Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Sheila Hibbs

by Steve Sparks, May 6, 2010

I met Sheila at her unusual but very quaint home in an A-Frame building on the Mathias Ranch a few miles south of Boonville. After showing me just a few of her many different collectibles, we sat down with a couple of soft drinks and began our chat.

Sheila was born in 1954 in Crescent City, Califor­nia, the youngest of five children born to Samuel Monroe and Bernice Grimes. Her siblings are Shirley, brother Tony, Donna, and Inky (Patricia). Her mother, born in 1925, was the youngest in a family of ten who had moved to the Bakersfield area of Califor­nia in 1937 from Oklahoma to work on whatever crop was available, figuring it had to be a better life than the one they had in the poverty stricken rural town of Tahlequah, south of Tulsa. Her father was from Arkansas and his family had moved to California ear­lier. Samuel and Bernice met and married in Bakersfield and later moved to Crescent City, but when Bernice was pregnant with Sheila they split up and her father returned to Oklahoma — Sheila would not meet him until twenty years later. Sheila’s preg­nant mother was left alone to raise the family and then five days after Christmas 1953 their home burned down. “Mother sought help from the Salvation Army for clothing and one of the workers there also gave her a chalk painting of a deer. I still have it. It means a lot to me. She did meet another man, Lewis Hunt, whom she married and he became the only Dad I knew.”

Crescent City was a small coastal town, not unlike Ft. Bragg today, and Sheila was born in the seaside hospital that was later destroyed when a tidal wave hit the town following the famous earthquake that struck Alaska in 1963. Lewis Hunt worked in the sawmills and the family moved to where he could find work, spending a year in Redwood Valley when Sheila was four, before settling in Willits where she went through elementary, junior, and high school. Here, Sheila’s stepfather, who knew everything there was to know about redwood trees, assisted Ed Burton who designed a recycling program using redwood bark in a filter system that was later used on the space shuttle.

Sheila loved school where she was an honor stu­dent and a member of the choir, the Glee Club, and the Pep Club. “I just soaked up as much knowledge as I could and my favorite subjects were math, civics, and music of course. In my senior year I was chosen to be one of the twelve girls in The Madrigal Group, an a cappella singing group that appeared at special events in town. I’d always enjoyed singing, sitting in front of my mother with my brother and sisters as she played guitar. In my teens I started to write all the lyrics of her songs down — thank God I did. As for the music itself, that’s in my head and I can play the songs on my banjo as long as it’s in C or G - I pretty much taught myself to play the banjo on my own. The banjo I have now is the one I bought in Oklahoma City for $50 on a visit there back in 1976. My brother was the ‘real’ musician though — he could play piano, accordion, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and my Uncle Henry, Mother’s brother, used to play gigs in Cres­cent City.”

Growing up, the family lived several miles out of town in a house that had been an old stage stop. “We had the freedom of the countryside and had all the usual country chores. We planted everything you could can — beans, tomatoes, apples, plums, and we all helped in the harvest and the canning. We also had chickens, goats, pigs, and occasionally a cow. Mother was a good provider and she’d spend all day Sunday baking bread and doughnuts for the week. My Stepfa­ther, who I called ‘Lew-Lew’ (Lewis), was a curmudg­eon but he was nice to me. He’d always make sure there was a tootsie roll in the glove compartment of the car for me. However, he’d drink and then get very mean, usually on paydays. We found out later that he’d had a successful trucking business back in Illinois but had drunk away the profits. When I was fourteen, mother and he split up and he left. My oldest sisters had left and Tony was in Vietnam so there was just Inky, mother and myself in the house. Lewis would visit sometimes and pay mother child support — we had his last name - but she wouldn’t let him get close enough to her to get back with her, as he would have liked. On one occasion, I remember he wanted her to sign off on the child support payment without actually giving her the money. She refused and her grabbed her. Tony was at home and he picked up my baton from Pep Club and hit Lewis with it, breaking his nose, and then he started to hit him. He broke two of Lewis’ ribs and gave him two black eyes.”

Sheila graduated in 1972 and had a scholarship to attend Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo to study to be a vet. “I had worked at a vets in my junior and senior years and had even assisted in some minor surgeries, but being a stupid seventeen year old I opted for mar­riage instead of college.” She married Kenneth Shan­non (“an Irish boy”) who was three years older, and even though they could have moved close to where she would have studied, “he didn’t want to leave his mommy” so they stayed and got an apartment in Wil­lits, both of them working in the saw mill, where Sheila worked as a trim saw operator. “My job at the dry cleaners, where I’d been part-time during school, did not pay enough so I worked at the mill for six months but then he decided he didn’t want his wife working and I was stupid enough to believe in that too. I was flattered I guess — ‘he wants to take care of me’, I thought. Yeah, right... I was eighteen and he was twenty-one and we were going to whip the world. It was young love and maybe I was afraid of being alone like mother. We had two kids — Brandie Lynn born in November, 1976 and Rebecca Kathleen born in October 1979.”

