Shirley and Terry LeMaster were seemingly destined to find each other—even though they took different paths for much of their lives.
Terry, 77, is originally from Morgantown, W.Va., but moved around a lot. His father worked at a gunpowder plant during World War II.
“I was raised by my grandparents some of the time, in Orange, Texas,” says Terry. “My dad was a quiet, reserved man who was not emotional at all, but he was very warm-hearted and had a smile that would light up the room. My sister died of leukemia when I was about 9 or 10, so I was pretty much raised as if I were an only child. I remember that I once saw my father cry, and that gave me permission to be emotional.
“My mom was something of an anomaly. She was college-educated and had always wanted to be a doctor, but women weren’t really able to back then, so she was a retail sales clerk when they got married. She’s the reason I originally studied to become a doctor. She wasn’t the warmest person, but if it was a ‘duty,’ she would do it. She had a real sense of responsibility to others.”
Terry attended Duke University, studying biology, and became ill due to a lacerated esophagus during his second year.
“I couldn’t eat and dropped all my weight,” he says. “The dean took me into his own home; his wife took care of me. I didn’t recover until the following spring. I got a construction job, went to summer school, and finally got my degree in biology and chemistry at Austin College in Texas. I entered medical school at the University of Texas Southwestern (Medical Center), located at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where President Kennedy had been treated when he was killed. I was actually interviewed by the surgeon who had worked on Kennedy.
“A doctor there took me under his wing and said, ‘I want you to follow me around for two weeks this summer.’ We were in a small town of about 20,000 people, and I ended up working about 80 hours a week. I came to realize that medicine, as a profession, was your life—and I wanted a different life than that. My father’s advice to me was, ‘They can’t pay you enough to be unhappy.’
“With my double major, I knew I could go to work in the chemical industry or in the food industry. I chose the food industry, because even if I didn’t make as much money, I didn’t want to sit in a lab and run tests all day. In the food industry, I got broad experience and ended up in quality control.”
Terry married and had two children. His first-born died when Terry was only 22. “That tends to grow you up really fast,” he says, somberly.
Shirley was born in Centreville, Miss., and raised in Memphis, Tenn., with an older sister and two younger brothers. “My mom was a registered nurse but stayed home until after I went off to college,” she says. “She taught me about unconditional love—such a gift.
“My dad was a management analyst for the (Army) Corps of Engineers in Memphis, and he was also a lay minister with a very fundamentalist church. In spite of the church’s teachings about the appropriate role for women – they couldn’t even speak in the church—he always supported my sister and me to be anything we wanted to be. He really taught me about feminism!”
After getting a degree in speech and English, and then a master’s degree from Oklahoma State University, Shirley went to law school at University of Texas at Austin—but after two years, she realized she didn’t want to be an attorney.
“My first job was doing equal-opportunity investigations in New York,” she says, “and went on to become manager of employment at State University of New York at Buffalo. Then I moved to New Orleans to get married.”
Shirley and her then-husband, a drummer who had played with Dizzy Gillespie and was a news anchor, adopted a son, Joshua. Meanwhile, she became a labor-relations and human-resources manager with Hunt-Wesson.
“I went on to become a regional HR manager, and after 10 years, finally was back in Memphis as regional labor-relations and HR manager, negotiating with unions,” she says.
Here’s where their paths intersect: Terry was with Hunt-Wesson as a food scientist in California. In 1994, he was asked to be the team leader of a project in which Shirley was participating.
“He knew how to get us to a final result as the team leader,” Shirley says, “and we met for a week each month around the country. He was being transferred to Ohio for a huge project—and I was going to California, and I asked if he had a house he could sell me. He did, and I bought it.
“We went out to dinner a month later and then started dating, between Ohio and California. We dated for about a year, got engaged, and finally married 24 years ago. If I’d known he would come with the house, I’d have paid more for it!”
When Shirley’s company moved her back to California, Terry took early retirement.
“I thought I’d just play golf,” Terry says with a laugh.
Terry loved the desert, but Shirley was not as impressed. “Everything was so sandy,” she says. “He said he thought we needed to look at other places, and because he didn’t try to push me, a month later, I suggested we try visiting the desert again. Now I wouldn’t even consider living anywhere else.”
They settled in Rancho Mirage in 1998. Shirley had become a Unitarian in Memphis, and she credits the church with helping her get through the death of her son, Joshua, in 2006.
“I got very involved with the local church in Rancho Mirage,” Shirley says. “I’ve been on the board and in leadership roles for over nine years. It’s a place with smart, open-minded people.”
The church sponsors a staged-reading theater group, with which Shirley—who has been acting since high school—has become an often-featured actor. Terry, who began supporting Shirley’s love of theater by working with sets and lighting, has enjoyed being cast in several roles, often opposite Shirley onstage.
Both Terry and Shirley say that their relationship works because they have common values, enjoy each other’s company, and have fun together. In fact, Shirley says the best decision of her life was marrying Terry.
“Joshua once gave Terry a birthday card that showed a man’s large footprints next to a boy’s small ones, and inside he had written, ‘You’re the best thing that ever happened to my mother,’” she says.
For Terry, sometimes bad decisions became blessings: “I always learn from it, and without some of those decisions I wouldn’t be who I am.”
Their paths, however unrelated they once were, are happily connected now—as if it were destiny.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show The Lovable Liberal airs on IHubRadio. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.