I’ve been blessed to have more than my fair share of heroes—people I admire, respect, trust completely … love. I was a Daddy’s girl, and he was the first dragon slayer in my life. But when I was seven years old, I met the man who would become larger than life … larger even than Roy Rogers, my first childhood crush. A man who would be forever in a class by himself, who would become a true, lifelong hero.
His name was Will Shively. “Mr. Shively” to me. Always. Even when I reached the age when I too was an adult, I just couldn’t make the switch to Will. Growing up, I was never allowed to call adults by their first names. My dad, a military officer, impressed upon me from the very beginning that “Mr.” and “Mrs.” was a sign of respect. As I think on it now, I’m wondering if he was always Mr. Shively to me because that respect, that esteem, that veneration ran so deep that calling him by his first name would have been almost sacrilege.
He called me Sis. I wasn’t anybody’s sister in those days. It would be years before I would have a little brother. But I believe our relationship was such that he too needed something more than what everyone else called me. Something special, just between us. And so I was “Sis” to him for life.
In 1962 we were transferred to the Naval Annex in Bermuda. Navy housing wasn’t ready for us when we arrived just before Thanksgiving, and so we lived at the Sugar Cane Guest House on the west end of the island. And we were pretty much bored out of our minds in the evenings. There were no televisions in the guest rooms. We would sometimes sit in the lobby after dinner and watch television there … but there was only one station and it only broadcasted from 7PM to midnight.
Then one evening we noticed a commotion in the dining room. People were moving tables and chairs to clear the floor. And when we heard music, we went to check it out and found the hall filled with folks square dancing to songs (with calls) on a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
And we met Will and Jean Shively. They came over to us right away and introduced themselves. Mr. Shively was also stationed at the Naval Annex, and the two lived within easy walking distance of the hotel. The adults hit it off right away. They invited us over for Thanksgiving, and—as they say—the rest is history. In just a matter of days, I became their “adopted” daughter, and Mr. Shively became my best friend.
He would pick me up on their motor scooter, strap Mrs. Shively’s helmet on me (which hung down over my ears), and secure me in front of him, safe between his arms. On the ride to their home, he would sing to me … and I still remember all the words. Popular songs of the day like “Blowing in the Wind,” “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Puff, the Magic Dragon” were my favorites. (Could he possibly have been a Peter, Paul & Mary fan?)
Mr. Shively would spend hours reading to me, usually books on American history. He and Mrs. Shively bought me stacks of books for Christmas and birthdays, and thus began my habit of never leaving home without a book. I still have every one.
A little sidebar on Mrs. Shively. She too was amazing and taught me so much—how to thread a needle and sew simple stitches, the rudiments of cooking—how to measure ingredients, follow a recipe—and how to share. I could have either the beaters or the bowl. She was the cook; she got a treat, too. That was something new for me. As an only child, I always got the beaters AND the bowl. We would sit together in the kitchen, me with whichever one looked like it had the most leftover batter, she with the other, licking away contentedly. She was a creative and loving woman, a bit kooky, and would be a wonderful mom a few years later. (Sadly, she passed away about four years ago.)
But Mr. Shively—ah, how I loved that man. We would spend hours together—just the two of us—swimming, diving off the coral reefs, walking, fishing, scraping barnacles off the bottom of the little rowboat he and Dad owned together … and reading. Always reading. I wrote my first poetry for him.
He was my dad’s best friend, so I often had to share him. But when it was just the two of us (usually with Mrs. Shively off cooking, sewing, knitting …), I was on top of the world. I don’t know that I had ever before felt like a real person — a person of interest, of value … that I could be loved for myself. That someone could choose to love me … to think I was worthy of time and attention.
When I was 12-1/2 years old and my little brother Matthew Gordon Worley was born (Gordon was Mr. Shively’s middle name), Mr. Shively wrote me a letter I still treasure. We lived in San Diego, and Dad was overseas at the time. Mr. Shively reminded me to help Mama; she would be relying on me heavily with a newborn in the house. Then he wrote that I was growing up, becoming a young lady … and the time would soon come when I would have many friends and interests. Our relationship would change, and I wouldn’t need him as much anymore. He said he understood, and that it was right and good that it be that way.
He was wrong. It’s true we didn’t write as much, and sometimes a couple of years would go by when we didn’t talk. But my first solo vacation as a 19-year-old was to Washington state to visit him. He came to my too-young wedding … and was there for me when divorce came. I took my son to meet him when Jeremy was 10 years old, and I was thrilled to see their heads bent low over stamps and coins, which they both collected.
Email came along and communication got a little easier, a little more often. And my love for him grew deeper and deeper. I realized the influence, the impact he had on my life. Reading. History. Music. Writing. He wasn’t a writer, but I came to love words through all those books, all that reading. Fifty years later, I can still hear his deep voice rumbling softly as we pored over books together.
And now he’s gone. Just a week ago, he succumbed to illness that took him too quickly. And I am lost. Devastated. I had written to him recently, and his sweet daughter, Susann, told me she read my letter to him, and he listened with great emotion. I tried to tell him how much he still meant to me, how much I loved him, what an everlasting influence he was in my life … but it doesn’t seem like enough.
It was an honor and a privilege to know him. An unspeakable blessing to have him in my life, to be his friend and his little girl.
Rest in peace, my dear, dear friend, my hero. You have my love and devotion always. I look forward to seeing you again.