 1955 to 1957 (as a First Lieutenant artillery officer at the Fifth Army Headquarters in Chicago), he obtained a master's degree in music education in 1962. He served as band director in several Louisiana high schools, and after moving to Colorado in 1977, he was a band director in high schools in Sterling and Northglenn.

John continued his education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he received a master's degree in basic science in 1975 with an emphasis in geology. The family moved to Lakewood, Colorado, in 1977, and he accepted a position as director of the Geology Museum at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM). His interest in mining history and minerals was manifested in the many weekends that were spent with the family exploring old mining districts along Colorado's Front Range and central mountains. John had a special interest in the mining history of Leadville, one of his favorite haunts. Utilizing his own extensive library to support his historical research, John and his wife, Geraldine (Gerry), wrote a benchmark article on the district that appeared in the Colorado III issue of Mineralogical Record (Shannon and Shannon 1985).

A companion article in the Colorado III issue, coauthored by John (Jacobson, Shannon, and Mast 1985), documented the collections at the Geology Museum. The issue's cover photo featured minerals from the CSM collection and artifacts (many of which in fact were in John's private collection) and set an artistic precedent that was copied even as late as 2014, when an exhibitor at the 2014 Pacific Northwest Mineralogical Symposium recreated the layout of minerals and instruments as depicted on the cover.

As director at CSM, John was responsible for the placement of outstanding exhibits of not only minerals, but also mining artifacts and scientific instruments in the museum, a reflection of his own knowledge and interests. He also oversaw construction of the “Guild Mine Tunnel,” a re-creation of an underground mine by members of the Denver Gem and Mineral Guild, a local earth sciences organization. In later years the thematic elements of this tunnel were replicated in the museum when it was moved to a new facility in the General Research Laboratory building. These activities were conducted while continuing his musical interests as director of the CSM Orediggers band and local choirs.

I was fortunate to accompany John on several field trips to Leadville. In addition to scouring various mine dumps, we visited several sites of former assay offices that were ferreted out by searching old insurance records; although we found cupels, scorifiers, and crucibles, we never did find an assay balance! It was a true pleasure to be with John in the field—there was never a hint of the competitiveness so often noted with collectors.

Following his tenure at CSM, in 1987 John accepted a position as curator at the Leadville National Mining Hall of Fame, staying at a local motel a few days each week to eliminate a long daily commute. As curator he played an instrumental role in organizing the mining and mineral exhibits to the level that they are today. The museum's director at that time commented about John's “in-depth knowledge of rocks and minerals, as well as [his] being a talented writer and enthusiastic history buff” (Carl Miller, pers. comm., 2015). John's tenure there extended for several years, ending by about 1990.

In the late 1980s, John and Gerry established their own business that they named “The Irish Rovers.” It focused on mining artifacts, antique scientific instruments, and minerals, with assay balances being a specialty. A remarkable trait of John's was that his business model did not entail extracting the highest possible price for his merchandise—he was satisfied to make a fair but not exorbitant markup. My many philosophical discussions with him on matters pertaining to scientific instruments often ended with his comment that “There's too darn much money out there!” As a part of the business, he was a fixture at both the Denver and Tucson mineral shows for many years. In addition, from 1991 to about 1998, he was manager of the Executive Inn Show at Tucson (one of the Martin Zinn Expositions), where he was set up in the suite at the end of the first-floor corridor, next to Uli Burchard.

More than anything, John excelled in the history, manufacture, and construction of the assay balance, having published with Gerry (Shannon and Shannon 1999) an iconic and definitive book on this instrument. This magnum opus was a years-long effort and is considered an indispensable and expert resource on the subject. It is regarded as the definitive work on assay balances; the hardback version is now hard to find and commands high prices on the Internet. He also became an expert in restoring assay balances, having developed skills that included complete disassembly and the demanding task of re-lacquering the wood with a French polish. He assembled arguably one of the world's finest collections of assay balances, with examples ranging from Denver companies to European makers, and from portable to full-sized balances, all of exquisite quality and construction. John's passion for collecting did not end with balances; he also assembled an extensive collection of exceptional blowpipe outfits, including an important Freiberg multidrawer compendium.

In the years following his retirement, John continued his musical pursuits, playing in the Denver Pops Orchestra (aka the Mostly Strauss Orchestra) and serving as assistant conductor, board director, and president of the board of directors. Although he primarily played the oboe, he was also proficient on the clarinet and English horn. His fellow musicians regarded him as a gentleman, mentor, and role model for other orchestra members.

Without question, John was one of the most honorable individuals I have had the pleasure of knowing; he set a high bar for integrity in his dealings and left important benchmarks in the history of mining and assay balances. He is survived by his wife Gerry (whom he married in 1953), daughters Vina Bridge and Nancy Kathleen Kalix, and grandson Collin Bridge. His passing is a great loss to both the mineralogical and musical communities.


Jacobson, M. I., J. M. Shannon, and V. Mast. 1985. The geology museum, Colorado School of Mines. Mineralogical Record 16:239–47.

Shannon, J. M., and G. C. Shannon. 1985. The mines and minerals of Leadville. Mineralogical Record 16:171–201.

Shannon, J. M., and G. C. Shannon. 1999. The assay balance: Its evolution and the histories of the companies that made them. Lakewood, CO: Privately published.

Daniel E. Kile is scientist emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey and a research associate at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.       

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