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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 17, 2010

From the editor
Salute to Bob Shedd, a man who fixed whatever needed fixing

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Readers of our paper know Bob Shedd. We believe they will mourn this week with us.

An unassuming Vermonter, Mr. Shedd moved to Voorheesville over a half-century ago. A carpenter, he built his house with his own hands. He and his wife, Mary Lou, raised their two children in that house and enjoyed their retirement there.

Mr. Shedd died on June 12. So this week, we sifted through decades of materials, finding references on how he shared yellow squash with Koonz Road neighbors three decades ago, and how he welcomed the harbingers of spring by putting up bluebird houses before that.

In 1989, the Boy Scouts in Troop 73 followed his old southern recipe for jambalaya. At different times, the Scouts in that enthusiastic Voorheesville troop also enjoyed Mr. Shedd’s whortleberry cheesecake, and marched to a song he had composed as their Scoutmaster.

In 1984, our correspondent reporting on the New Scotland Seniors wrote how Mr. Shedd “repaired our doors that were scraping, opened our new kitchen window which was painted shut, and installed several paper towel holders.” She went on about the old schoolhouse meeting hall, “Anything needing doing got fixed. Gee, it’s nice to have a repairman around the house (schoolhouse?).”

Later, Mr. Shedd used his carpentry skills to build for Habitat for Humanity.

In the quarter-century that we have been at The Enterprise, Mr. Shedd was a welcome contributor to our opinion pages. He was at once quiet and friendly, self-effacing and confident. Each time he came to our news office, with his carefully researched letter in hand, we felt he understood who we were and what we did.

His son, Jerome, told us this week that was a quality his father had all of his life. When he was in the hospital, sick with cancer, he would ask his nurse, “When is your shift over?” his son reported. “He cared about their point of view.”

Mr. Shedd had a way of taking a global idea and making it graspable. “We humans are acting like babies and damaging our world,” he wrote in a 2008 letter. “We must grow up very quickly because time is running out.”

He was referring to an editorial we had written on fossil fuels being a finite resource, and the lifestyle they support having to change if our civilization is to survive. Rather than trumpeting grandiose themes, though, Mr. Shedd came up with practical, everyday things that people like himself, that is, our readers, could do to make a difference.

“We must get over the idea that we can drive right to the spot where we work or shop,” he wrote. “The bus might leave us a block or more away. What good exercise for us to walk the block or so.”

Mr. Shedd was, himself, a dedicated walker who hiked the entire Appalachian trail, from Georgia to Maine, in pieces, over the course of his lifetime.

But for times when he did drive, he had some more practical advice. “I believe that we people have the power to bring down the price of gas in one easy step,” he wrote. “Don’t exceed the speed limit. In doing so, you will be surprised at how much less gas you use. And how much calmer you will be when you get to your destination.”

He also had advice for conserving energy at home. He and his wife planted shade trees around their home and installed awnings to keep it cool. They also hung their wash to dry rather than using a clothes dryer.

“We keep our house cool by opening the windows when it’s cool out,” he wrote, “and closing them when it gets warm out.”

We remember once, several years ago, shopping in Voorheesville’s supermarket, feeling quite virtuous as we packed our groceries into paper, rather than plastic, bags, when a shopper, behind us in line, pulled out her own string bags. “Bob Shedd wrote in your paper about how he uses his own bags,” she said. “It’s a much better idea.”

It is, indeed. Mr. Shedd was ahead of his time, and now we see many, many shoppers with store-produced reusable bags.

Mr. Shedd wrote for us on a wide variety of topics. Never sentimental, he used reason rather than emotion to make his points.

“He would do his research, decide what was the right thing to do, then do it,” said his son. “Then he wanted others to do it, too. That’s where The Enterprise came in.”

Mr. Shedd would write to inspire others — and he did. He wrote one such letter about the Long Path in the Helderbergs, which he helped to lay out as it wended its way towards the Adirondacks from the George Washington Bridge in New York City. “His efforts have helped to create what is certainly a jewel,” responded one reader.  “Thank you to Bob Shedd for writing the letter, making us aware of the Long Path,” wrote another reader as she detailed her hike on the beautiful trail.

