Remembering Shirley James

The recent dedication of the Shirley James Gateway Plaza at the Mead Johnson trail-head on the Pigeon Creek Greenway Passage and observance of Memorial Day brought back fond memories of Shirley for a great many of us, me included. I thought it would be appropriate to look at some of Shirley’s very interesting history and tell you a little about her that maybe you didn’t know.

Shirley was a native of Butte, Montana, grew up in Richland, Washington, living and traveling throughout the world before making Evansville her home in 1975. Her father worked for Hanford Atomic Product Operations on development of the plutonium bomb. This operation was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project and was home to the B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world. Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, tested at the Trinity site, and in Fat Man, the bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan.

Richland, Washington, was a government-made community of scientific people, with no elderly or handicapped persons, no crime and no locked doors. The government paid for everything. She attended Washington State University, then lived in Central and South America for six months before marrying Richard James, an engineer who rescued her when she fell while snow skiing. They continued to enjoy skiing though most of their lives.

In 1963 Richard was transferred by GE to its plant in Mount Vernon, Ind., and the couple lived in Evansville for the next nine years. During that period, Shirley attended the University of Evansville, earning a degree in psychology and sociology. She be-came a mental health planner for the Tri-State Regional Health Planning Agency and later worked with then-19-year old Mark Owen to establish the Youth Service Corps. But in 1972, her husband was transferred, this time to Europe, where she spent her spare time traveling until they returned to Evansville in 1975 and bought their home on rural Middle Mount Vernon Road.

This community and its environment became her passion.

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. So while her husband was on special assignment in Boston, Shirley decided to take action. During 1976 and at the suggestion of an Area Plan Commission employee, she 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, a strong supporter of the ―elevated Division Street, now known as the Lloyd 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. She 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 Green-way for which she was best known. She served as chairman of the advisory committee from 1993 to 2007 and, as a volunteer, often working fulltime to help plan and gain funding for the Greenway Trail that she was convinced would add tremendously to the quality of life in Evansville. At the dedication of the Shirley James Gateway Plaza, Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel said, “her work on this Greenway is a legacy to this city and its residents”.

She received many honors for her leadership and environ-mental efforts. The Vanderburgh County Soil and Water Conservation District in 2007 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.

Shirley was no friend of large billboards and spent much effort in opposing them. Ironically, in 2000 she was very proud to receive the Rotary Civic Award but was soon mortified when she saw an announcement of her award on a mega billboard along the Lloyd Expressway.

During 2003, she and Sam Wentzel, president of West Terrace Neighborhood Association, worked with developer Clem Frank to create the 2.5-acre wooded Clem Frank Nature Preserve now part of the Wabash River Heritage Land Trust. At the time, Sam was quoted as saying “show Shirley a green spot and it would stay green if she had any-thing to do with it”.

Shirley was tenacious as many of us well knew or soon found out. Long-time friend, Bonnie Kolb said of Shirley “with all the wit and experience and talent she had, I thought she could do wonders – and she did.” Shirley once told a news-paper reporter that her life had been filled with ad-ventures similar to those in novels she read by flashlight beneath the covers late at night as a child.

Glenn Boberg, deputy director for the Evansville Department of Parks and Recreation, said of Shirley, "She influences the quality of life. It can be felt." Shirley’s massive involvement in so many projects and tremendous energy working for the betterment of the community will influence our quality of life for generations.

On a personal note, Shirley and Richard were good friends and will be missed, always.

Fred Padget, 2010