In 1974, when Kenneth got a drunk driving convic­tion he thought he’d get his license back sooner if they lived elsewhere so he and Sheila moved to Okla­homa City where he earned $2.50 hour at a ball-bear­ing factory and Sheila found work at Dairy Queen Restaurant — “it was o.k., I guess and you could get four chili dogs for $1.50!” While they lived there, Sheila’s biological father contacted her. “Mother had passed on our phone number and address to him so we went to see him — I was twenty and it was the first time I had ever set eyes on him. It was strange. When we met he shook my hand. He had photo­graphs of all us kids as we went through school, sent by mother. He had remarried and I had three half-siblings. He gave me a sewing machine as a gift, which I thought was a strange first ever gift from my father — oh, well, I guess all the young women in Oklahoma had one!?... We spent the weekend there and visited the graves of various relatives and then went fishing. That was strange too. We didn’t take a picnic but instead took chicken and potatoes and cooked it right there on the riverbank. We also ate rattlesnake, tur­tle, and possum for dinner — now I knew why mother stayed in California! I kept in touch and visited every few months and two of my siblings, Tony and Shirley also visited him.”

Sheila and the young Brandie returned to Califor­nia in early 1978 but Kenneth stayed in Oklahoma. Sheila stayed with friends for a time and then got an apartment in Willits and claimed welfare. Several months later Kenneth showed up and they lived together in a trailer in Willits. Their second child was born in 1979 but then they split up for good in 1980. “There were too many drinking episodes. For support I had my mother nearby in Willits, a sister in Ukiah, and several good friends. I returned to my job at the sawmill but this time I was on the night shift. Around that time I suffered toxic shock syndrome from which I could have died. That was a tough time in my life... In 1981 I met Alan Hibbs in Willits Park one Sunday afternoon when there was a country music band play­ing there. Some friends of our family passed by and this strange guy was with them. We all went back to my trailer and he later said that he was attracted by how clean it was! It wasn’t particularly clean but apparently his previous wife was a real slob. We started dating and I filed for divorce from Kenneth in 1982. Alan’s parents lived in Arizona so, along with his daughter from a previous marriage, we moved there in 1983, getting married in Vegas on the way.”

Alan found work as a brick-mason but it meant working in Laughlin, Nevada during the week and returning to Phoenix at weekends. Sheila raised the girls and found odd jobs so that they were able to buy land in Apache Junction outside Phoenix, living in a trailer with plans to build a home there. In 1985, she settled into a steady job with U-Haul where she worked in the warranty department. “I enjoyed the job. I had always been mechanically inclined and that helped. With my Dad watching from a lawn chair telling me what to do, I had overhauled our ’56 Ford pick-up when I was fourteen. I became the specialist for our G.M.C. vehicles when they need repair work done. There was far more repair work on those than the Toyotas, Fords, and international cars put together. G.M.C. were the biggest pieces of crap on the road.”

As Sheila moved a little way up the corporate lad­der it took its toll on her health, not helped by the fact that she was also exposed to many ruthless corpo­rate practices that annoyed her. She left U-Haul in 1989 and shortly after split up with Alan. “The house never did get built while I was there and I took my furniture and headed back to California with the girls. He kept the property and was supposed to buy me out — he never did. He died last summer and didn’t leave anything for me or the girls, despite what he’d prom­ised us. His daughter got everything. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; after all, when we got married she had asked who would get the property if her Dad died. She was twelve at the time”... Sheila re-joined U-Haul in Santa Rosa, commuting from Ukiah but now on the desk dealing with the public on the retail side, rather than behind the scenes at the corporate level. “I stayed there for a few years but by 1993 my vehicle was on its last legs and I was a single parent with two teenagers and little money. Mother now had cancer and I needed to be with her so I quit the job. Unem­ployment and my savings got us through but those next two years are a blur. Mother died in January 1994.”

Sheila began to work part-time in catalog market­ing and for Fetzer Winery during ‘crush’, driving a tractor for them. She had a third part-time job with U-Haul at night where she transferred trucks from one location to another. “1994 was a terrible year — mother died, twelve other extended family members passed also, I had double by-pass following a heart attack in April, my brother Tony died. My girls got to the point where they couldn’t cry anymore.”

However, in June of that year Sheila had taken and passed a test to work for the post office but it was not until two years later that she was finally offered an interview. Then, in the summer of 1996, following an interview with Philo post master Richard Shuffleton she was offered the job. “I had been interested in working for the post office since living in Arizona and so I was very happy to get the job with its good rate of pay and benefits”... Sheila did not know Anderson Valley very well at all. However, she had been to The County Fair here and had stopped at Gowan’s Oak Stand for fruit and produce on many occasions as she passed through on her way to the coast.

