Jim Shively

Jim Shively

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Remembering Papa Jim

(originally published on February 18, 2013 on truthisaperson.com)

Today I am remembering an exceptional man and highly decorated war hero, my step-dad, Capt. James R. Shively.

He was a 1964 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, becoming a fighter pilot in 1966.  Due to his superior skill, focus, and character, the Air Force selected him for advanced pilot training for its elite fighter -- the F-105. On his 69th mission over North Vietnam,  his F-105D was shot down, and he had to parachute out.  He landed in a rice paddy and was quickly captured.  He was stripped, paraded through the streets, tortured and interrogated, and held in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" for almost 6 years. 

There, he courageously endured the unspeakable.  His cell consisted of a tiny, hot, rat-infested room, with only a rusty metal bucket for disposal of bodily waste. For the length of time he was there, his diet was unchanging.  Water, diluted pumpkin soup, sometimes rice, and the occasional piece of moldy bread.  He never discussed with his daughters the brutal beatings and torture he endured, but over time, as we got older, we gleaned that those experiences were commonplace.  We discovered through our own research  that severe torture methods were employed, such as rope bindings, irons, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement.  We also saw the evidence of the brutality on his body;  pit marks on his ankles from the stocks, numerous scars, the result of many beatings, and the infectious boils that sometimes appeared on his back, from living so long in unsanitary conditions.

He was released from captivity on February 18, 1973, emaciated and struck down, but not destroyed.  The war did not break this courageous and honorable man, it only strengthened him.  When he died of cancer in 2006, our family received a revealing letter from one of his cellmates:

"When we were cell mates you showed the rest of us how to live. You never said an angry word to any of us no matter how much we deserved it. And no angry words were ever spoken to you, either. When you suffered endless pain and discomfort, you never complained. In fact, you smiled. You showed us what real courage was. Jim, these last few years you demonstrated your immense strength of character and your unbelievable courage in the face of overwhelming odds. We are all humbled by this and doubt that we could ever be your equal under similar circumstances."

Upon his release, he and the other returning POW's were honored at a White House reception.  Jim was awarded a Silver Star, and received a hero's welcome in his hometown of Spokane, WA.  He married my mom, his high school sweetheart, and took in her two little daughters, ages 5 and 1, as his own.  They went on to have two more daughters, thus fulfilling a dream he had expressed while in prison, that he would never again have to look at men every day, but would live the rest of his life surrounded by females. He went on to earn his law degree at Gonzaga Law School and became Spokane's top U.S. prosecutor.   He taught his four daughters to take care of people, to laugh at problems, and to keep appropriate perspective.

When we were teens, we spent a lot of time arguing about who stole whose make-up, who was wearing someone else's shirt, and who spent the most time on the phone and wouldn't get off.  My dad, the war hero, never got mad, though.  He never even raised his voice.  He'd just lower his newspaper and look at us over the top of it. Somehow he had a way of making us see how ridiculous we were being, without actually saying anything. 

It was difficult to get him riled up, because he had already lived through so much.  He didn't get mad when my sister let the car roll down our steep driveway and it crashed into a tree.  He didn't seem too distressed when my other sister went through her "goth" phase, when I brought home a D during my first semester of college, or even when one of us (I won't say which one) snuck out of the house one night, went to a party and came home drunk.  He had already lived through hell, and survived.  He could survive raising four lively daughters. 

In 1991, our home burned to the ground when a firestorm swept through portions of the Spokane Valley.  We had to evacuate the neighborhood.  We were at my Grandma's when a neighbor called and told us that our house was gone.  As he hung up the phone, I saw a tear in his eye.  It was the only time I ever saw my dad cry.  A reporter interviewed him later about the tragedy of losing his home, and with it, his war medals.  He was philosophical about the loss, saying, "I could have died that day over North Vietnam, but for some reason I didn't.  Any day after that is a good day." 

As a U.S. Attorney for the Dept. of Justice for over twenty years, he was a man of considerable clout.  He was pursued by the Democratic party to run for office, but he always turned them down. He was a rare combination of authoritative yet modest, influential, but never self-important. He was incredibly humble, and always a gentleman.  

Upon my dad's passing, Jerry Hughes,  a co-worker and friend, wrote the following in a tribute published in the Pacific Northwest Inlander: 

              "Shively was vigorously recruited by Democratic leaders to run for office. This was to be a      first step in a plan to elect him to the U.S. Senate. Jim respectfully declined; Nancy and his girls would remain his focus. Sen. John McCain, a fellow POW, has established an impressive senatorial record; Shively's might have equaled or surpassed those elevated benchmarks. 

           In private practice, his reputation was sterling, and soon Jim was asked to join the Eastern Washington U.S. Attorney's office. He accepted, and in an exemplary 20-year career there, he would rise to become the supervisor of both the criminal and civilian divisions. It would be a Herculean task to identify a more respected public official. His admirers are legion.

         He was a selfless volunteer mentor to high school and Gonzaga college students, and a regular guest speaker at Gonzaga University political science classes. He created a profound impact on his appreciative audiences. He literally and figuratively personified the noble code of "Duty... Honor... Country."


Dad now has six beautiful Grandchildren, and one more on the way.   He only got to meet Savanna and Cruise, though.  They were 6 and 3 when he died, and they remember him fondly.  This is my dad holding his new granddaughter for the first time:

Savanna called him, "Papa Jim", and it stuck.  Here is Papa giving Cruise a lollipop that he "grew" in his garden.  He used to bury them for the kids, and then let them dig for the surprise.

The other grand kids know Papa Jim by pictures and stories.  They know he was a hero. 

He died on February 18, 2006,  with his wife and four daughters present.  Exactly 33 years from the day of his release from the Vietnamese prison, he was released from earth and into heaven... the ultimate freedom.

See you up there, Dad.

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