Sensational Seniors – May 2017

In 2012, a college friend of mine from over 50 years ago co-authored a book on how men can achieve true friendship and set the tone in the introduction by penning, “Whereas women very naturally share themselves with friends through acceptance and self-revealing conversations, men shy away from intimacy.” For this month’s “Sensational Seniors” article, I have chosen Iris Sperry and Shirley Blaul, who demonstrate how to achieve and maintain deep and caring friendships.

Their unique friendship did not happen in childhood but came later in their Jacksonville lives. To gain an understanding of the friendship, it’s important to start with their beginnings. Iris was born on May 3, 1929 in Portland, Oregon. She and her two sisters lived in St. Helens and, later on, several other small Oregon communities. Her father was a branch manager for US Bank and also worked in the county tax department. During World War II, the family lived in Westport, Oregon and in 1945 came to Portland where Iris finished high school at Lincoln High School. From there, Iris spent two years at Oregon State College before finishing her degree in Elementary Education at Oregon College of Education.

Shirley was born on May 1, 1934 in Mason City, Iowa where she was an only child, or as Shirley tells it, “I was a limited edition.” She remembers a stable life in Mason City where she attended all 12 years of schooling before moving on to Iowa State University where she continued her love of the clarinet by playing in the Iowa State band. She remembers her college days with some angst because, even though she loved science in high school and had received a science award, the assistant dean at Iowa State told her, “Women don’t belong in science. You need to major in home economics.” So that is what she did, graduating in 1956. Even with the disappointment of not being able to choose her major, she had two highlights: she had 16 girlfriends who have remained close all these years, and in her senior year, met her future husband, Louis.

Iris, after graduating from college, taught for one year in Warren, Oregon and then married her eighth-grade sweetheart, Roger Strother, who had just taken a position with the CIA. Shortly after marriage they were off to Greece for 2 ½ years. While there, their daughter, Nancy, was born and she left Greece pregnant with son, Neil. Iris remembers Greece as “a very fertile place.” After several moves with the CIA and a stint with Hughes Aircraft, in 1960, Roger took a job in Portland with a start-up company, Tektronix. Tragedy then struck the family as Roger at age 32 was killed in a single car accident, leaving Iris with two small children. While this was a difficult time for her, she says she was blessed to receive the proceeds of a substantial life insurance policy and Tektronix treated her very well. As a result, Iris was able to be a stay-at-home mom, which was a priority for her.

Shirley, upon graduation from college, worked for a short period of time in the test kitchen for Better Homes and Gardens magazine before marrying Louis Blaul. After a tour of naval duty in Guam, where their daughter, Mirth, was born, Louie, in 1960, started a long career with Bank of America. They transferred to California where their son, John, was born and from there to Singapore. Returning to California, Louis continued working for Bank of America while Shirley started a photograph note card business and eventually had her cards in 32 Marin County stores. Their lives, however, were upended in 1984 when their 21-year-old son was diagnosed with melanoma and only lived three months before passing. And then ten years later, Louis was diagnosed with lymphoma and died in 1993 at age 60.

After the death of Iris’s first husband, Roger, she was single for eight years before a member of her church introduced her to 40-year old bachelor, Roger Sperry. And as Iris says, “In 1968, I married Roger Number Two and started a new phase in my life.” Roger was a hospital controller, first in Portland and then for 7 ½ years in Ketchikan, Alaska before returning to Portland where tragedy again struck as Roger died in 1988 from lung disease, also at age 60.

Fast-forward now to their separate moves to Southern Oregon. Iris came to Jacksonville first in 1999 mainly because her sister, Mary Jones, lived here and Iris had made numerous visits and found Jacksonville charming. Shirley spent six more years in California after her husband’s death, during which time she managed her grieving by travel and activity. She visited France, China and Italy and had a memorable trip to New Zealand where she experienced bungee jumping. She took many cycling trips and three serious back packing trips. She rode her bicycle across the United States and in the process, raised monies for Hospice charities. In 1984, with a friend, she climbed Mount Shasta, where she sprinkled her son, John’s ashes. She made her Southern Oregon move in 2000 when she relocated with two other widows, the commonalities being they were longtime acquaintances and women of faith. They located on 10 acres in the Applegate, and Shirley enjoyed two years there but eventually decided that she wanted to live in Jacksonville.