Another reason that Mr. Shedd wrote to us was simply because he was curious and wanted to find answers to explain what he saw around him. We frequently told him he would have made a good newspaper reporter.

Once, he arranged a tour of the facility that handles New Scotland’s recycling so he could report back to our readers on the best way to sort their bottles and cans and papers. Another time, he came in with photographs he had taken of new high-tension electrical towers that were being put up on his road; our reporter followed his lead to write a story on the project.

When Mr. Shedd had a question, he would get an answer, and then share it with our readers. One day, driving along Depot Road, for example, he was surprised to see red lights blinking at the railroad crossing to the industrial park.  “Shortly, a shiny green locomotive at the head end of several freight cars passed into the park. It had the letters SMS,” he wrote. “I thought maybe it was Schoharie Middleburgh and Schenectady. But soon found out it was not such a romantic name. A man told me it stood for Switching Management Systems. The locomotive is used to switch cars within the park and to pick up and deliver cars on the CSX siding. Also, it takes cars to and from Delanson. Incidentally, the word ‘Delanson’ comes from the letters in Delaware and Hudson.”

Towards the end of his life, Mr. Shedd wrote about his years fighting — along with his two brothers in the Marine Corps — in the Pacific during World War II. He did not write in a way that glorified war. He wrote in his usual matter-of-fact style, where the heroic was cast as everyday duty. After being wounded in New Britain, Mr. Shedd was safely evacuated to a hospital.

“But after about five weeks of a nice dry bed and three squares a day, I asked the doc to discharge me so I could get back with my buddies,” he wrote. He returned to New Britain.

Mr. Shedd’s descriptions from his war years, as in his other writing, were filled with answers gleaned of curious questioning, sometimes of the unexpected. “At Milne Bay,” he wrote of an experience in New Guinea, “I talked with an ex-cannibal. I asked what part he liked the best. He said the buttocks.”

And, as always, his writing was filled with carefully observed details. The ex-cannibal, he wrote, “had a pet blue and red macaw that talked some pidgin English. This is the language we used to talk with the natives. Here, I saw some of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen.”

 Some of our favorite pieces were rooted in Mr. Shedd’s boyhood recollections. Spying the big lugs on the steel wheels of an old tractor parked at Indian Ladder Farms, he was reminded of learning to drive a tractor, at age 11, on his family’s farm in Vermont.

“As soon as the tractor started to go,” he wrote, “I would take my foot off the clutch and it would jerk ahead. With the lugs, once you depressed the clutch, it wouldn’t coast at all, but stopped abruptly. “

He recalled stopping the tractor as his father was loading hay in the attached wagon.  “When we started up, I didn’t do the clutch right and nearly knocked Dad off his feet,” Mr. Shedd wrote. “He let out a yell so I stopped and nearly threw him off his feet again. He yelled at me again, but I was able to get the rig going and we soon had a big load of hay to take to the barn.”

Mr. Shedd recalled with equal clarity and good humor walking two miles to school each day with his lunch wrapped in newspaper, so there was no lunch pail to carry home. “Day packs were not yet invented,” wrote Mr. Shedd.

He recalled, too, dipping his pen in an ink well to write. “I only go back about a third of the way to when you had to carry a pen knife to sharpen a quill,” he wrote.

Mr. Shedd also wrote that no adult supervision was needed for school recess — where the boys played marbles and girls jumped rope — or during the long walks to and from school. “I never heard of any mishaps,” concluded Mr. Shedd. “My! How times have changed!”

Mr. Shedd, in short, provided a strong link to our collective past. While firmly planted in the present and willing to embrace progressive ideas for a better future, he was deeply rooted in simpler times past. He took that capable can-do spirit — the same spirit that let him drive a tractor as a boy or fight for his country and his buddies as a young man — and used it to help his neighbors.

As our New Scotland Seniors correspondent wrote all those many years ago, when Bob Shedd was around, “Anything needing doing got fixed.”

We don’t know who will fix the hurt we’re feeling this week but we’ll keep Mr. Shedd close in our mind and heart; maybe that will help.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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