While I was away at the To Bead True Blue show in Tucson last week teaching workshops and having meetings related to our company, ICE Resin, I learned my neighbor Shirley Luhtala passed away at 80 (almost 81 in April). It was so non-stop busy at the show, that I didn’t have time to take it in. I got home about 1:30 a.m. on Friday and slept in as best as I could.
Shirley’s Celebration of Life was Saturday afternoon. We did not stay at the gathering long, as the kids came. A funeral home is just not a great place for children to be their normal active selves. We did watch the photo slide show that Courtney had lovingly compiled and paid our respects to her family and friends.
Her death is finally sinking in today, and I really miss my friend and neighbor. I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted on my blog and there are many things I want to talk about, but, for today, I really want you all to know a little bit about Shirley.
My husband and I met her the day we bought our cabin in Northern Arizona. It wasn’t a happy meeting because we had a land survey done on the property and found that Shirley’s property line encroached on our land by about 12 feet, even though our cabin was built in the late 50s and her trailer was installed in the 60s. We were advised by an attorney to correct the property issue because, if we didn’t, the county could basically give her what amounted to squatter’s rights. I was NOT looking forward to telling my new neighbor that she had inadvertently been living on our “new” property for 40 years! Yep, she was hot under the collar and it was downright uncomfortable.
We got through it with a handshake and a promise to be great neighbors. That was all she needed to move forward and forgive. Shirley lived alone and she loved it that way. When we first met her, she had a male friend (she was 70) who spent a lot of time winterizing her roof because Shirley was always worried a big snow storm would cave in her home. Spring came and I never saw the man again. I asked about it once and she told me she never married because “husband’s are just too much work.”
Since I loved to bake to keep the cabin warm and cozy and smelling great, I would invite Shirley over for a treat and a cup of tea. We would sit for an hour or more on the sofa and I would ask her questions about her life. After the third visit, she told me she liked the sweets, but would it be OK if I gave her a beer instead of tea. I almost spit out my tea when she asked.
I quickly learned Shirley played professional women’s baseball in the All American Girls Baseball League when the men were away at war. I’m not much of a sports person, but the movie A League of Their Own is one of my all-time favorite films. Her playing pro ball was my favorite topic of conversation, though she couldn’t quite understand my infatuation with it. And yes, she said the director did a good job with the movie portraying the sport, the girls and the era. Oh, she hated — and I mean hated — those short skirts. The absolute worst thing to be a serious athlete and have exposed flesh for no decent reason. The men would never have to do anything so ridiculous, she would rant to me when I asked.
Her favorite thing about baseball? This may not be a politically correct answer, but it’s Shirley through and through. The paychecks because baseball allowed her to save enough money to pay for her undergraduate and mater’s degrees, which allowed her to eventually become one of the first female athletic department heads at Mesa Community College. Her second favorite thing about being the first baseman for the Racine Belles and, later, Rockford Peaches; the girls and the teamwork they showed on and off the field as they cared for each other and lived like sisters.
Shirley stayed an inspiration as she aged. She was as fit as a fiddle — cross-country skiing every winter on Mogollon Rim through her 70s– until the last three years of her life. It wasn’t her body that gave out on her, but, sadly, her mind from Alzheimer’s disease. She lived in Phoenix and came to her trailer as often as she could. She kept her property spotless by spending mornings raking up every single wayward pine cone and pine needles, putting them in a giant pile for my husband to burn in our large fire pit. Oh how I despise yard work! Shirley made a deal with me. She raked my pine needles and I baked her cakes and sweet bread and pies. I still feel guilty, but she told me often how she got the best end of the deal. I can still see her sitting on her porch in the summer afternoons, feet up on her railing with a book and a beer and small slice of banana bread or cake that she kept in the freezer and pulled out one piece at a time.
I could go on, but this post is already long enough. All I really need you to know is that Shirley Luhtala was a Peach…an amazing woman, an inspiration to so many female athletes, a tireless advocate for Title IX laws that reformed women’s sports in the 70s, and the best neighbor I’ve ever had.
Sweet dreams, my dear friend. I will never forget you.