Friday, February 20, 2009

Bob Shetterly, the only liberal in Levy County

I recently went digging through files I haven't looked at in years—and I learned something slightly sad that I never knew. More about that after a newspaper article and a snippet from a second one:

from the St. Petersburg Times, Monday, March 7, 1966: Section B, Page 1
Florida Report: Levy Liberal Unusual
by Bob Stiff, Times State Editor
Florida is noted for many unusual things, but Bob Shetterly is one of the most unusual of all. He’s a liberal who lives in Levy County.

There is nothing quite so rare as a liberal in Levy County, a north Suncoast county of perhaps 14,000 persons.

Shetterly didn’t start out as a liberal. He places himself at somewhere between a moderate and a conservative when he moved to Levy County about nine years ago, but even that proved quite liberal for the political spectrum of this area of Florida.

Owner and operator of Dogland, a U.S. 19 tourist attraction in Suwannee River, Shetterly recalls, “I noticed things after I had been here for awhile, but I just kept my mouth shut. Then I saw how Negroes were being treated around here and the many injustices there were in many areas so I opened my big mouth.”

“And he hasn’t closed it since,” his wife adds.

Shetterly, frying chicken at the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise restaurant he operates in conjunction with Dogland and a self-service gasoline station, agrees with a hearty laugh.

People in Chiefland approach Mrs. Shetterly and say, “You don’t believe in all those things your husband says, do you Mrs. Shetterly? I just can’t believe you do because you’re too nice a lady.”
“I tell them, ‘up to a point,’ and I tell him (motioning to her husky husband) that he talks too much.”

Shetterly has joined civil rights pickets in Gainesville, spoken up for equal rights at every conceivable meeting place in Levy County and is a tireless writer of letters to the editor columns of area daily and weekly newspapers espousing his many causes.

This wins him the same popularity among his neighbors that might be accorded Martin Luther King.
One former friend says it this way:

“Now, Bob is always talking the way he does at every meeting around here and every time, there’s somebody around to listen—even if it’s only one or two people—and we don’t mind that. He goes over to Gainesville to picket with the colored people and writes all those letters to the newspapers and we don’t mind that either. He don’t convince us any and we don’t convince him, but he believes that way and it’s okay.

“But now he done something that has really cut it. This is a religious community here and the folks didn’t like it none when the Supreme Court came out with the thing against prayin’ in the schools. The kids had always said a little prayer at school and just kept on doing it because what harm was there in it really?

“Well, Bob, he goes over to the School Board and tell them they’ve got to quit prayin’. Now folks didn’t take to that at all and I don’t think Bob’s got three friends left this whole county. He brung it on himself.”

Shetterly regrets the prayer issue. “I didn’t want to get into this, but we’re Unitarians and I just didn’t want my kids having to say those prayers every morning. The Supreme Court said it’s wrong and it’s the law of the land. If we break this law by ignoring it, which law will we do this with next?

“I went to the principal and he said I ought to go to the superintendent. I went to him and he seemed to be agreeable, but said it ought to be brought up to the School Board. So I did.

“One member wanted to just stop the prayers in the classrooms where my children were and that really would have satisfied me. But he couldn’t even get a second to his motion and then somebody said the law isn’t meant for atheists and Unitarians and I got my back up.”

Shetterly says he gets blamed for everything now. “If a Negro traveling to Miami from New Jersey stops at a restaurant in Chiefland, everyone figures I must have sent him. I don’t want any trouble. I just want everybody to operate under the same laws.”

When the powerfully built Shetterly walks down the street, few acknowledge his cheery “Good Morning.” His children have lost most of their playmates. He receives many unsigned threatening letters and middle-of-the-night obscene telephone calls. But he persists.

One of Shetterly’s latest letters says:

“Some people in the community still believe I am responsible for CORE and the NAACP being in our area. As I understand it they are here for four reasons. (1.) More than a dozen restaurants in Levy County have been reported as failing to comply with the law. (2.) There are no Negroes in the Chiefland school and there are Negroes riding a bus more than 50 miles daily to a school in Williston. (3.) There is a low percentage of Negroes registered to vote and few, if any, on the jury roll. (4.) There is no Negro or biracial organization in the county to reflect the views of the approximately 33 per cent of our population that is Negro.

“I can accept no responsibility for any of these conditions. These organizations are not kept out by force or threats. They are kept out by working to eliminate the conditions that would bring them.
“I have done everything I could to take steps that would have effectively prevented their becoming active in this area. My restaurant obeys the law. I actively tried to get at least token Negro enrollment in the Chiefland School. I tried nearly three years ago to get a bi-racial committee set up through the chamber of commerce. I have met quietly with county officials to encourage that Negroes be placed on the jury roll.

