Getting to Know You: Shirley Carlson

A column dedicated to the folks in the pews.

Written by Dale Buchanan

Shirley was the first person I was introduced to when I came to Big Red. Gayle, my partner in this chronicling of Big Red Pew Persons, introduced us. I must confess from the outset that I do not pretend to be objective with this report. I like Shirley. I like Shirley a lot, and I make no apology for the bias that may appear in my brief account of her long, colorful, and productive life.

Shirley is a storyteller with a sense of humor. I fancy myself to be a storyteller even with a dash of humor as I spin my tales. However, when Saturday last we sat down in Shirley’s home, it was obvious that I sat at the feet of a master storyteller. Each time I asked a question, she responded with a story. I soon gave up trying to pin her down with dates, places, births, schools, and such like. They were footnotes and the stories revealed the gist of her life. So here, and in no particular chronological order, is a condensed version of Shirley’s story.

“Shirley, what was your major at Fresno State?”  “At age thirteen I began working at Swim Park, a public swimming pool located at Blackstone and Michigan. I started out with menial chores like cleaning the toilets and by the time I was in college, I had advanced to head cashier. As a freshman in college a program in criminology was offered. I went to my boss at Swim Park, the same man who had hired me when I was barely a teen, and asked for a letter of recommendation. It was a rather long and complicated form. One of his answers was, “As to the question of character, I can attest to the fact that Shirley McGrew is a character!’  He finally confessed it was a joke and produced a letter that got me accepted into the program. I wanted to be a juvenile probation officer, but my destiny was to be a Clinical Social Worker after getting a Master’s degree and doing graduate doctoral studies.”

Somewhere along the line I asked, “ What was Fresno like when you were a child?”  That was the right question and opened a flood of precious memories. “My father was a professor of speech for many years at Fresno State. While college educated, mother was a homemaker and always ready to lend a helping hand. She could be found in the kitchen at church and volunteered at The Garden House Tea Room where she was famous for her lemon meringue pies.

We lived way out in the country—a Clinton and Effie neighborhood. Dad attended all of my school and sports events. In our suburban community most of the children my age were boys. They played baseball, so I did too!  Once at a pick-up game on a vacant lot a new mother asked Mom which kid was hers. Mom replied, ‘the one with the pigtails.’

One of my favorite memories is of Daddy and me chasing the fire trucks when they came screaming down the street to a nearby fire. Dad taught us—me, my sister, and neighborhood kids—to play poker. Mom baked cookies, and we played into the night. Our home was always open to our friends. If I asked to invite a friend to dinner, the standard reply was: ‘We have four pork chops. You will have to share yours.’

The thing is, Dale, growing up in Fresno was a good thing. I had a pleasant childhood and lived in an environment conducive to happiness. We rode bicycles and roller skated. There was Kick the Can; Hide and Seek; Annie, Annie Over; Red Light, Green Light; and there was always baseball. I loved school and life was good.”

I could tell Shirley was getting tired, but I wanted more. “Shirley, I know you are getting tired but could you talk a little about Big Red Church.”  “Well, Dale, I was a member of this church before it was the Big Red Church. I guess you could say I came to Big Red Church because of a bump on the head. While my folks were shopping for a church home, I was a little kid and a friendly man lifted me up and accidentally bumped my head on the low ceiling. We never went back to that church. Our next stop was First Congregational Church of Fresno on Divisidero and San Pablo streets. I became a member at age sixteen while still at that old church. When those pioneer Christians made their vision a reality and moved to what we lovingly call the Big Red Church, we moved with them.”

“What makes you love this church?”  Shirley paused and thought that over. Finally she smiled and said, “Friendship. Friendship allows us to listen and discuss even when we disagree. And most of all friendship demands that everyone laugh at my jokes.”

“One last question, dear lady. What is your dream for our future?”  “It is my dream that Big Red Church remain always Open and Affirming, and that we as a group and as individuals always accept diversity and always like those who come through our doors.”  

Dale Buchanan is a member of FCCF with a passion for stories and writing. In between penning his own memoirs, he is helping us get to know our members, one pew at a time.

Comment(1)

  1. clifford dodd says

    Shirley was also one of the first to introduce herself also Ruth who both persuaded me to be on the council. Now to know these two ladies is to know persuasion at its zenith. I could always look forward to a laugh with Shirley. I am so glad that i met these two ladies from the Big Red Church.

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