Eulogy for My Father

Eulogy for My Father
Robert Nelson Shigley, June 25, 1924 – May 27, 2010

Mentone Community Church
Mentone, Alabama
May 30, 2010

Daddy was born a few hundreds yards from here in a farm house built around a pioneer log cabin.

It was a time before paved roads or electricity came to the mountain.

His grandmother Melissa’s family, the Keiths, were among the first settlers on this mountain after the cruel expulsion of the Cherokee.

His grandfather, Frank Shigley, came here from Michigan at 18, in 1883, after a barn fire injured his lungs, was one of the first Wesleyan Methodists in Alabama, was a founder of this church, and gave the land for Moon Lake School. The home where Frank and Melissa Shigley finished raising 12 children is the Mentone Community Center.

Dad’s father, Ernest Shigley, Sr., was a country school teacher and skilled carpenter who was called to the Wesleyan Methodist ministry at age 30, the year Dad, the fifth child, was born. He was pastor of this church, built or renovated 32 churches, and was president of the Gulf States Conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. At 84, in the last year of his life, he built the current parsonage at this church.

That’s the heritage that helped to form him.

All his life Daddy told stories of growing up at Mentone during the Depression.
– Raising and preserving by traditional methods their food on the family farm.
– Providing food and shelter (in the barn) to Dust Bowl refugees who came through.
– Wearing patched hand-me-downs from Ernest, Harold and Leonard.
– Hauling syrup cane on a mule wagon to the sorghum mill and corn to the grist mill and as a teenager working for a dollar a day in a saw mill.
– The year the family couldn’t afford for all 5 kids to go to school, so he and Leonard stayed home and rode the bull all over the mountain.
– His older sister Brownie entertained him by making up stories of fantastic journeys in a magic Model T. (She has been in the Father’s house 59 years, and is still missed by all who knew her.)
– Playing baseball in pastures with pine knots for balls and hickory sticks for bats.
– His beautiful Aunt Margaret making a coconut cake for his 4th birthday.
– The excitement when electricity and radio first came to Mentone.
– Going to school at Moon Lake, and enjoying long unsupervised recesses when the kids would run next door to his grandparents’ house, where his grandmother would give them treats of teacakes she kept in a bleached fertilizer bag, sweet potatoes, or biscuits filled with honey.
– Life centered on the church, preaching Sundays rotating between 3 churches, revival meetings, all day singings and dinner on the grounds, and boys walking their best girl home from Sunday night services down dark country roads.
– After finishing their chores on hot summer days, boys went skinny dipping in Little River, and Dad once got covered completely with poison ivy. Another time he and his buddies were in the river when Miss Martha Berry, founder of Berry College, came by in a boat with her entourage. The boys stayed submerged til Miss Berry’s boat had passed.
– All his life he bore a scar on his foot from an incident while chopping kindling barefoot at age 7.

Like several of the Shigley cousins, Daddy went to the Wesleyan Methodist boarding high school at Central, SC, the campus that is now Southern Wesleyan University. (A cousin is here from Central today.) Never one to miss a chance to buck authority, the adolescent rebel found in Central’s strict rules a target rich environment.

In his senior year he dropped out of high school to join the Army against his parents’ wishes. An indifferent student, he was surprised when he knocked the top out of the aptitude test. He entered the Army Air Corps and flew 36 combat missions against Nazi Germany as a B-17 waist gunner based in Foggia, Italy.

Like many veterans he was reticent about his war experiences until old age. Sometimes in recent years I wasn’t sure where fact left off and embellishment began, but I took it all at face value. He told me:
– of harrowing flights through flak-filled skies, seeing other planes in his group shot down;
– of climbing out over an open bomb bay to ratchet loose a load of bombs that was stuck;
– of an emergency landing in Yugoslavia, and being escorted past the German troops to the Adriatic coast where a fishing boat got his crew back to Italy;
– of an incident while on sentry duty, shooting a saboteur who had infiltrated the unfenced airfield;
– at the end of the war, being confronted by the first German jet fighters that were too fast to shoot at, and being saved by the Tuskegee Airmen flying escort in P-51s.