In April 1997 Sheila moved to Navarro and rented a place on Wendling Soda Creek Road where she stayed for over six years. “I had been commuting between Ukiah to Philo and then became a Deep Ender for six years or more. Navarro is a very colorful and interesting community, depending on what time of day or night you look out of the window. Brandie and her girlfriend at school, whose name was Brandy Lee, had tried to get me together with Brandy Lee’s father, Earl Schleper after he and his wife split up. He moved to southern California for a time and we kept in touch by phone. I had a boyfriend who I dumped and Earl moved back up and into the place in Navarro along with his three daughters and their kids, and his brother. Earl has four grandchildren and I have three through Brandie and another one who is Rebecca’s but who has been adopted out in Ukiah. It is a long and traumatic story, a very bitter pill to swallow, but hopefully one day it will have a happy ending for us all.”

From 2004 to 2007 Sheila and Earl lived at Tucker Court north of Philo on Hwy 128 and since then they have been where they live now. She has been pretty much a homebody for the last ten years, venturing out to play music at various gigs with Billy Owens or just sitting outside the ice cream store in Boonville strumming along with friends. “Captain Rainbow got Billy and me together for the Variety Show in around 2000 with Bill on guitar, me on banjo, and both of us singing. We practiced just before in the parking lot and I knew a lot of the songs he knew because Bill and my mother both grew up in rural Oklahoma. Since then we have also played at many birthday parties, house-warmings, funerals, at The Highpockety Ox in Boonville, Labor Day and Memorial Day events, and even at The Co-Op in Ukiah where they passed around the bucket and we made $150. Bill has lots of music in his head but I only know the songs mother passed on.”

Sheila has now been at the Philo Post Office for 14 years and expects to retire from there when she is 65. “I love my job and knowing people when they walk in the door. I talk to everyone who comes in and while I don’t need to know all of his or her business if some­one has a problem it’s nice to know I could help if I was asked. Joe Dresch has been a great boss since he took over in 2000 and we moved into the new facility in 2001. We have a good time at work, with Ann Carr and Amy Bloyd too, and I will get a good pension and have other savings plans, so as long as the government doesn’t go broke I’ll be fine, otherwise I’ll be living under a bridge somewhere”...

I asked Sheila for her brief response to a few Val­ley issues.

The Wineries and their impact? “I love what they’ve done in terms of jobs and bringing in tourists but they have taken too much from the water table. There has been a drastic change in just the 14 years I’ve been here as wine has taken over from the timber industry and the apple and cherry orchards”

The AVA newspaper? “I read it and love that it tells the ‘other’ side of the story, even if some people might not like to hear it.”

KZYX local radio? “I try to support them when I can afford it. I do listen sometimes, especially to the bluegrass played by Jimmy Humble and Diane Hering,”

The school system? “I am indebted to the Rancheria Continuation School; they have helped many other people in the Valley too. Wendy Patterson does a wonderful job all by herself; thank god for Wendy.”

I posed a few questions from a questionnaire on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Grandchildren and animals — especially baby lambs. Music of course, particularly country and bluegrass, hillbilly stuff. And my sweetie, Earl.”

What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Screaming grandkids; people who let their kids scream or misbehave in public.”

Sound or noise you love? “Birds singing; water in the creek behind the house here; my collection of wind chimes.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Honking horns; rap music booming out of cars.”

Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “Fried chicken, mashed potato, and crackling gravy. It’s very bad for you so I rarely have it anymore. Earl’s pineapple upside down cake. Seafood.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that be? “Shake­speare, I think. I really enjoyed reading him at school. And we have the same birthday, April 23rd.”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, what three posses­sions would you like to have with you? “My banjo; the complete set of books by mystery writer V.C. Andrews; and an unlimited amount of yarn so I could do my crochet work.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “Films that have stuck with me are ‘Bridges of Madison County,’ ‘Field of Dreams,’ ‘Scent of a Woman.’ As for a song, it would be one I have been singing for many, many years and it means a lot to me, ‘If I could hear My Mother pray again.’ A book would probably be ‘Roots’ by Alex Haley.”

Favorite word or phrase? “Well I know ‘I’m hang­ing in there’ is something I say a lot in the post office.”

Least favorite word or phrase? “When people repeatedly say ‘err, err, err’ as they are talking.”

Favorite hobby? “Music; crochet work; my collect­ing — all sorts of things — salt and pepper shakers, eagle figures and pictures, chicken shaped candy dishes, clocks, dream catchers.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “Veterinarian. I really wanted to do that at one point but got married instead. I used the wrong part of my brain for that decision.”

Profession you’d not like to do or are glad never to have done? “Work in a hospital or around sick people. I admire those who do.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “The birth of my children stands out. Being with family and friends. Playing in the Variety Show that first time. I hadn’t played music in about 20 years.”

Saddest? “The death of my mother. We had always been very close but it was for the best. When she went it was a relief after all her suffering over the pre­vious two years but I couldn’t cry for a few days.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself, physi­cally, mentally, spiritually? “That I am smarter than I let on; that I have a big heart and that my loved one’s needs are important to me. Friends have always told me I need to look after myself a little better.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I think ‘Welcome home’ would be good.”

(To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Master Furniture Maker of Boonville, Tom McFadden.)

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