“I sincerely believe that had I been even partially successful in my efforts, CORE and the NAACP would not be active in Levy County today—yet I am the one blamed for their appearance.
“I cannot change my moral commitments to win your approval or to avoid your abuse and curses,” he concludes.

But sticking his chin out this way doesn’t make the Negro community look on him as a leader. The self-educated high school dropout laughs and says, “They think I’m a nut. They never saw a white man carry on this way before. They just don’t know what to think.”

Becoming reflective, Shetterly says, “I never intended it this way. I thought I could change things by reasoning with people and, you know how it is, the more you argue, the more you strengthen your own convictions.

“My arguments aren’t effective anymore. Nobody will really listen because their minds are poisoned against me, but I can agitate. And I’m doing quite a bit of that.”

Asked if he is the only liberal in Levy County, the bespectacled businessman puts down a spatula and says, “Gosh, I guess I am. I’ve never heard of another one anyway.”

Then brightening, he grins. “If you ever find another one, let me know, would you? I can use the help.”

* * *

from the Gainesville Sun, Wednesday, March 9, 1966
Levy School Prayer Issue: Prefers to Let Courts Decide

At a meeting of the board last September, B. E. Shetterly of Chiefland had requested that the board “comply with the law” and eliminate devotionals from the public schools.

It was reported yesterday that Shetterly had taken his children out of the Chiefland school and that they are now living with a relative in Wisconsin and attending school there.

John Peace, School Board attorney, said that since Shetterly has taken his school out of the Chiefland school, the ACLU probably would drop its threat of a suit.

* * *
The sad thing? Dad would have loved to see the ACLU bring that suit. But our family could not get fire insurance because word was out that the Ku Klux Klan would burn us down. He had to choose between his kids and a greater justice. He chose his kids. We were sent to finish the school year in Minnesota (not Wisconsin—all newspaper accounts have errors). If Dad ever had a second thought about that, he never mentioned it.

We left Dog Land after that. The Klan never showed up, maybe because Dad let it be known that he had a shotgun and was prepared to use it. The school was integrated, and the daily prayers ended. Whether that would've happened the same year if Dad had stayed silent, I can't say. All I know is that he was on the side of justice, and I'll always be proud of him.

P.S. I'm just as proud of Mom. She opened some of those letters and answered some of those phone calls and stayed brave before her children.

Around He Goes: Bob Shetterly, oldest solo circumnavigator

Dad left La Paz, Baja California, Mexico, on May 15, 1998, sailed once around the world in a small sailboat, the Vaya, then decided to do it again "now that I know how." He returned to La Paz on his 78th birday, July 9, 2004, then sailed on. His circumnavigations ended at the age of 79; he hurt his leg in the Philippines, gave the boat to the people who helped him there, and flew home to Edmonton in July, 2006, shortly after his 80th birthday.

Before he began his voyages, he wrote his children:
To die in a storm with the adrenalin pumping, fighting for survival, seems far better than anything civilized hospital care has to offer—even a collision at sea would be preferable. If I go unreported, I hope no one starts or creates any search. Ships that run down small boats do not report the fact, even if they are aware of what happened. On the other hand, a coastal wreck is usually reported, unless everything is smashed to bits in surf and rocks. In either event, I see no need to waste anyone's time and effort.To sum up: I am grateful to the Gods and the people who have provided and supported an interesting life. I have many regrets—more for things not done, than for those done badly.
I recognize that this letter is only about my concern, but I am aware of the concern of others. Having made the selfish decision to live out my declining years on my own terms (as much as possible), this letter is simply to try to answer "Why?" and to make it clear the "why" has almost nothing to do with others.
Since he left, he has been sailing solo in a small boat—not so much following the winds as chasing them. He wrecked a 20-foot boat off the coast of Mexico when he was attacked by killer bees, and swore that he would not sail again. He set out on a bicycle from Canada, intending to reach Tierra del Fuego, but he was beaten and robbed in Central America. After a heart attack, a doctor told him that given his age, his diabetes, and his partial deafness, he should take it easy.
Then a friend gave him an old 26-foot, 10,000 pound fiberglass boat built in the 1960s that he named the Vaya. In 1998, he spent 85 days crossing from Baja California to Australia. Near the end of the voyage, his automatic steering failed, so he spent the last days constantly on the tiller, sleeping only for a few hours at a time. His journal notes:
My rear end is suffering from all this sitting, and constantly wet from salt water. Just no way to stay dry in cockpit when wind and waves are up. Using vaseline liberally. Keep thinking of those galley slaves chained to their oars—my situation not comparable, but I'm developing an empathy for them.
My mom met him in Australia. They bought a used camper van and spent the winter seeing the country. In the spring, Dad set out again in the Vaya. His adventures included three nights with the boat on a reef, until a very high tide carried him off. He spent an idyllic month on the Chagos Archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean, then sailed on.