Shirley and Iris first met in 2001 through the Applegate Garden Club and both became members of the Jacksonville Presbyterian Church where in a short time they became active. In 2002, Iris helped locate a townhouse in Jacksonville near hers for Shirley, and the friendship became stronger and more important. Early on they realized that they were connected for a reason; for both had suffered from severe depression. Iris had been diagnosed as bi-polar in 1997 and with therapy and medication was able to return to a normal life. Shirley had received a similar diagnosis, which she believes was initially caused by the loss of her son, followed by the death of her husband. They talk about their depression without reservation in hopes that people suffering from depression will know that it is not uncommon and that, “you can get help and should seek it.”

Something else they share is a passion for service, and the list of their volunteer activities is impressive. Shirley has been a Hospice volunteer since 1984 and on the day of my interview with them, she had to be sure she could make a 5:00pm Hospice visit. In the 1970s, Shirley was a Girl Scout leader, and Iris, while living in Ketchikan, started a volunteer program for the hospital. But it was in Jacksonville that their volunteerism rose to a new level. For example, they became active members of the Jacksonville Boosters Club, shared a “Food and Friends” meal delivery route, served together as Deacons of Jacksonville Presbyterian Church, started the Prayer Shawl Ministry and still assist with the church’s Vacation Bible School. For many years they both housed classical Britt musicians.

Shirley acted in the popular “Meet the Pioneers” cemetery performances eight times, and Iris also did a cameo performance. In addition, Shirley has been a “Cemetery History Saturday” and “Tuesday Night Strolls” docent. For four years she was the mainstay narrator for the Monday Jacksonville Trolley Tours and enticed Iris to do the same for a short period. Iris has been a SMART reader and is famous for her pies with a pie-a-month for a year going for $450 at her church auctions. Shirley completed two church mission trips, one to Mexico and one to Honduras.

While their friendship did not start until 2001, they have crowded much activity into the past 16 years. Since they both have an adventuresome spirit, they have made numerous car trips, with Shirley driving and Iris navigating, to Arizona, Idaho, Washington and California, including 52 trips to Shirley’s condo in Sunriver. They traveled by train to Iowa, took two cruises, one to Australia and New Zealand and another to the Mediterranean and they traveled with a church group to Israel. In 2009, after deciding to take a camping trip along the Rogue River, they practiced for two nights in Iris’s backyard.

They pride themselves on knowing each other’s families well and are welcomed into both families. They have most of their evening meals together, because, “it is so much nicer to share a meal with someone than to eat alone, and it is much healthier.” Iris has had a number of health issues that has slowed her down some but has not deterred her spirit. She says that, “After being diagnosed in December with congestive heart failure, I spent two weeks thinking about death, and then one day I decided that I’m going to get on with my life. Shirley, being five years younger, has often been my caregiver and has kept me younger.” She goes on to say, “My goal is to stay healthy so I can see a great-grandchild, whenever that may come.”

Shirley, who has two granddaughters and one grandson, wants “to enjoy life as much as I can and keep busy trying to do something productive every day.” Jacksonville living agrees with them or as Shirley says, “Jacksonville is the most wonderful place where opportunities for quality living abound,” or as Iris sums it up, “I am blessed to live in Jacksonville.”

While Iris and Shirley have much in common, they are different in many ways. Iris is easy-going with a “just let it happen” attitude while Shirley is a meticulous planner and record keeper. Shirley loves to write letters and cards and keep in contact with old friends, but Iris would rather spend her time watching sports and doing crossword puzzles. Iris reads the paper word for word while Shirley just skims it. Iris loves to shop, especially for clothing, while Shirley shops only out of necessity. These differences only enhance their friendship or as Shirley says, “We celebrate our differences.”

Regardless of all the heartache and joy these two ladies have experienced, they remain two of the jewels of Jacksonville and their friendship is a model for all of us.

Featured image above is Iris Sperry and Shirley Blaul, April 2017.