In WWII, everyone got cigarettes rations and bomber crews got whiskey rations after every mission. Rations became addictions and his nemesis, but he sheltered me from it growing up.

After the war and college, Daddy found his way back to Mentone. For a while he was principal at Moon Lake School. He and his brother Leonard built the house I grew up in, Daddy buying a load of materials every payday til it was finished.

When Menlo had both a high school and a red light, he went there to teach and served six years as principal. My parents took the Class of ‘57 to Washington. Some of them are here today. (Show of hands.) I tagged along as a 5 year old mascot.

At Menlo, he helped dirt poor students – children of loggers and sharecroppers – find a way to get into college. One boy from the mountain lived in a cabin with no electricity, and had to study by the dome light of the log truck. Daddy got him into Emory. Delivering him there was my first visit to the Emory campus. I have heard from a number of his former students who say that he changed their lives, even saved their lives.

To maintain order he didn’t always have to speak. The snap of his fingers could be heard all the way down the hall with unmistakable clarity. And when needed, his paddle with holes drilled in it was an effective “board of education.”

Last summer I accompanied Dad to Menlo for a class reunion at a town celebration in the park. He was delighted when former students came up to greet him, some with great-grandchildren in tow.

Growing up at Mentone, and at Menlo School, I worshipped my father with all my heart. He was my hero.

He could be quite a joker. When I proposed to a girl on the playground in second grade, most adults who heard the story just thought it was cute. He saw it as a teachable moment. A few days later in mock seriousness Dad told me her family was building a house next to theirs for the very young couple. I could see my life pass before my eyes. Married at 7, a father at 8! Where was this going? He lectured me about trifling with a girl’s heart.

Two years after Menlo lost its high school in consolidation, we moved away from Mentone. Life would never be the same.

Daddy completed his doctorate at Alabama, and his career took off, as you can read in today’s Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Those of us who loved my father, and who bear him to his rest today, knew a man who was surely not without faults, but who always cared deeply about the less fortunate, whether they were children of sharecroppers at Menlo, special needs children across Georgia, or Indian and Eskimo children in Alaska. I believe that loving spirit came out of his raising here at Mentone, in his family, in this community, and in this church.

But it sometimes seemed that the further he went from Mentone, the further he drifted from his Wesleyan raising.

Toward the end of life, however, he began to gravitate back. In the words of a country song, the roots of his raising ran deep. He came home for visits and talked of moving back here, but realized most of his friends here were gone.

In recent months, as he lingered on the front porch of eternity, Daddy told me many times, “I made a lot of mistakes in my life.” There was confession and repentance. After he entered nursing care this spring, I retrieved his car and when I turned on the ignition, a Blackwood Brothers gospel music CD worthy of any Holy Ghost revival blared out. He cherished visits from our pastors and the hospice chaplain.

Ten days ago, in his last lucid interval, we had our last dinner together at an outdoor restaurant table in the soft light of a May evening. Before I returned from a business trip last weekend, he had slipped into a sleep from which he did not emerge.

Thursday afternoon his soul went home.

The dreams that led him on the journey of a lifetime began here at Mentone, and now we bring back home his earthly remains.

In the final months of his life, Dad’s mind was clouded by illness. That cloud has now lifted. He is himself again – more himself than at any time on this earth.

And as the last flight took him beyond the sunset, and as heaven’s morning broke, I like to think that flights of angels sang him to his rest and that all the trumpets sounded on the other side.

See you later, Daddy.

  • Suzanne Hovastak

    This is a wonderful tribute to your father. I am sure he is proud of you.

  • Eloise Hart Nelson

    Mr. Shigley, Did you now Eloise Hart Temple who owned a girl’s camp in Mentone, AL – Camp Skyline Ranch? Eloise Temple was my aunt and I went to Mentone very summer as a child and teenager. I loved hearing your story! Bless you – I’m voting for you today