On Sept. 3, 1999, I got a fax:
I am in Mayotte, a French possession. The French-made Navik wind vane steering broke again about 600 miles from here. I consider the self-steering essential for a 73-year-old single-hander. As this was the nearest port, I entered on an emergency base for repairs.
The authorities in Mayotte thought the Vaya's registration papers weren't in order. Dad's response:
I told them if they did not want me, I would leave—they said only after I paid a fine. I said that did not seem right. If someone drives up to the French border and customs does not like the registration papers, they can certainly refuse entry, but it would not seem to me the car could be seized. After I absolutely refused to pay a fine, they are thinking it over and will apparently get back to me in a couple of days. Meanwhile, I am restricted to the boat, and the boat must stay at anchor.Call the Canadian embassy and ask what office I should contact if this nonsense continues.
After a few days and a few phone calls, the authorities decided that life would be much simpler if they let Dad continue his voyage.
He sailed on to South Africa. Mom met him there for some travels on land. In March, he sailed on to St. Helena, and then Tobago, Trinidad, and the coast of Venezuela.

On August 13, he wrote:
Carupano, Venezuela. I must have been sleeping the sleep of the dead, or they must have come on board very quietly, but I woke with a body on top of me and a knife at my throat.There were three young banditos. They soon had me tied hand and foot and pulled up against the entrance-way, with the knife still at my throat. When I realized it was the dull edge of the knife pressing on my neck, my sense of terror receded slightly, but when they demanded "A donde dinero!" (Where is the money!"), I rather quickly indicated where my billfold was. It only contained $15.00 U.S. and about an equal value of Bolivars.
I explained I had been robbed in Trinidad and that was all I had. I also went into my 74-yr.-old bad heart routine. As things calmed down a bit, my courage returned a bit, and I screamed "Ayuda!" ("Help!"). Probably a mistake as it prompted a rather forceful and prompt gagging and manhandling.
I slumped down, more or less semi-conscious, and the young bandito who seemed to be assigned to controlling me loosened the gag. He kept repreating "Tranquilo" ("Quiet").
I said "Si, si," and he quickly removed the gag. I asked for my "medicino" and pointed out that if I died, my problems were over, but mas problemas for them.
As I understood it, the fellow holding me wanted to give the medicine, but the others were ransacking the boat. As best I could, I tried to convince my minder that three young guys robbing an old man was not very heroic, and I began to get the feeling he was not too happy with the situation. After a short time, he shouted something I could not understand, and the other two went barreling past us into the cockpit. He held up the gag and once more said, "tranquilo." I said, "Si, si," and he quickly left without gagging me.
It took me a little while to get myself untied. False teeth are not designed for untying knots. By the time I got to the cockpit, I could not see anything—and still don't know what frightened them off. All things considered, I got off rather lightly. Some bruises in and out of my mouth, and wrists bruised, slightly swollen, but nothing serious.
The list of things taken is rather interesting: all flashlights, 3 amp-meters, binoculars, Sony Walkman, radio-tape player (but not my small or large HF radios), 2 watches, 2 L brandy, 1 fire extinguisher (I had two, one discharged—and that was the one they took), my good hand-held compass (it was mounted in the cabin so I could check course without going out), my blood pressure kit (it was inoperative). When you consider that they handled two hand-held Global Positioning Units, as well as other valuable equipment, the things they took are relatively minor.
Obviously, I will need to start closing and barring the door, despite the lack of fresh air, and begin devising more deterring efforts. Will get fog horn, 12 volt, with switch by bed, so that once turned on will not be easily silenced.
Dad then writes about the next day's discovery, which seems to have been more interesting to him than the robbery:
Saturday I went to the local market... most exciting, one booth was selling tobacco by the leaf, and when I asked about cigars, he produced a bag of 100 for $4 U.S. They are not bad, much better than cheap U.S. made and certainly half as good as $3 Cubans.
(The Cuban cigars Dad refers to were selling for $3 in Cuba, where he spent a winter in the boat that he lost in the killer bee attack. For a man who values a cigar as much as my father does, this may've been the most important thing that happened that week.) He concludes:
Despite the bandito episode, I think I will enjoy Venezuela, as with that one exception, everyone has been very nice.
He went on to Curaçao, where Mom visited him, and then headed through the Panama Canal to finish the Vaya's first trip around the world. A few days after Christmas, he began his second. He sailed on to Pitcairn, Gambier, Raivavae, Tubai, Raratonga—
When you see a small sailboat, think of him.

Bob and the Vaya in Baja California.

Visiting in the Indian Ocean. That's not the yacht's dinghy that Bob and another fellow are on. That's the Vaya.

A visitor at sea.

The burning sea.

Joan and Will near Ensenada, Mexico.

Vaya at sea