Monday, April 14, 2008

Happy 50th, Mom and Dad (reprinted from June 1997)

In addition to celebrating Father's Day this weekend, the Shealys will be observing another occasion: the 50th Wedding Anniversary of our parents, Ryan and Elsie Shealy.

Ryan and Elsie Shealy -- who we usually refer to as "Mom & Dad" -- have been fairly well-known here in the local community… he with a political career which began in the 1950s and lasted into the 90s, and she with a successful career that led her to travel the nation as a motivational speaker. They are not only well-known, but well-liked and well-respected (leading to the obvious question which you, the reader, are probably struggling with in your mind right now: "So what happened to YOU?"

But that's a whole 'nother story.) As the second-born of their five children, I am understandably proud of my folks on this occasion. But as a newspaper writer I have an additional reaction: Hey, this is a GREAT story!

The truth is, I got both my political and my newspaper roots from my parents. Many times I've told the story of Dad's first run for the State House of Representatives in 1954, when I was first exposed to political campaigns. Since Mom attended all the political stump meetings to support Dad, and I was only six months old at the time, they came up with the very creative idea of putting "Vote for Pop" sign on my diapers, making me a political advertisement, of sorts. At six-months-old, I was cute…and Dad won the race!

It was my first experience in political campaigns. My newspaper roots probably took hold even before that. While they were still a struggling young couple, Dad worked three jobs to help put himself through college. One of those jobs was newspaper carrier. And when I was born in December 1953, Dad went out and collected his delivery route a little early to scrape together enough money to get me out of the hospital. I figure that episode was my earliest involvement in the newspaper industry.

That's when MY story began, but the Ryan and Elsie story started long before that. Growing up at the site of the still-under-construction Lake Murray, Elsie Porth was the youngest of five children in her family, and the first to go to college. She graduated from Columbia College and immediately took a job teaching high school.

Ryan, on the other hand, grew up plowing behind a mule to help support his family, his adoptive father having died when he was very young. He quit Batesburg-Leesville High School to get a job at the Charleston Naval Yard, later enlisting in the Navy during World War II.

Returning from the war, he decided to return to high school to prepare for college. It was there that Ryan met Elsie… his high school math teacher. But when the teacher and student began to date, the school administration was not amused. Elsie gained her soon-to-be husband, but lost her teaching job! She quickly found another teaching job, but the early years continued to be a struggle for the young couple as he completed his education.

In addition to his other jobs, he found that he could earn $25 to $100 per fight as a boxer, a talent he had discovered in the Navy. So once or twice a month, they would drive to various cities around the Southeast to engage in the sport of Professional Boxing. He ended his career after 33 pro fights with a record of 22 and 11.

In the early fifties, a sales manager for an encyclopedia company wanted to hire Ryan as a door-to-door salesman. Learning that Elsie was a teacher, he invited her to come along to the training class. Reluctantly, she attended but sat in the back of the room so she could slip out the door and leave. But something she heard in the class caught her attention! The sales manager mentioned a program which guaranteed earnings whether you sold any encyclopedias or not…just for showing books to 50 people!

Knowing she had several dozen aunts and uncles, she took the job selling World Book Encyclopedia. Now its 50 years and five children later. Things have changed. The couple which had to scrape together money to get their first son out of the hospital is now able to afford to take the entire family on a 50th Anniversary Cruise to the Bahamas… and pay for everyone!!!

The job Elsie took with World Book turned it into a career. When she retired several years ago, she was one of the top five officers in the organization: Senior Vice President for Sales for the North American continent. She was a sought-after motivational speaker, and in the late 1980's was selected as the South Carolina Mother of the Year.

After retiring from World Book, she spent five years speaking to various groups and organizations around the nation and in several other countries.

Ryan left newspaper delivery and pro boxing in favor of politics, serving 12 years in the S.C. House, leaving office for 12 years, then serving 12 years in the S.C. Senate. During his recent Senate years, he was best known for his unsuccessful one-man crusade to bring a lottery to South Carolina, and his successful efforts to block various tax increases. (Long forgotten are the earlier efforts during the 1950's and 60's, which led to the creation of such institutions as the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, Lexington Medical Center, Riverbanks Zoo, and Midlands Technical College.)

If I sound like a proud son… well, I am. But, of course, this is a newspaper column, not an Anniversary Card (although it may save me the 50 cents I would otherwise spend on a card).

And since it is a column, not a card, I thought I would tell you a few of my personal favorite highlights from Ryan and Elsie's First 50 Years:

We lost on Family Feud… TWICE! During the 80's our family appeared not once, but twice, on the TV game show. We were really not very good, but apparently the producers enjoyed watching the way we lost, so they flew us back out to California to watch us lose again!

In 1959, Dad waterskiied from Columbia to Charleston… while Mom was out of town. I was five at the time. He told me not to tell Mom. Guess he didn't realize it was going to be printed in every newspaper in the state!

A few years later our family -- three kids at the time -- took a two day adventure down the river from Columbia to Charleston in a cabin cruiser. We got lost in the rice fields, and ended up ten miles from the river. Nowadays, I think about it every time I see "African Queen."

In addition to Family Feud, Dad also once appeared on "The Price is Right." He won some furniture. The whole family was in New York City at the time. Being about seven years old, I was a lot more impressed with (A) the Auto-Mat (B) sitting in the audience for "Concentration," and realizing that there were APPLAUSE signs telling the audience when to clap!

Mom likes to talk, and she's really good at it. Her company asked her to be the keynote speaker at her own retirement program. It was at some really big theatre in Atlanta. They had Zig Ziglar to speak before her, and singer Lee Greenwood to close the program after her speech. She's a really good talker.

In 1965 our family took a vacation by car to California… right through the desert. The day before we left, Dad bought a new car for the trip… well, new to us, anyway. It was a three-seater station wagon with the fold-down door in the back. We folded down the back and stacked the luggage on it. Then I rode in the back seat while Mom and Dad rode in the front and my two sisters rode in the middle. It was hot going through the desert. It wasn't until a few days after we returned from the two week trip that I discovered this car had something I had never seen before… air conditioning. (The front and middle seats had it for the whole trip… but the cool air never made it to me with the back open. I didn't have a clue!)

At a campaign speech in Pelion in 1956, Dad did something which had never been done by a Southern politician before: He publicly denounced the Ku Klux Klan.

It made headlines. It cost him votes. He knew it was not a politically wise thing to do. But he knew it was the right thing to do. And so he did it.

That was the principle which guided him through four decades of politics. He didn't really worry about what people said or what newspapers wrote. He just always tried to do the right thing.

I happen to know that is also the principle that guided Mom and Dad through the 50 years of marriage, and 48 years of being parents. And that, more than anything else, is why I am immensely proud of them.

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad.

(Note from Rod: This column was original written in 1997... probably before I had even heard of "The Internet"... but I wanted this long forgotten column to be available on my blog. We lost Dad to cancer in March, 2001. Mom is the same great mom she's been for my entire life. I was blessed with the two best parents I could imagine.)

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