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Remembering Shirley James, Founder of the WIA

Shirley James was a native of Butte, Montana, grew up in Richland, Washington, and made Evansville her home in 1963. She attended the University of Evansville and eventually became a mental health planner for the Tri-State Regional Health Planning Agency and later worked to establish the Youth Service Corps. Eventually, Shirley and her husband Richard purchased a home on rural Middle Mt. Vernon Road on Evansville's West Side.

It was homeownership that led her to become a community activist. Neighbors had been plagued by illegal dumping in the West Side area for years, and it affected the James' property as well. During 1976, Shirley worked with the Westwood Garden Club, Operation City Beautiful (now Keep Evansville Beautiful) and others to organize the West Side Improvement Association. She served as its president for all but three of the next 21 years, waging wars against urban sprawl, drainage problems, litter and junk yards, creek debris and other pollution. She led development of the Howell Wetlands, was a force behind restoration of the Pagoda, very involved in the CSX overpass on Tekoppel Road, a strong supporter of the elevated Division Street, now known as the Lloyd Expressway, and volunteered her time and expertise in many other projects.

Her approach to any problem or project was always to first learn as much about it as she possibly could. She became a student of urban planning, zoning, drainage, sewage, grant-writing and other such topics and became known for her persistence. She was a formidable foe of commercial developments and rezoning that she believed would damage the environment. Though she often disagreed with politicians, her approach was to offer assistance rather than criticize.

But it was her tireless commitment to the Pigeon Creek Greenway for which she was best known. She served as chairman of the advisory committee from 1993 to 2007 and, as a volunteer, often worked full time to help plan and gain funding for the Greenway Trail that she was convinced would add tremendously to the quality of life in Evansville. In 2009, construction of the "Shirley James Gateway Plaza" began, marking the trailhead of the greenway and the final act to replace a former salvage yard in the area. At its dedication, former Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel said, “Her work on this Greenway is a legacy to this city and its residents."

Shirley received many honors for her leadership and environmental efforts within the City of Evansville. In 2007, the Vanderburgh County Soil and Water Conservation District presented her with their Master Conservationist Award. She also received the Jefferson Award, a national recognition for public service awarded by the Courier & Press; the Indiana Center for Philanthropy’s Unsung Hero Award; the Sparkplug Award from United Neighborhoods of Evansville; the International Women’s Day award; the Captain Henry Vanderburgh Chapter, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution Conservation Medal and in 1998, served on Gov. Frank O’Bannon’s Task Force for Public Access and Open-Door Policy.

We remember Shirley as not only our founder, but also as a friend. The WIA proudly maintains a memorial to remember her tenacious spirit and dedication to the betterment of the West Side. The memorial sits within Burdette Park to be enjoyed by all. 

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